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JOEL Joel's Blog

Furniture Design


Furniture Design 4Many years ago I was at a furniture auction at Christie's and there was a Ruhlmann Macassar ebony bedroom set from the 1920's. It had belonged to some Paris "bachelor" and the headboard was a giant sunburst and the big double bed itself had a tigerskin throw on it. The bedroom was set up in the hall along with its matching nightstands and armoire. What I mostly remember about the exhibition is that the first thought of just about anyone who walked by the bedroom set was "I want to have sex on this bed." The bedroom set was estimated to sell for about a quarter of a million dollars, and worth every penny if you ask me.

In any case that's great design. The form, a bed, works for the intended job, and the look of the piece sends the appropriate message that the owner wanted. When you make or buy a piece of furniture it has to do what you need it to do and be a good value, but to be really successful the piece also has to help with your "personal branding." In other words that bedroom sets reinforces the message that bachelor wanted to tell visitors to his bedroom. The fancy furniture, antiques, and carvings in J. P. Morgan's office library told in no uncertain terms that you are standing in the presence of a rich, educated, man of the world, who is solid and reliable. Like all branding we buy it even if we don't want to.

The sad part comes when my own skill cannot produce pieces that match my idea of my personal brand. One reason for that is my skill level isn't that great. But the real reason is that I don't try to stretch myself and dream big enough to want to try to learn new skills.

Most of the furniture I have made has been various complexities of the Arts & Crafts style. I like it but certainly one of the main reasons that A & C furniture is so popular, along with shaker designs for today's home builders is that it's pretty easy to make. Colonial revival furniture which is also pretty popular is harder to make, but a lot simpler than what rich people of the time really wanted. If you want to make a living building furniture for rich people (the only people who can afford custom furniture) you have to design and make stuff that they want. George Walker, who is writing some excellent material on design for Popular Woodworking is trying to teach the elements of how a complex piece is made up. What he doesn't talk about, and I am not sure is even possible to really talk about, is how to make stuff that people want to buy. And it's hard. The popular designs that are published aren't the ones that were popular in their time amongst bespoke furniture buyers. The Colonial revival furniture that we reproduce today had a heyday in the 1920's - about the same time our Frenchman bought his bedroom set. The really rich people in the United States at the time might have liked the idea of Colonial Revival furniture harking back to traditional American values, but what they actually bought for their mansions and public places was far more gaudy, far more European in design, "modern looking", and much more sexy.
Stickley and other A&C designs were meant to be made in a factory by machine, or made by hand by amateurs. Rich people did buy Green & Green, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture, but all those three designers were far more decorative than the simple lines of more universal A&C designers.
Going back even further in time Shaker furniture might be very popular as a modern project but it's joiner's work, not what a cabinetmaker of the early 1800s strove for. The illustration above is an 1836 colored in plate from with Numerous Illustrative Engravings by Peter and Michael Angelo Nicholson. That's a sexy divan - just perfect for pitching woo to Mrs. Divinia Parson's daughter. The Shakers were celibate, and their sofas and beds were austere, and frankly not as much fun.

Don't get me wrong, I like all the genres of furniture I just dissed. I really really do! But I feel my desire has outgrown them - even if my skill level hasn't and I need to stretch on my next project. From a commercial standpoint for those selling bespoke furniture my suggestion is to get good enough so you can make fancy furniture that isn't so easy to clone in factories and rich people have historically wanted to buy. In some sporadic followups I plan to write about ways of achieving luxurious work using neglected techniques and materials.
Join the conversation
10/26/2010 Tico Vogt
Great post, Joel. You've hit on one key element, branding, that goes unmentioned. In my own creative work (which has been called upon much less in recent years), the idea that forms in wood can be a design inspiration has loomed large (from Nakishima). That automatically creates a very small group of potential clients. In my experience, the average person with money to spend doesn't see much romance in trees/ lumber/ wood unless it's to brag about the expense of it.
I have resisted the reality that well-heeled customers want branding, especially because I have issues with their lifestyles. Hence a clear lack of success in business.
10/26/2010 Tom Buhl
Joel, much good food for thought. While not looking to make a living selling my pieces, I'd like to think that others would wish they could "have a Buhl" as a dear friend once wrote. Stretch oneself. Good words to keep in front of us.
Tico, thanks for sharing your insights as well. An outstanding way to start the day.
Good thread, will look for its sporadic continuation.
10/26/2010 John Cashman
Thanks Joel, I couldn't agree more. I had hit a "wall" in my furniture building, and realized I had to acquire new skills to build more complex pieces. For the past 8 or 9 months I have been taking carving classes with Al Breed, Phil Lowe and some others. I am just beginning to feel I have the new skills I need to move on to the next level.

While I do not particularly care for the fancier European designs, I would like to start making the better quality American period pieces -- mostly Newport and Philadelphia. Fortunately we live in a time when the information, tools, and instruction available make progressing in our craft possible.
11/03/2010 tim Raleigh
Great editorial columns and blogs have one thing in common and that is they make you think and sometimes rethink your previously held beliefs. This post has certainly done that for me. Since I first read it, I have frequently come back to the points you made here. As you point out, if you look around at the number of manufacturers (furniture etc.) that have moved operations to the far east, and can duplicate almost any popular design for far less (albeit not the same quality) than can be done domestically the future for domestic craftsmen seems to be in creating new designs that cannot be easily duplicated.
Thanks again, great post.
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