THE CHEST FORM has been around at least 3,()U0 years, so it's hard to imagine designing something original today. I don't even pretend to. Instead, I freely borrow from this wealth of past ideas. Generations of craftsmen before me have played with chests in every way imaginable. They have refined everything from the sensuous sweep of certain curves to the basics of drawer joinery and case construction. Chests of drawers—from simple country chests to sophisticated highboys—are rich with ideas and lessons.
For me, originality comes not from trying to invent some new form or detail, but from some fresh and intriguina combina tion of ideas i've picked up along the way. I've been building and studying chests for years, and I've learned that knowledge builds on knowledge; you have to learn certain basics—about both design and construction— before you can understand more complex ideas. I can look at all sorts of furniture and absorb ideas, but only by actually building a piece that incorporates those ideas do they become part of ray design vocabulary. And more importantly, I begin to understand new directions in which I can push those ideas next time. When thinking about a design problem, I often start by evaluating similar (and dissimilar) pieces I've built in the past.
DETAILS, SUCH AS INLAID handling, embellishing the apron, and contrasting woods, add original touches to a basic chest of drawers.
THE RICHEST SOURCE of inspiring forms and details is the furniture of the past, in museums, books, in Antiques magazine, and in high-end auction catalogs. But design ideas can come from architecture, old farm implements, nature or, even looking critically at your earlier work.
The most exciting designs are those with the fewest restrictions. For example, a man recently gave me A commission for a chest of drawers. He didn't have any fixed ideas of what he wanted. He favored cherry, but he was open to other light-colored native woods. He also liked the dimensions of another chest he owned, about 4 ft. high and a little less than 3 ft. wide.
Find a Starting; Point
Designing a chest ofdrawers shouldn't be all that complicated, considering that it's basically a series ofboxes that slide into A larger box. Thinking about wood choices is often a good place to begin the design process. Dark woods can make a large chest seem heavier,just as light woods have the opposite effect. Chests have A lot of surfaces — the sides, top and drawers—that show off a wood differently than, say, the linear parts of a chair. Lots of heavy grain can dominate and disttact from the quieter details. Line-grained hardwoods take and hold small details that lime would deface in a softer wood like white pine. With its quiet grain and rich color, cherry would have been a good choice for the client's chest of drawers, but I was a Hide tired of seeing it everywhere.
Butternut, another native species, soon came to mind. Commonly called white walnut, butternut has a warm amber color, subtle grain, and works nicely with hand tools, although it's a little soft. 1 also had three exceptional wide boards stashed away—just enough to make single-board case sides and the top.
The widest case sides 1 could get out of the butternut boards were about 20 in., and the width of the top was limited to about 22 in. That size would allow drawers of a good usable depth. Defects in the boards limited the sides to 47 in. long.This would allow for a stack of five ample drawers. Four feet is also a nice height to stand at to see and use the top ofthe chest. Remembering that my client liked a chest of similar height. 1 used it as a starting point, drawing front and side views to proportion the drawers.
Developing; the Design
The smallest practical clothes drawer is about AYi in. deep. Drawers deeper than 9 in. to U) in. are prone to being overloaded and are not that efficient (imagine trying to find a particular shirt in a drawer with shirts stacked five high). 1 don't use any magic proportioning system for drawers; I just sketch out ideas. Sometimes it's as simple as increasing each successive drawer by an inch. Arranging larger drawers at the bottom and smaller drawers at the top is not only practical but also balances the composition. To give interest to the facade of this chest, 1 tried breaking up the top tier of drawers. First 1 tried two and then three smaller drawers/This seemed more flexible in terms of storage and created a small drawer perfect for small treasures. Should the facade of drawers be flush, lipped, flat or
The visual balance of the parts can sometimes be so subtle-they just feel right. Awkward proportions are often more obvious. There are a few guides to help you find pleasing proportions. but it is best to train your eye by looking critically at good design of all kinds.
Case tapers from 33% in. at base inlay to 3 2« in. at top.
Case tapers from 33% in. at base inlay to 3 2« in. at top.
shaped into a gentle bow front? As I developed other parts of the design, ] would have a better idea about this.
The next problem was figuring out which base to use. I wanted a base that gave the massiveness of this chest a lift, maybe even to the point of exaggerating it a little. Too low a base would have given the chest a squat and heavy feel. Drawers close to the floor are also less comfortable to use. A high base cuts into the storage volume, but the visual lift it gives to the design more than makes up for this.
An idea that immediately appealed to me was four gently splayed feet known as French feet. Sometimes they splay to the side, and other times they splay forward as well. French feet create a sense of spring or tension, lifting the case. Flowing in an uninterrupted curve from the case, they would nicely complement the simplicity of the single-board sides. Quite foolishly (because 1 did not think about how much extra work this would be), 1 had the idea ofern-phasizing that upward curving energy by tapering the chest slightly, narrowing it at
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