When I began making furniture 23 years ago, I made plenty of mistakes. I continue to learn from my errors but haven’t always been systematic about my thinking. Back when I started woodworking I often struggled to figure out why one piece was visually successful and another wasn’t. In college I learned to hone in on that key word, successful, and analyze what it meant to me in terms of design. There are several aspects to consider when making a piece that will aid in its success or make it a visual flop. All of these aspects must work together to make a piece successful, and through years of practice I have learned to command the design language in the same way a jazz musician manipulates music theory.
One of the first things I learned to become truly aware of is definitive style. When I was less experienced I would say things like “this piece is contemporary” or “this piece is modern”, neither phrase being supported substantively. Take for example the word ‘modern’ in the context of design, and what it means with regard to understanding definitive style. I used that term in an unsubstantiated manner, but have come to understand that the word ‘modern’ specifically references an art period, stylistically defined by major artists, architects, and designers. Art giants like Barbara Hepworth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Georges Braque were all modernists, working in different media and in radically different manners. They were unified through the exploration of material, form, color, and abstract concepts as opposed to the direct representation of people and the world that dominated the language of design prior to the industrial revolution. With that understanding, a designer can use the term Modernism contextually to describe a new piece with specific purpose. Similar examples can be made for any period or style, and in every case without exception, the fine art pioneered through popular fine art movements are paralleled in the decorative arts and architecture.
In designing furniture I became acutely aware of the principles and elements of design. Again, early on in my career I would make uninformed comments about my creations like “I like the way this looks” without ever considering why I liked the way something looked. Awareness of the principles of design guide us through the conceptual components of the design process that can be difficult to describe, such as scale, proportion, and rhythm. The elements of design are the physical aspects that make up our designs like texture, pattern, line, and color. Again, none of these are as simple to define as I once thought, and the more I explore my craft, the deeper this design framework gets. I follow a simple rule I read once that stated ‘if one component is out of balance, the total effect is spoiled’.
So what about materials? Some would argue that good furniture cannot be made from bad materials, and I concur that there is some credence to that but there are exceptions. Personally I choose to work with premium grade lumber and materials because my designs call for them, but I’ve seen good things made from pallets and inexpensive wood. Along my journey, I have made many of the common amateur mistakes thinking at the time that they were good, new, or original. In looking back on my early designs, I thought it would be innovative to ‘decorate’ a piece with unnecessary inlay, carving, mouldings, or the good old art school way to contrive color by using two unrelated woods of differing color (man I thought that one was original, like, I was the first person to think it up because I had never seen it before). It’s amazing what a little reading and exposure to museums can do for perspective.
Finish. The importance of this one eluded me for a long time. I don’t have a good reason for why I didn’t think about the finish prior to starting a project, aside from admitting ignorance, laziness, or lack of foresight – I just thought I would cross that bridge when I got to it. That was a bad idea, and plagues amateurs in every craft. Somewhere in my second year of college I found myself sitting in a critique wondering why my piece looked pale, glossy, and uninteresting. So I went on a university library reading binge to find out all I could about finishing. Prior to that day I knew about pre and post catalyzed lacquer, polyurethane, basic paint, common stains, and Johnson’s Paste Wax. What I found was a world of information about ebonizing, making original stain colors and glazes from artist quality oil paints, using earthen pigments, coffee, tea, and basic household chemicals like Borax and bleach to react with polyphenolic plant compounds (tannins) resulting in all kinds of interesting patinas (as opposed to stains). I learned that shellac is secreted by lac bugs in India, and among other wonderful properties, it is safe for children’s toys. I learned about Colonial American furniture finishing and pre-industrial era varnishes made from natural plant oils. I also learned how volatile organic compounds, common in most commercially available wood finishes, are known carcinogens and directly related to numerous brain and nervous system ailments – so I stopped using the vast majority of commercially available finishes. I don’t care if something becomes inert after all of the chlorofluorocarbons or other noxious chemicals have been released irreversibly into the atmosphere or my brain cells, it’s not healthy for me to apply before it becomes inert, and it is bad for the environment. I now think about finish as a first step in designing furniture, and how it will compliment the design and not be an afterthought, a cheap decoration, or a human and environmental toxin.
Marrying all of these aspects into a design is a creative process, a pursuit, something organic and abstract. This is not a science but it does take talent and skill. There is a method to organizing things that most people are not educated about, I call this the language of design. It is learned over time and mastered through experience.