Larry Ciesla

greene & greene entertainment console

An Approach to Designing Furniture

Over many years as a design engineer, I've learned some valuable lessons about design:

  1. Paper is  cheap!   So are pencils and erasers!  There is nothing wrong with false starts! Sometimes your initial direction is simply wrong, and just figuring out what it is wrong is a critical aspect of good design.  I find it strangely satisfying when I finally admit to myself that the direction I took was wrong, and it is OK to just tear up the paper and start over again! 
  2. Focus on the "what" not the "how."  Don't start a new design by fussing over joinery.  Design details like joinery are critical to a successful design, but that level of detail must wait until you've settled on exactly "what" it is your designing. 
  3. The least expensive place in any project to remove errors is while the project is still on the drawing board!  It's really important to work out any joinery or construction issues after you've clearly defined the "what" and turn your attention to the "how".  
  4. Something complex, like a chair, demands a prototype.  Even if you've done everything right, you're bound to run into construction issues.  The worst place to try to solve these is while you're attempting to build the actual piece.  A prototype also confirms that the form you've chosen actually works.  Chairs can be very difficult to design because of the numerous variables that distinguish one chair from another.  The only way to be sure is to build a prototype and try sitting in it!  Sometimes you might think you've nailed the form for a cabinet, but once the actual form emerges, it doesn't work.  The only way to be sure is to prototype it first.
  5. Modeling can help.  Certain forms are difficult to imagine as a three dimensional object looking at a two dimensional drawing.  A simple 1/4 scale model can go a long way towards confirming your idea.  The model does not have to be complex or detailed, and can even be made from Styrofoam or cardboard.  
  6. Good design takes time, but good design also reduces construction time!  Slow down!  Enjoy the process.  Determine to do your best work, and remember, once you complete a project, whether you love the end result or not, it's finished and your stuck with it for better or for worse!
my design areaWith these lessons in mind, I force myself to slow down, and to become immersed in the design process.  In my professional life Iím a computer expert and have designed and written complex software over my entire career.  Strangely, in my woodworking life, I prefer to avoid using computer aided design software.  I find I simply spend too much time trying to make the software do exactly what I want it to do, time and energy that subtracts from my overall attention to the thing Iím actually designing!  So I put on some soft classical music, carefully tape a very large piece of velum on the top of my assembly table, get out my old fashioned drafting square, my triangles, my lead holder, my lead sharpener, and my electric eraser, and I immerse my mind in the design process.

I should point out that I consider the drawing phase the culmination of the design process, not the beginning of it!  The goal of the drawing phase is to clearly and meticulously articulate the design ideas that Iíve already spent a considerable amount of time contemplating.  For this entertainment center, I  started thinking about the form at least two years before.  Iíve looked at hundreds of examples of entertainment centers, some  I liked, and some I didn't.  There is great value in each;  knowing what you dislike is often more important than knowing what you like.

After much research I selected an entertainment center built by Andrew Drake that I found on the Fine Woodworking web site.  To me, it was a fine example of the form that I found most pleasing to my eye.  This would be where I would begin, and this form will be what I'll incrementally change (but not necessarily improve) to make it my own design.  The first step is to overlay the photograph with tracing paper and draw the image on the tracing paper.  Next, based on whatever dimensions I have about the piece, I use a ruler to estimate the dimensions of the piece in the photograph.

If you think this is copying, consider this:  It's impossible for one human to imagine an original form that some other human, someplace at some time in the past, has not already conceived of!  Understanding this basic principle of design, regardless of the discipline, is critical to anyoneís success as a designer.  Simply put, originality in design is exceedingly rare, and not always a good thing!  For example, if I was obsessed with being completely original, I abandon the traditional rectangular shape and choose instead a triangle as the basic form for my entertainment center.  That would probably mean that I'm the first person to ever design a triangular entertainment center!  It would be original, to be sure, but it would also violate the most basic design principle of all that ďform should follow function!Ē  Engineers often think of it this way:  To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism, but to steal from many is research!

