Drawings and Design
It doesn’t matter how much of a master of your tools you are, if you do not have a good sense of design you are in trouble. But I do believe that this can be learned just like the technical skills used to make furniture.
Any discussion of design can get scary in a hurry. Good design for me can be put very simply, the object has to be well made, be pleasing to look at and it must have utility. Well made and utility are pretty easy to define, but pleasing to look at is where the fur starts to fly. Design is such a matter of personal taste, what is pleasing to one makes another gag. I think if you pay careful attention to the construction and the use of a piece, the appearance tends to follow along. Form follows function at its most basic. I don’t know who gets the credit for this philosophy, but there is not a piece of my work that has not been made this way.
Compose as you go is an idea brought up by Jim Krenov in his books and while I tend to set up the entire piece in my head I do believe Jim’s philosophy plays a part in how I build things.
As I mentioned at the start of this book, you should not let the tools dictate just what it is you make, but this doesn’t mean you should not let the tools have a say. Joinery and surface textures can be important elements to a design.
Another important element in how I make things is what I call working to fit not measurement. Parts of a cabinet are cut to fit an intended location, not to match a measurement on a drawing. This teaches you to be flexible while you are working, something that a mechanical drawing doesn’t encourage. Altering one element can throw off an entire drawing, a problem that I don’t have should I choose to alter some part of a cabinet. All I have to do is make sure everything fits as I work.
Attention to Detail
A lot of the nicest things about my cabinets are very subtle and most of them don’t show in photographs, the fit of doors and drawers, how joinery is used and the feel of knobs and surfaces to name a few.
Paying attention to all of these things, both design and construction, helps make a better piece. Rather than one feature that stands out, it’s the cabinet as a whole that you see. One nice thing leads to another.
About Drawings and Mock-ups
Only recently did I begin doing sketches and these are only for a clients benefit not mine. I make things all the time without drawings of any kind. I believe that mechanical drawings are overdoing it. Time spent drawing could be better spent building. You don’t need every little dimension to get started. Most of the little stuff will settle itself.
I tend to build in my head before committing tools to wood or pencil to paper. I think through almost every detail, essentially building the piece in my head. What does help this is to stick to a certain style for your work and repeated details become second nature and don’t need to be worked out on paper or with mock-ups. And speaking of mock-ups, I do not like them. They take up a lot of time and are of little benefit to me. I think you should only use them sparingly to help train your eye in what to look for, proportion, shape, etc. or to help you work out some new or complex joinery. One thing to note is that I do not consider the patterns I use for curves to be mock-ups.
Proportion and Dimension
Don’t overbuild. I think most of us have this problem when we first start making things. Door frames are too heavy, joinery is overdone or any number of little errors compounded by putting them all on the same piece.
When it comes to proportion and dimension, there is a boatbuilding adage that I think is very appropriate, add lightness and simplify…
I have a very simple philosophy for sizing my work; I make things in relationship to myself or a client and what they will be used for. Heights and widths etc. are all based on how they relate to me, the client or are fixed by an object going into the cabinet.
An Interesting Exercise
I learned an interesting lesson one day in the relationship between an idea and a finished piece of furniture. I was looking at the photo of a piece I had just finished and I noticed that the picture as usual didn’t do justice to the piece. This made me break out the drawing, done to give a clear picture to the client, of the piece I was going to make for them. And what struck me was that even though the piece turned out exactly as I had planned, there was an interesting relationship between each step of the process. From idea to drawing to finished piece to photograph, there was a different image created at each step. Try it on one of your own pieces sometime.