In a recent post, OK rant, I addressed a complaint that Mr. Sellers does not go into enough detail as to the design of projects. Like I said in that previous post, design is not part of his promised package. However, this set me to thinking and then searching for someone or something that does go into the details of project design. Unfortunately, I came up mostly empty-handed.
The best resource that I can recommend is the book “By Hand & Eye” and the follow-up workbook “By Hound & Eye“. I know I’ve beat his drum before, but these are the best resources for design for woodworkers that I know of. I’m actually working through all of the exercises in the workbook right now. More on that later.
So why is there so little information available on design? Design is difficult to break down into a step-by-step procedure and it can be highly personal. Some simply do it by “eye” and couldn’t break it down into steps if they wanted to. They are not even aware of most of what they are doing. We tend to say that it comes “natural” for these folks. In fact I think that it is most difficult to describe for those that excel at. The process is so engrained in what that they do that they are not even aware of most of what they are doing, it’s just what they do. So, given the limited resources for teaching the design process and I’m by no means a “natural”, I’ve decided to detail my own process. Hopefully you’ll find the information useful or, at least, entertaining.
My next project and the subject of this little exercise is a nightstand. Actually a pair of nightstands. The best place to start is at the beginning. For me and my process that starting point is my sketchbook. If you don’t have a sketchbook, get one. It will prove to be invaluable. Anyway, I begin by sketching ideas as the come to me. As I sketch I ask myself, what functions does this piece need to fulfill? In days gone by a nightstand usually held a reading light, an alarm clock and a few odds and end in a drawer. Today’s requirements are fairly similar. Except, in most cases, the alarm clock has been replaced by a cell phone. So I need a flat top surface and at least one drawer. With functions narrowed down, I turn to size.
Here is where the design can begin to vary widely based on intended use, personal preference and bed height. To me the top of a nightstand should be slightly lower than the mattress is high. At that height everything is within easy reach and I shouldn’t bash my head into it during the night. In my case that height works out to be roughly 16″ or 400mm.
Now I have the intended functions and a controlling dimension. The approximate height of 16″(400mm) is also a very workable depth for a table of this type. Since I design all of my projects based upon proportions, a 1:1 ratio immediately springs to mind and becomes the focus of my sketches. In simple terms I am working with a basic cube.
If you’ve been to my blog before, you know that my designs and projects tend to have a Japanese or Asian flavor to them. This one will be no different. This is also where conveying the design process enters into an area that is difficult to pinpoint as to the “why”. Experience comes into play with form and decorative elements. Not so much designing and building experience, but observation and research experience. I’m sure that the elements could be categorized and quantified by experts in the field, for me it is simply a matter of looking at literally thousands of photos of antique examples of Asian furniture. Note that I said antique examples. Antique examples tend to be pure in form and unaltered by, well, guys like me building modern interpretations. From this research you can build a pallet from which to work from. Much like a painter building a pallet of colors. Those colors can be used in their pure form or mixed together to create an entirely new color. The same will hold true for elements that you add to your working pallet. Details can be used as they are or combined with others to create a new detail all together.
All of the above combine to drive the direction of my sketches until something forms that I find pleasing to the eye and functional. Sometimes it comes together quickly within just a few sketches. Other times, pages and pages of sketches are gone through before something materializes. Knowing when you have a usable design is also something that is difficult to quantify since it is very subjective and is where design tends toward the artistic side of the equation. Its simply a judgement call based on personal preference and experience. I can tell you this though. If you design to meet someone else’s expectations and standards who is really doing the designing. That may be fine, even required to some extent, if your working for a client, but when building for yourself build what pleases you. Otherwise, what the hell is the point.
So here is what I have so far. Starting with a rough concept sketch.
Then moving to a sketch with a slightly different layout (top) then to a design that I am happy with (bottom). I also began working out the basic size (proportions) for some of the major elements. It’s rare that it goes this quickly. So don’t think this is how it normally works for me.
Next I’ll transform this rough sketch into a refined design.
Greg Merritt Part 2