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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Future of Furniture - Part 2: Goals


The Future of Furniture - Part 2:  Goals 1
What kind of furniture will furniture makers make in the future? Before we can reasonably predict the future of furniture, we need to understand the goals and values of the furniture's makers. Is it to build something practical? Engage in creative expression? Work practically within time and money constraints? Are we just trying to see if we can credibly perform one technique or another -- or make sure the piece is within our skill set or the range of our equipment capability? Are we striving to create an object of desire? These are all valid goals and of course they are not mutually exclusive.

I started thinking seriously about the future of furniture while talking with Corn Schmid, who teaches here at TFWW. Corn is in the middle of designing projects for classes. He was looking for furniture that a student could build, but more importantly, furniture that a student might WANT to build. And that started leading us down the garden path of the fundamental question: why should you build when you could buy?

The first impulse is to say that making something yourself makes it special. But at the same time, while my mom might treasure a neo-colonial mirror I made in ninth grade, I don’t think it’s a project that fits into most people’s lifestyle these days.

We can get into discussing practicality and use another time. On a deep level, what we all strive to do is create something that is meaningful to the end user. "Meaningful" can mean suggest usefulness or an emotional meaning or both. Most of the the time furniture (or any object we own, really) is just practical. Table, chair, desk, or bed: the reason Ikea makes a good living is delivering practical, useful objects at a great price. We know these items will eventually fall apart, but for now they solve a big problem.

Sometimes if you own something long enough it transitions from "practical" to emotional. The wooden desk chair I am sitting in as I write is a case in point. My grandfather, my father, and my mother all used this chair and I'll be damned if I toss it. I repaired it once already and I think it needs another round, and the back support just sucks. But it has become part of the family.

The mirror I made for my mom isn't that useful, but to her is has emotional meaning because I made it. But objects can have emotional meaning even without history or any personal contribution to their creation.

The teapot above is a mass produced cast iron teapot from Japan. It’s too small and inconvenient for everyday use, but when I do use it, making tea becomes a special occasion. I want to cup it in my hand, and when I see it on the shelf I wonder why I don’t use it more often. Obviously my attraction to the object is emotional not practical.

In some ways I'm saddened that people seem to have less and less interest in furniture that is not practical. But a great piece can and should connect emotionally with you. This past weekend I was in both Herman Miller and Design Within Reach and I noticed that Design Within Reach understands the emotional connection that people want. Their catalog is called "Objects of Your Affection." Sadly I find their stuff too generic to attract me, but I am not their ideal customer anyway.

As we simplify the furniture in our houses, and most of the time we only consider function and cost, it becomes more and more important that the furniture we build for ourselves and others does more. I can’t tell you that in the future we will or will not want a table to eat at, but I can tell you that if the table is anything we make as a single piece, it had better look and feel like something. Or nobody will care - including you.

On the other side of the coin, take a look at this Ikea ad that Corn showed me.

It's the opposite of what I am talking about. A perfectly good lamp gets tossed to the curb. Not demoted or given to a friend, but tossed to the curb and then to the landfill. What a waste. It's Ikea's business model so they can sell the same stuff again and again. After WWII my father came home from the war and went to college. At some point he bought a Dazor desk lamp. It was expensive at the time. About twenty years ago it broke but he liked the lamp and found a guy who easily repaired it. When my parents moved the lamp ended up here in the workshop where we liked it so much we got two more on Ebay. When you adjust its position it stays put and it gives off a lot of light. Basically the cost of that lamp averaged over the cost of its useful life is far less than the Ikea lamp.

So what might be one goal for designing furniture in the future? At least we want what we make to be useful. Ideally we would make something that is useful all the time, not just special occasions. At best we want to make furniture that engenders an joyous emotional response with the end user.

The Future of Furniture - Part 2:  Goals 2

The Future of Furniture - Part 2:  Goals 3

Join the conversation
11/07/2018 Jim Dillon
Good one! And ultimately, encouraging for a thoughtful furniture maker.
11/07/2018 Ernie Hatfield
When making an item as a gift for a loved one a lot of brain time during construction is spent thinking about that person and what they have brought into my life sufficient to propel me to make something just for them. When the item is presented it is the physical object which first captures the receiver's attention. To give that object an emotional connection to them I find it is worth the time at project's end to put down the chisel and pick up the pencil and actually write down some of those special thoughts I had during construction. Communicating and preserving what was felt when making the item makes it an object created not just by craft, but also by love.

The professional builder, who has little or no personal interaction with the receiver, must seek to make objects which can be used a long time if they wish to cause emotional bonds to be formed for their creations. That requires that the item be soundly made, functionally adaptable, and of a style with enough classic roots to support it beyond current fashions.

Not many Ikea pieces are heirlooms and that's by design and intent.
11/07/2018 Bob Groh
Good comments and dead on. Your example of the desk lamp - those Dazor desk lamps always were (and are) the cream of the crop. Still available from Dazor, by the way. But certainly not inexpensive!
11/07/2018 Tom G
Great questions to explore, but there is one important element missing: Need. I’m not a prolific furniture maker (primarily because I’m 100% hand tools) but what I have made is absolutely customized to my need. It varies substantially to anything I could buy. After I make it, I think “I can’t believe I’m the only person who needs this.” My family and friends tell me to make these pieces as a business because they all recognize the needs that are being met. Need is the mother of all invention, and this can apply to furniture as well. Even today.
11/07/2018 John Keebaugh
As I watch my grandchildren step out into the post college world and start dealing with their furniture requests, I end up looking at British campaign furniture. Beds, dressers, desks, bookcases (yes, they actually own books), dining tables, chairs, and tea stations (!!) are what they ask for. Campaign furniture has the advantage of being made for frequent moving, and taking up minimal space when collapsed, while being easy to unfold for use. Any item can be thoughtfully adapted to support phone/computer charging stations, electrical outlets, or ingenious use of LED lighting. There's even been some interest in the Thomas Jefferson lap writing desk adapted to contain a laptop or tablet. I let them participate in the look and feel part of the design so they end up with mobile furniture they enjoy. And sometimes they help with the building. That's a win in my book any day!
11/07/2018 Paul Lewis
I too will something make and take joy in the making. (Author unknown)
11/07/2018 Dan O'Sullivan
Two hundred years ago, furniture was a mark of your success. Today we have expensive cars and other objects we can display to show our success(or ability to get a loan). Furniture has little sentimental value if it is replaced with every move or magazine suggestion. I was in the military for 20 years and furniture that I built was a chronological road map of where we lived, when the children were born and how they fit in all the houses/homes that we lived in. When I look at furniture in my home today, I am reminded of those times and I wouldn't take the most popular particle board furniture for any of the furniture I built. I work hard at not putting things in the landfill and I won't apologize for feeling like we should make things last and save a little. People say I'm crazy but I laugh at myself and their comments as I approach 1 million miles in my 1964 Volvo PV544. No air conditioning, no radio and no electric windows .. but plenty of great memories. The money I saved allowed me to buy some nice woodworking tools along the way.
11/07/2018 Marshall Brodsky
As the owner of a 106 year old house I have had to make practical items, such as medicine cabinets because nothing available commercially filled my needs. I grew up in an apartment in New York. We had little room for anything not strictly functional. Once you own a home, and have kids, needed furniture comes to mind quickly. Once you have lived with a table or cabinet for thirty years, it is a part of your life.
11/08/2018 Tom G
Great questions to explore, but there is one important element missing: Need. I’m not a prolific furniture maker (primarily because I’m 100% hand tools) but what I have made is absolutely customized to my need. It varies substantially to anything I could buy. After I make it, I think “I can’t believe I’m the only person who needs this.” My family and friends tell me to make these pieces as a business because they all recognize the needs that are being met. Need is the mother of all invention, and this can apply to furniture as well. Even today.
11/08/2018 Ira
I have made many wooden items over my time on this earth, among which are cutting boards. Overall, they are simply pieces of wood glued together to create a portable surface to cut food on. In most cases, the people I give them to are thankful for the gift, but refuse to use them for fear of scratching them. While I appreciate the sentiment, I try to instill that these are utilitarian objects that are supposed to get nicked and scratched. Everyone needs a cutting board, but sometimes it turns into something much more. It is an honor that these simple trinkets will not be kicked to the curb.
11/08/2018 Ken De Witt
Know this story well. I made a cherry coffee table 25 years ago. It lasted through my daughters teen years with every thing spilled on it and stuck to it. Now I have a 7 year granddaughter and a 4 year old, they repeat the same to it. Still looks like the day I made it way back when. Also a table and bench I built for my daughter at about age four, the kids are still using them today,
Money can not buy that,
Admit to having bought some IKEA stuff during that period. All long gone.

11/10/2018 George Redding
I got fascinated with draw bored mortise and tenon joinery, so I built a little table to replace a piece of homemade IKEA furniture on the covered patio. Experimented with staining the top with tea followed by vinegar in which steel wool had been dissolved. Turned out so nice that I'm now replacing a larger high table with shelf on the patio. Net result is that I'm going to have nicer furniture on the patio than in my house. But the alternative was to build something and then just throw it away as the house already is well stocked with solid wood furniture. I'm placing mental bets that most of it will wind up it he dump when I pass on. But, damn, I am having fun.
11/12/2018 Mike
There are always multiple reasons why consumer preferences change over time. Right now the trend is away from wooden furniture, certainly away from matchy matchy bedroom or living room sets. Designers I talk to see wood as an "accent" piece rather than a core piece. From my 40ish year old perspective, I think the 1980s golden (red) oak era did a lot to kill wood furniture industry. Baby boomers bought the stuff like mad when they were forming households in the 1980s, and a lot of it was big, overbuilt, heavy and.... lets just say plain sawn red oak is just so coarse looking. Kids of baby boomers learned that lesson - don't spend a lot on a set of furniture because you will get sick of it. My mom couldn't wait to get rid of that stuff. Meanwhile my grandparents largely held on to their mid century furniture and pre-war mahogany stuff.
11/13/2018 Mike
I may be off subject, here....but, thinking about gifts that can be made that are useful an can still be "classy" in their own way......

One item we have used, extensively, that took very little time to actually create, was a TV Remote control box!!!! Someone gave one to us that holds the gas fireplace remote, the TV Remote, The Cable Remote, The stereo remote, the DVD Remote and the Home Theatre System remote--and, recently, a Sound Bar remote. (Yes, getting up could cause us to lose weight--but, that is not a problem.) I suspect it originally cost less than $10 retail, was not ornate, but we found it to be a very practical gift that we have used for well over 10 years. When I first saw it, I had no idea of what it was--the box in which it came gave all the instructions needed--a picture with several remotes.

Another item we continuously use, unless we have guests, are TV Trays. This is not a recommendation for TV Trays, I wish we had never started, but we use them all too much. Our last set was oak, natural finish, simply designed, and has produced no problems other than an occasional worn out (glueless) peg! Well built TV trays have served us far more than TV MEALTrays----temporary computer desks, monitor desks, printer desks, medical name it. It is a gift idea for almost anyone--and, they can be beautiful!
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.