This is a Craftsman / Arts and Crafts style library table in American white oak. The plans call for it to be quarter sawn timber, but that turns out to be very difficult to get in New Zealand so this is flat sawn. The drawer sides are Radiata pine.
I made this table from plans in issue 73 of Australian Woodsmith magazine, but I have also seen them on the Plans Now website.
I love the simplicity of the design – in typical arts and crafts style, it yells understated functionality. I am happy with the overall form and construction but a little disapointed in the finish. I think it should be darker.
I was perusing the projects over at Lumberjocks today (as I am wont to do) and I came across a guy who had made a small hall table. He had done a good job – the overall form of the piece was good, the finish was great and he was clearly a skillful guy as the construction seemed excellent.
Do you hear the ‘but’ coming?
But… this table was made entirely from very heavily figured curly maple and in my view this was a mistake. Why? Because it’s just too much. It’s almost as though the figured wood conflicts with, rather than compliments the piece.
To me, when you look at a piece of fine furniture, your eye is first drawn to the overall form and proportions, then to the wood it is made from, then into finer detail like the finish, inlays or edge treatments, etc and finally back to the piece as a holistic whole. Like there are layers of visually pleasing detail that take you on a little voyage of discovery.
In this case though, you were immediately side tracked by the figure in the wood, and consequently missed out on the rest of the journey.
I love figured woods and would love to use them more than I do (they’re hard to get here in New Zealand as they have to be imported), but IMHO they are best used as accent pieces rather than the whole hog.
This design truism is often wrongly attributed to sculptor Horatio Greenough. It was actually originally coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896, in an article titled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”. The full quote is as follows:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.
Frank Lloyd Wright, who would later achieve great success as an architect and the designer and creator of some of the most beautiful Arts & Crafts furniture was Sullivan’s apprentice at the time.
Pure functionality does often produce great beauty as I have discussed before, so for the woodworker “Form Follows Function” is a pretty good maxim to remember. Although you might also want to consider that you can just a easily sit on a wooden packing crate as you can on a Chippendale side chair and I know which I consider the more pleasing to the eye – and I’m not even a great fan of the Chippendale style.
I think sometimes that we woodworkers get to the point where a project is nearly finished, step back and look at it and decide that it needs something extra. Often, we’re not sure what it is that it needs so we try a few things. We add some stringing or some inlay; we route an edge profile or add some other edge detail. We do anything to bring that piece into closer alignment with the image of it that we have in our head, but more often than not this fails miserably. Our attempts to make the piece more beautiful or more functional end up making it less so.
The problem is that beauty comes about via the holistic integration of form, function, materials and construction, and afterthought embellishment is just that – an afterthought.
Dont get me wrong – I am not an anti-embellishment modernist; embellishment certainly has its place and is often a defining feature (think inlays on federal furniture or cabriole legs on a Queen Anne chest). The point is that the embellishment must be integral to the greater whole, not added on as an after thought. Nor should embellishment be considered essential to beauty. In my opinion, a simple Gustave Stickly table is quite as beautiful as an ornate Rococo one.
So my advice to woodworkers is as follows: Don’t be tempted to “fix” your piece by adding to it without a great deal of thought. You need first to really understand what it is about it now that is “wrong”. Is it the dimensions? The materials? Is it too chunky? Too flimsy? Out of balance? Or perhaps some combination of all these things.
It’s only by this kind of deep analysis that you can understand the problem and hence come up with a solution that works. Accept too, that sometimes the best way to fix a piece is to take something away rather than to add to it, and sometime there is no fix – your piece sucks and that’s all there is to it!
Functional Art is the term I have coined to describe objects that are carefully and deliberately designed and constructed to be both highly functional and very beautiful. We are surrounded these days by things that are cheap, but that are not very well designed, not very well made, and butt ugly to boot.
There are of course exceptions to this rule and the Apple products are perhaps the best example of this. Have you every looked carefully at a MacBook Pro?
Or an iPod Nano? These are truly beautiful objects that not only look wonderful but deliver a wonderful level of performance and functionality. The popularity of the Apple products is proof positive of the hunger that is out there for beautiful things that really work. When was the last time you saw people queuing all night outside a store to buy a Nokia?
The key to creating functional art lies in paying close attention to the details that really matter and in woodworking there are 4 things that need focus. These are:
- Design and function
- Choice of timber
It’s only by attending to each of these that we can hope to create something outstanding. If your project is badly designed, it matters not that you have constructed it with great accuracy, or made it from the most finely figured lumber, or finished it perfectly. It’s still a badly designed piece.
I don’t expect that everything I make will be worthy of the title “Functional Art”, but I do intend to try.
Welcome to the Craftsman Studio.
Here you will find my thoughts on woodworking and design, my projects and other random ramblings.
Whilst I do not claim to be a great craftsman, I do aspire to that and am working as hard as time allows to achieve that lofty goal. This blog will document that process.
Your comments are most welcome.