Open-Minded Design

Article - April 27, 2010

Although I stopped actively pursuing clients for my custom furniture nearly three years ago, I do have a few special people that I continue to work for. One of those folks is the man responsible for the “Summer of Wenge” as some of you old-timers may recall. This guy has an affinity for fine hardwoods and has an eye for unique pieces. Most times he has a very specific idea of what he wants, but I do have some influence over the design.

The coolest part about this process is the challenge that collaboration brings. Making a piece of furniture for myself is rather easy. My personal tastes influence every decision I make and I simply build to my liking. But building within the confines of someone else’s tastes can be quite difficult because I am forced to differentiate between bad design and what is simply a unique set of personal preferences. So it’s important not to give in to that knee-jerk reaction that says, “That wouldn’t go in my house!” If you can see beyond the initial visual shock and analyze the piece within its own world and on its own merits, I think you are one step further on your path to “open-minded” design.

Now I am a relative noob when it comes to traditional design theory, so I am probably too open-minded for my own good. But personally, I would rather start with a wild set of design ideas and slowly but surely contain and restrict them, as opposed to starting with a strict set of design rules, and slowly learning how to branch out and become flexible. This way just sounds like more fun to me!

I feel a music analogy coming on! As a drummer, I played in numerous bands for several years before I started taking lessons. At first, the lessons were difficult and the rigidity of the play style I was being taught didn’t seem to help me much in my live gigs. That is until one day, things just clicked. Suddenly, the rudiments I had been perfecting during lessons found their way into the creative side of designing a beat for a song. The end result? I was a better, more creative drummer. On the flip side of things, I had a friend who was classically trained on the piano. As hard as we tried to get him to play in our band, it just never worked. He couldn’t do anything without a sheet of music in front of him.

I suppose the point of this article is just to make you think a little. I am currently working on a new piece for the customer I mentioned above, and it got me thinking about these design issues. So I thought I would share a few thoughts with you. As always, I never claim to know the right way to do things. I am just sharing MY way of doing things. Hopefully you can extract something useful from it.

Oh and by the way, thanks to folks like George Walker, the challenge of incorporating elements of traditional design into my work is becoming a reality. I highly recommend subscribing to his blog, Design Matters. Knowing how to design is impressive. But explaining it in a way that everyday woodworkers can understand is nothing short of awesome! Also, you are going to want to pick up his DVD, Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design. Hands down one of the best woodworking DVDs ever made.