Good designers accept that idea and move past it.  They realize that true genius comes out of recognizing the great ideas of those who have come before you.  It is by making incremental changes to what you've learned that makes the piece uniquely yours.  The genius part comes into play when your changes result in something that you and others find pleasing.  This leads to another critical success factor that is often overlooked:  you must really love the thing youíre about to build!  Life is too short to waste precious time in the shop building something you really donít like!  Doing so is essentially what some dictionaries defines as work - an unpleasant task!  So for me, the drawing process really is the end of the design phase and the beginning of what I hope will be a pleasant and memorable journey into that part of my mind and psyche that most defines me as ďme!Ē  It is an intensely personal and completely solitary pursuit, and is one of those activities that sets us humans apart as a species!

first approximationHaving said all that, let me explain the last couple of steps I took to arrive at the point where Iím ready to create my drawing.  Since Iíve started out with a picture of an entertainment center I would like to use as a basis for my design, and Iíve estimated the basic dimensions of the piece, now is the time to make changes to the basic form to incorporate my own design ideas.  I do this by overlaying tracing paper on top of the first tracing and make my own changes to the form ending up with something like what is shown on the left.

Compared to Andrew Drake's design, I've made quite a few changes, but I've kept his original form by keeping the ratio of width to height the same.  I've also kept the proportions of the center drawers to the outside doors.  Iíve added elements to the original design that I think make it more representative of the ďGreene and GreeneĒ furniture style.  These include the ďcloud liftsĒ on the bottom rail and the door, the ebony plugs, and a very subtle detail near the bottom of each leg.  I fool around making various versions of this drawing until I think I have enough to take it to the drawing board.

At this point I had created a somewhat firm concept drawing showing details that personalized my design, but that were not necessarily "cast in concrete" yet!  In fact, my final design and what I ultimately built ended up being similar but yet, different.  For example, notice the cloud lifts on the door rails in the concept sketch and how the bottom rail and top rail both go up.  This was a bad idea that I later changed.  Also notice the drawer pulls and door pulls in the original sketch.  Compare that to the design I ultimately settled on.  A lot has changed!  Those changes were driven by the finalpattern I selected for the stained glass in the doors!  Like the cabinet itself, I was also thinking about how the stained glass would compliment the cabinet, or perhaps better stated, how the cabinet would compliment the stained glass.  It turned out that the stained glass would exert considerable influence over the cabinet, and I actually was surprised by this outcome!  I wanted diamonds in the stained glass.  Those diamonds in the glass suggested that perhaps I should use diamond shaped door and drawer pulls.  From that, two other design ideas emerged:  since I chose black for the diamonds in the glass, it made sense to make the pulls out of ebony.  Second, I realized I could also reflect a "diamond" pattern made by the pulls themselves by arranging the door pulls horizontally with the center drawer pull.  Finally, I made no attempt at this stage to place any detail about the marquetry images I intended to incorporate into the drawer faces.  I only knew that I wanted marquetry images on the drawer fronts and quickly realized that small, diamond drawer pulls would leave plenty of room for marquetry on each drawer.

So a lot had changed from the original photo of Drake's cabinet that inspired me to create a similar cabinet of my own.  I want to point out that much of what changed had everything to do with "design" and nothing to do with "drafting" or creating the final drawing.  As I said earlier, the drawing or drafting phase of the project is the culmination of the design phase, not the beginning of it!  It took me a long time to realize this simple concept because I was always too anxious to get to the drafting phase and start working out all the joinery and construction details.  Doing this too soon is almost always a serious mistake, regardless of if you're designing a cabinet or a new passenger jet! 

If possible, I like to do my drawings full scale.  In this case, because the piece is too large, I had to choose a scale to shrink it down to a size that would fit on my drawing paper, so I chose half scale.  Notice that I included the stained glass in the doors.  At this point, I knew nothing about making stained glass windows and really had no idea how Iíll pull this part of the project off!  As a designer, it's so critical that you have the self-confidence to not let not knowing how to do something stop you from boldly including that thing in your design!  Whenever this has happened to me during my professional career, I remember a simple adage that I can also apply to this:  "Human beings make stained glass.  I'm a human being, therefore I can make stained glass too!"  The fact that at the time I'm designing this piece, I have no idea how to do stained glass, is quite irrelevant!  I can learn how to make stained glass just as I've learned how to make the mortise and tenon joints!

So now that Iíve completed my design, itís time to create my materials list and start the rather unpleasant process of actually obtaining the materials Iíll need to build this piece.

I hope this little monolog on design encourages you to try this for yourself.  Take your time, be patient with yourself, welcome your mistakes and see them as opportunities to improve!  Most importantly, slow down and spend ample time designing.  After all, there's no limit to how many changes you can make during the design phase.  But once it built, it's built, and your stuck with it for better or worse!

To conclude, here is a side-by-side comparison of Drake's design that inspired me and what I ultimately built: