Design Intangibles



Horse study by Leonardo

Beauty is a hard thing to put a finger on. We know it instinctively when we see it, but struggle to put into words. One of the attributes the ancients saw in beauty was ontological. That’s a fancy term for the horse-ness of a horse, the canoe-ness of a canoe, the wine-ness of a wine. Something inside that embodies the essence of the true thing or being. Yet, even the idea of the essence of a thing is not black and white. This essence isn’t confined to a style, culture, or genre. The dog-ness of a dog can come through the brushstrokes of a painting more clearly than the kitschy canine celebrities at a dog show.

'Grouse' by Thomas Eakins

‘Grouse’ by Thomas Eakins

So how does this apply to furniture design? This ontological attribute applies to the built world also. An architectural writer Denis McNamara opined, people like their churches to be recognizable as a church, not to be confused with a pizza hut. Although our ideas about this true essence may evolve, our desire to connect with something genuine does not.


Windsor Chair by Richard Grell, photo by author

What is that essence I look for in a furniture design? To me it has to speak of home and all that entails. Pulling off cold boots in front of the hearth and warming numb feet, eating a slice of blackberry pie fresh from the oven and the sounds of laughter echoing from the kitchen. It also has to speak of the forest and the craft of woodworking. That’s as far as I’ll venture without trampling all over it.

What’s your idea of the essence of a chair or table or chest design? Can you put it to words?

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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4 Responses to Design Intangibles

  1. Being a Chairmaker, I want a chair to first call you to look at its grace and overall form/beauty. While you are taking in its beauty you then begin to discover the little details such as a volute. The chair should invite you to sit, and when you do, a feeling of comfort and ease should immediatly be evident. Then your hands discover the subtle tool marks left behind by the maker under the hand holds, that let you know that the maker took great care to provide you the sitter with this small place to relax and reflect.

  2. Tico Vogt says:

    The wood furniture I enjoy living with conveys the essence of what its function is, shows care in the selection of timber and joinery, has pleasing proportions, and perhaps a small surprise element here or there. Everything doesn’t need to be a masterpiece with “look at how special I am” screaming from you across the room. I enjoy feeling restful and at ease inside our shelter. The figure and warmth of the inside of trees, realized once the log is opened, adds comfort and coziness to our living environment.

    My family lives in a rural setting with lots of trees and nature around us.

    The reason that I don’t want much surface adornment and sophisticated decorative elements to the wood furniture in our house is this: to see lovely geometric shapes, leaves, twisting tendrils, and fascinating curves one has only to look out the window or take a few steps outside.

    Another intangible is the idea, actually the fact of, Class. So much furniture, antique and contemporary, is an expression of social status. That’s something else to try to get away from.

  3. JMAW Works says:

    I think my answer to your question is “It depends”. Each design situation presents it’s own variables and questions that need asked.

    Thought provoking post. Interesting that responses thus far include their biases to give context. Perhaps that’s why typical horse art in China differs from Leonardo’s shown, that the horse-ness varies by person, culture, time.. One sees “nobility”, another “strength” and such.

    The same applies to furniture design, one may see “storage,” “place to rest feet” or “economy” while others may look at “sustainable”, “what sells” or “Impressive to friends based on what I’ve seen on TV” still others see higher order functions like “well built by an artist”, “blends into environment” or “inviting.”

    To many people, a chair is a chair, but perhaps by looking closely at someone’s furniture (maker or consumer) you can catch a glimpse of their values, (although applying meaning probably includes our own biases as well.)

  4. jonathanszczepanski says:

    Things that make me feel good about furniture is when someone just runs their hand along it. This simple act is an outward expression of the inner dialogue “I want to know more about this thing. I want to be closer to it.”

    If someone walks around a piece to ponder it’s existence – rather than just throw their keys on it, prop their feet up on it, or put their folded clothes in it – I know it means more to them than just a thing serving a singular purpose.

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