Furniture Design The Four Objectives

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BY MIKE DUNBAR

Durability often is coti fuse (I \\>itii quality, but in reality quality requires successful accomplish merit o f all design objectives . .

WHEN YOU DESIGN a piece of furniture, you have four primary objectives. You may not be consciously aware of them, but they are part of your decision-making process.

The four goals arc function, comfort, durability, and beauty. Although these are all very fundamental to woodworking, they deserve to be explored from time to time.

Does It Work?

for me the function of a piece is axiomatic. It must do its intended job. If the piece is a chair, it has to hold your backside off the ground. If it's a table, you must be able to sit at it, and you must be able to he in a bed. Function implies a generally accepted definition of purpose.

A lot of ink has been spilled in the art-furniture debate— for example, is a chair that you can't sit 111 truly a chair? For most of us, who accept function as integral to furniture, the answer is self-evident.

Is It Comfortable?

A piece of furniture not only has to do its intended job, but it also must be comfortable and commodious. A roc k will keep your backside off the ground, but a rock is neither comfortable nor convenient: a chair is both. You must be able to sleep all night in a bed, and a table must be the proper height and dimensions for its job A coffee table's height makes it ideal for serving tea and coffee to guests, but it is uncomfortable for dining.

Will It Last?

A piece of furniture should hold up under its intended use.The life expectancies of different pieces vary and are linked to their particular functions, for example, Adirondack chairs and picnic tables that arc left outdoors are not expected to last as long as a chest of drawers or a lamp stand—pieces that you hope to leave to your great grandchildren.

Durability often is confused with quality, but in reality quality requires successful accomplishment of all design objectives, including the next one: beauty. A strong but ugly or uncomfortable chair is not good quality.

Is It Attractive?

In the days of the craft shop, appearance was the one objective that separated the journeyman front the master. By virtue of his training, the journeyman knew how to accomplish the first three objectives. I Ie knew how to make a piece of furniture that did its job, that was comfortable to use and sturdy enough to last.

1 lowever, only the master understood form well enough to produce the masterpiece. As a furniture maker, 1 define a masterpiece as a decorative object that not only satisfies the first three objectives of function, comfort, and durability, but the piece also transcends time and culture.

Picture yourself entering a museum and coining upon a Ming vase.You are struck by the object and drawn to examine it.You first observe it in its entirety, standing back several paces to take in the overall statement. Next, you move closer to examine the vase 111 greater detail, to appreciate the finer points and to observe evidence of the craftsman's technique.'l he vase was made centuries before you were born and by someone living in a completely different culture. Yet it speaks to you, a viewer removed from the maker by all that time and space. It is a masterpiece.

We all want people to notice our woodworking and to apprec iate the effon we invested 111 making it attractive. And we know intuitively that the things we make will survive us and be used by future generations. We want them to appreciate our work as well.

It is a common mistake to confuse the masterpiece with the fashionable. Both the fashionable piece and the masterpiece are appreciated in the maker's own time and culture. The appeal of the fashionable piece, however, is transitory.Trendy furniture eventually will look dated.

The masterpiece's transcendence is frequently not detectable to someone living in the period and place in which it was made. I his quality emerges only as the winds of time winnow out the merely fashionable.

1 ook at some early issues of l ine Woodworking, and you'll notice the modernist furniture that was being made 27 years ago by some of the country's best known and

Function

A simple bench does nothing more than keep one's backside oil the floor.

Function

A simple bench does nothing more than keep one's backside oil the floor.

Comfort

A back and a contoured seat make the chair a more pleasant place to sit lor any length ol time.

Durability

Adding wedged tenons and a stretcher system will help this chair withstand many years of use and abuse.

Comfort

A back and a contoured seat make the chair a more pleasant place to sit lor any length ol time.

Durability

Adding wedged tenons and a stretcher system will help this chair withstand many years of use and abuse.

Beauty

A masterpiece must satisly the first three objectives while offer ing timeless appeal.

Beauty

A masterpiece must satisly the first three objectives while offer ing timeless appeal.

CONTEMPORARY ROCKER BY SAM MALOOF. This 20th-century creation meets all four objectives and reaches masterpiece status.

MiKE DUNBAR is a contributing editor to

Fine Woodworking magazine.

most highly regarded woodworkers. Although the height offashion at the lime, today much of their furniture looks dated.

A Queen Anne highboy, however, is as fashionable now as it has been for a couple of centuries. Some modern furniture has generated enough universal acclaim, for enough lime, to suggest similar transcendence. Sam \laloof's chairs are good candidates for masterpiece status.

Quality Furniture Meets All Objectives

The four objectives are in constant tension with each other. However, you cannot make good furniture by emphasizing one or more objectives at the expense of another.

When showing my students how to make aWindsor chair seat, I explain that the broad solid surface that supports the sitter's backside satisfies function. Also, the seat has to be nearly 2 in. thick so that it can be deeply saddled to make it comfortable and also allow deep, strong joints. However, the mass of a thick seat is in conflict with the chair's graceful lines.To resolve the conflict, the maker carves the edges and upper surface of the seat, making the slab seem thinner than it really is.

Another example of the tension between the four objectives is the Klismos chair, popular in the young United States and western Europe starting about 1815. The Klismos chair was developed in classical Greece and was often illustrated on (irecian urns. A1 though very fashionable and beautiful, the Klismos chair was not a good piece of furniture. Stretchers were not used because they did not look good when combined with graceful saber legs. However, the legs were too thin to create strong joints.The result is that few Klismos chairs lasted very long without breaking. After a decade or two ofbad experience, furniture makers were forced to add stretchers to their Klismos chairs to strengthen a beautiful but weak design.

MiKE DUNBAR is a contributing editor to

Fine Woodworking magazine.

MASSACHUSETTS-STYLE HIGHBOY BY RANDALL O'DONNELL The appeal of this period piece has remained strong.

CONTEMPORARY ROCKER BY SAM MALOOF. This 20th-century creation meets all four objectives and reaches masterpiece status.

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How To Sell Furniture

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