I Don’t Know, Let’s Say 90 Percent

A chair made by Jennie Alexander, author of "Make a Chair from a Tree."

A chair made by Jennie Alexander, author of “Make a Chair from a Tree.”

When you design a cabinet, chair or tool chest, it’s too easy to let the following words slip from your lips:

“I made it to fit my needs, my body, my tools. Like anything custom-made, it needs to suit the user exactly.”

To me, that’s a cop-out. When designers sketch out kitchen cabinets or bookshelves they don’t base the depth and height off the client’s books, dishes and glassware. There is a sweet spot for designing these pieces that can accommodate a wide variety of household objects and books.

The same rules are out there for chairs, tool cabinets, workbenches, dressers, chests and the like. Yes, you can make a cabinet that is designed to fit a specific shrunken monkey head you brought back from the rainforest. But if you open your eyes and do a little math you can design a cabinet that will suit any shrunken primate head from any continent.

The worst offender when it comes to over-customization is – in my opinion – chairs. I have sat in some awful custom chairs. Beautiful, yes. But after a few minutes of sitting it felt like the chair was trying to inseminate me. Or at least make me turn my head and cough.

As I start to squirm, the most common excuse from the owner is: The chair was not made for you. It was made for someone who is smaller/fatter/shaped differently/a giant praying mantis.

I call bunk. Good chairs, cabinets, tool chests, workbenches, stools, bookshelves or whatever should be able to serve a variety of masters. I don’t know, let’s say 90 percent of the people. Just about anyone can sit in one of Jennie Alexander’s chairs and say: “Wow. This is an amazing chair.” And that’s because Jennie paid close attention to both history and the human body. She did her research. She thought it through and didn’t settle for: this chair fits this person.

It takes a lot more design work and thought to find that sweet spot. But the result is a piece of furniture that will be coveted instead of kicked to the curb.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to I Don’t Know, Let’s Say 90 Percent

  1. toolnut says:

    Will LAP be the publisher of the third edition that Jennie mentions on her website?

  2. gburbank says:

    Humanscale 1-2-3 is still a worthy investment for anyone serious about designing and building chairs.

  3. All of these chair making books are weighing heavily on my wallet

  4. Hmm . Interesting one . I completly agree with you with regards to chairs . They definatly need to be sitable onable ! or whats the point ? As for the other, I disagree that designing things for specifics is a cop out , for me its something I have done for customers many times at their request and very few of them have been kicked to the kerb . I recently did a whole wall bookcase which was designed exactly around the clients book collection and to maximise the space available . I estimate we gained about 15% more shelf space over the “general” design ones he had looked at . He is very pleased and I found it a really good excercise . My own on site tool bag was designed by me to fit my tools and to maximise effiecency and its one of the best thing I have done . I tried many many “generaly” designed ones that just did not work with my tools . After all one mans great design is another nightmare. Take me I really love Macintosh but dislike Lloyd Wright but it doesnt make me a bad person !!!!

  5. Amen! Couldn’t agree more! In many cases, if a design doesn’t work for the majority (there are exceptions), then a design isn’t a complete success. As a 6’4″, 200lb man, I’ve had first hand experience with many failures (almost every chair, everywhere). I should be able to nestle into a spindly, smallish looking chair without feeling violated, or a freak of nature, if the design is right.

  6. Rachael Boyd says:

    most of the stuff I do is custom, the customer comes to me with a picture and they say I really like this but it needs to be this wide and this tall. but the deign is has been around for years. so when you change things you should always use the golden ratio to make it look right. so I’m with you Chris don’t change things to much or you ruin it..

  7. maxfinch says:

    Your post on chairs and design reminded me of a quote from Shadrach Mace . He said, “If company comes, and you don’t want ‘em to stay long, well, you bring out one of them ladderbacks for ‘em to sit on. But if you want ‘em to set a spell and visit, well, offer ‘em a settin’ chair.” 2
    2 Jerry Israel, “The Mace Family of Chair Makers,” May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina Vol. I, (Ed.) Robert S. Brunk (Asheville, NC: Robert S. Brunk Auction Services, 1997), 192.

    Apparently Shadrach Mace’s design criterion was comfort that was driven by successful craftsmanship and tradition.
    Mace Chair maker: photos and chair making process

  8. Julian Heath says:

    I don’t know if it’s the lighting, but that photo looks almost like it’s another of those fantastic models that you posted previously.

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