When Your Eyes Fail You

Perhaps the best way to design nice furniture is to first look at thousands of examples of it.

That’s the path I take, and I always recommend woodworkers visit museums and galleries, or pore over books crammed with photos of pleasing forms. But it never occurred to me that looking at furniture could have the opposite effect – it can ruin you.

During my last week in Germany I spent a lot of time with Ute Kaiser, who is in charge of public relations and the class program for Dictum GmbH, the company that runs the classes where I teach.

Ute is a former newspaper reporter like myself, so we get along just great. And usually before or after I teach at Dictum, she and her boyfriend take me sightseeing somewhere in Bavaria. This time we went to Regensburg and ended up ducking some spotty weather in a cafe that looked like something transplanted from Paris.

As the three of us chatted about what we had seen that day, the conversation turned to furniture, both old and new. That’s when Ute told me a story about a Bavarian furniture factory and the time she had interviewed the owner while she was a reporter.

The man had made a lot of money selling factory-made furniture all over Germany, though the furniture wasn’t particularly well-made or beautiful. During the interview, he explained his business model.

As a long-time maker, he knew that his furniture wasn’t the best. But he also knew something about human nature.

So he bought regular advertising in the local paper that showed photos of his furniture. The more the readers saw the ugly forms, the more they became used to them – the stuff became comfortable and familiar. And after becoming used to it, they bought it.

As much as I hate to admit, this makes sense. We accept the familiar and reject the different, especially when it comes to filling our homes.

It’s just that the world is upside down now. The ugly is familiar and the beautiful is rare.

— Christopher Schwarz

For more design resources….
• If you are interested in furniture design, you definitely should check out George Walker’s blog. Walker, the author of the “Design Matters” column in Popular Woodworking Magazine, has been on a one-man crusade to help improve the design vocabulary of woodworkers.

• If you like period furniture, one of the best and cheapest sources of beautiful forms is Wallace Nutting’s “Furniture Treasury.” Volumes one and two can be had for a song at used book stores.

• The other place to find lots of forms to look at is at web pages for auction houses that specialize in fine furniture. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are always good sources. But there are other houses that specialize in other forms, such as this great site for Southern furniture, Neal Auction house.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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9 Responses to When Your Eyes Fail You

  1. Fred says:

    Don’t forget to include the link for the Southern furniture site…..


  2. Mark says:

    Sadly, so true in so many ways. “The world is upside down” puts it succinctly and applies broadly.


  3. Marilyn says:

    Grrr .. I really hate being manipulated. :angry:


  4. Jim B. says:

    The art professor in me (which is, for better or worse, MOST of me) would argue that “beauty” is transient, fleeting, and relative. When viewing and critiquing art I find that even my own taste is disturbingly volatile, so I refrain from using words like “beauty” during class. I feel that defining what beauty is necessarily defines what it isn’t, and as a creative being who wishes to bolster other creative beings, I am not comfortable with excluding anything from creativity’s domain.

    That said, I have a feeling that my own personal taste currently does lie pretty much in line with yours, Chris. And, in my daily life, I’m not out to necessarily challenge my concept of beauty constantly…it’s daunting and tiring to do so. So I do distinguish my personal, every day, comfortable taste from my critical, theoretical “art professor” taste.

    But none of us would know ANYTHING about living in two or more different worlds at the same time, now would we?!


  5. Tim Henriksen says:

    Two weeks ago I enjoyed a rare early release from the hospital and wondered down to the historic Irvington neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis. Inspired by ATC I purchased a couple of old starett dividers from an antique dealer then ventured to the used bookstore (killing time before enjoying a couple of Sunkings at Jockamoes pizza while waiting to pick up dinner for the homestead). I was fresh of chapter 13 and enjoyed how you collected images of tables while designing your own. I picked up vol 1&2 of Nuttings Treasury for a couple of bucks and thumbed through the trove of images gaining inspiration. How happy I am to see this gets your stamp of approval but also that I beat the rush!!

    – Tim


    • Tim Henriksen says:

      Actually, I was wandering not wondering … still getting used to typing on the iPad!!! My English professor mother would be horrified (not the first time)!


  6. Scott S. says:

    I’m not a designer. Neither am I an art professor.

    But, I am a critic. A critic of the worst kind because I let my comfort form my opinion on the suitability of furniture for a purpose.

    If I stub my toe on an end table consistently, it is crap. No matter if that table is from the 17th century or the imaginary 22d. Similarly, if my butt hurts after sitting in a chair for half an hour, it is crap. If my chair and table do not work together for my comfort, the combination is crap. My world is very absolute when it comes to furniture.

    I can appreciate non-working (in my opinion) forms for their composition, or other qualities, but I won’t spend money on them. I’m even willing to allow that I may learn something from the study of such creations.

    The point of this self-righteous diatribe is that as a hobbyist woodworker, I can hire and fire my projects at will. As a consumer, I am one of the growing number of people who stand up and declare “I am not a consumerist Lemming!”.

    I build for my peace of mind and functional use in my home. I enjoy the design articles where they address pleasing proportions in forms meant for use by real people.


  7. Pingback: Buying better stuff can be better stewardship | Living the Life You Were Made For

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