The Opposite of Ornate is Not a Crate


(Below is a paragraph that ended up on the cutting room floor of “The Anarchist’s Design Book.”)

When describing the furniture of necessity, I avoid negative sentence constructions such as: It’s not ornate. That sentence tells you what the furniture is not; it doesn’t tell you what it is.

To put it a different way, my best friend in high school once described my girlfriend as “not horse-faced.”

It’s a struggle to find a good word that doesn’t make the furniture sound like stuff at a craft fair (“They are simple things”) or something dreamed up by an intellectual jackass (“It is the intersection between the laconic and the cardinal”).

The best description I can muster is the Italian word puro as it was used to describe paintings and literature in the classical and Renaissance periods. The literal translation is “pure,” but when used in criticism it means something more like “plain and clear.”

I’ll buy that.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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30 Responses to The Opposite of Ornate is Not a Crate

  1. Reminds me of the “neat and plain” style in reference to the Chesapeake furniture from the 18th century. As well as other locales, I’m sure; we’re just more familiar with Chesapeake furniture because, Williamsburg. That style is still more ornate than the more rudimentary designs you’ve explored of late.

  2. Sean Hughto says:

    Naive but not stupid. Basic but not boring. Beautiful in its straightforwardness. Form following function. Frill-free but still pritee. Sincere and practical.

    Then again, some of the painted stuff had some ornament in the painting that is quite becoming.

  3. Judith Katz says:

    sorry, but what’s wrong with the word ‘simple’.

  4. Stefan Rusek says:

    I was going to suggest this could become a nice Instagram tag #puro, but that appears to be two things already. Lots of cigars and something else not entirely clear. So maybe #puronothorsefaced.

  5. ejcampbell says:

    I love the phrase “plain and clear”, especially that word clear, as applied to the chair. It describes it perfectly. Simple could be confused with crude, and the chair is quite elegant.

  6. Stefan Rusek says:

    “Minimalist” didn’t work either, because it is already owned by modernists and shakers.

    Which gets me thinking, was the reason for the books manner change related to the fact that from a historic perspective, renaissance design might be an anomaly? Before that time it was more puro, then there industrial revolution brought philosophies that either embraced or rejected industrialization, while simultaneously rejecting the ornate design of the 16th-19th centuries?

  7. toolnut says:

    How about “clean”?

  8. bsrlee says:

    Austere is possibly the word people are looking for.

    There are several dictionary definitions, but synonyms from Google: plain, simple, basic, functional, modest, unadorned, undecorated, unornamented, unembellished, unostentatious, unfurnished, uncluttered, unfussy, without frills, subdued, muted, restrained, stark, bleak, bare, bald, clinical, sombre, severe, spartan, ascetic; informal no frills.

    Remember, it was Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, who gave us the weekend break, as well as Christmas Trading.

    • gyegreene says:

      Good thought. Although to me, “austere” has implications of harshness — like an ancient prison cell.


  9. Greg Merritt says:

    Functionally beautiful.
    I once held a position with a large corporation and was required to attend quarterly meetings to stamp out “negative speaking”. This brings up memories of opportunities for improvement.

  10. jackmcal says:

    please describe the technique for making tapered octagonal legs as in your staked furniture… or a reference would be fine

    thanks, jack McAllister

    • Jack,

      I saw the legs and spindles square on the band saw – following the grain to minimize any run-out over the length of the spindle.

      I true up the four faces of the spindle and then plane it into an octagon in a bench saddle that looks like this.

      I taper it to shape in this jig as well.

      I make the tenons on a lathe, or I shape them with a drawknife and spokeshave.

      Hope this helps.

  11. churchclown says:

    “Did he just call me a horse-faced intellectual jackass?”

  12. jenohdit says:

    Makes me think of Max Bill

    Ulmer Hocker

  13. jenohdit says:

    Also makes me think of Enzo Mari, particularly his Autoprogettazione project which is far more sophisticated than it may seem at first.
    See also Metamobile

    HIs “Giulie” Dining Table is an interesting take on staked furniture.

    More Mari – again, obvious rooted in early staked furniture but a very modern take on it.

  14. tpier says:

    When discussing these concepts of styling about cars the word that is often used is “clean”.

  15. Tim Raleigh says:

    That’s a good looking chair.

  16. MichaelP says:

    What about “utilitarian”? Or would that be seen as too harsh?

  17. Niels Cosman says:

    What’s wrong with crates. I love crates. Pfft.

  18. I think what we are all striving for In our furniture is that it be “elegant”, not in the class-cliche sense that the word often connotes, but as a physicist might classify a solution to a problem as elegant. Meaning that the solution resolves the problem better than prior solutions, with simplicity, ingenuity, a minimum of steps, and which clearly advertises it’s superior qualities to all who look upon it. The staked chair photo that heads this column certainly suggests those features to me.

  19. vadoucette says:


  20. gblogswild says:

    “Humble” implies “horse-faced” when it comes to girlfriends, “slow” when it comes to race horses, and “nightmarish” when it comes to horses that look like an old girlfriend.

    “Austere” sounds great, but included in the dictionary definition given is its modern connotation towards “severe,” which might just be because they rhyme. “Clean” is probably best, maybe followed by “Shakeresque,” which I suppose can also connote “paint over pine.”

    In short, I got no idea, y’all are on your own.

  21. waltamb says:

    Are plans, instructions and materials list for the chair pictured above available?
    Better yet, a class we can take on building these near you?
    How about the 3 legged version?

    • Walt,

      The plans and instructions will be in “The Anarchist’s Design Book.” I’m afraid I’m not teaching for the next two years.


      • waltamb says:

        Thank you for the reply Chris,
        I encourage you to find some way to teach this locally by you at your earliest opportunity.
        Even if it is a Day “Teaser” course for the fundamentals.
        You are onto something BIG here.
        It is too hot of an Iron to let cool for 2 year and for the book to come out.
        Just my passionate 2 centavos.

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