Form Over Figure


If you’ve been following my work for more than a few weeks then you might have winced a bit when you saw the image at the top of this blog entry.

The curly oak figure in the chest is a bit of a departure for me. For the last 20 years I’ve sought out boards that have a mellow, understated grain. This has always been intentional. Loud woods can obscure a good form or – put another way – attract unwanted attention away from a weak form.

For me, the form of a piece is what I like (or dislike) the most. Incidentally, that’s why I like paint. Nothing strips away the bread and circuses of fiddleback hoo-ha like a democratic coat of pigment.

So what the heck is going on in the above photo? Short answer: I don’t believe in free will.

Longer answer: I’ve had this chest design in my sketchbook for many months and decided in May to release itself on its own recognizance. My initial plan was to build it in white maple or Baltic birch. But while buying some oak at Frank Miller Lumber in Union City, Ind., there were four boards of curly quartersawn white oak sitting in the middle of the warehouse.

I put my measuring tape on them and realized that there was exactly enough to make my chest design. The price was ridiculously cheap. I had the money.


The oak is outrageous, and so I did what I could to turn down its visual volume. Usually you’ll read articles about how to accentuate curled woods with an undercoat of linseed oil or dye. I did neither of these things. In fact, I muted the curl by using a super blond shellac instead of my typical favorite, garnet.

Even so, I was worried about the curl obscuring the piece’s form.

I’m not quite done with the finishing process. I still need to rub out the shellac and add a coat of a linseed oil/wax that I’ve become quite fond of (more on that later). That should tone down the gloss of the shellac and I’ll end up where the figure and the form are in balance.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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31 Responses to Form Over Figure

  1. When I saw that photo I thought you’d been playing with grain painting.
    Very daring!

  2. It’s a challenge to integrate both form and movement of figure in a piece. I’m a fan of the integration of both and not one over the other. This piece stands out. It will probably stand out everywhere you put it. A real challenge!

  3. maross1248 says:

    I have been watching your blog posts on this design the last few days. I have been perusing chest/dresser designs for some time now, looking for the right one to replace the “colonial” maple dresser I have had since I was a teen. I think this is the one! I look forward to more details

  4. richmondp says:

    I had a design teacher once who was very interested in how a particular design feature directed the viewer’s eye. In my mind, I can imagine this teacher saying, when critiquing your chest, that the viewer’s eye is captured by the grain and runs with it, right off the edge of the work, that there is nothing to keep the eye within the piece. He would have suggested some means of rescuing the eye, probably by limiting the figure to the drawer fronts and leaving everything else plain, as a border to contain the wild grain.

    That being said, I firmly believe that design is very much a subjective discipline, that there is no right or wrong to it, and that everyone has a different opinion as to the right balance between cake and icing.

  5. parks2167 says:

    I really like the grain showing in this piece.Sometimes an item just has to be a stand out. Not a whole room full of this, just this one item . How many people will see it and be drawn to it? How many will learn it’s hand tool work and want to do some or purchase some? Love the lines too.
    Reading your design books for more motivation and direction.
    Dave Parks

  6. svstolenchild says:

    Of course, you could still slap a few coats of paint on it.

    • hikerob says:

      Milk paint of course.

      I think it is a beautiful piece. The grain is wild and fascinating. A black border would make it more contained for me.

  7. Greg Merritt says:

    My eye is drawn to the dark base and then up to the symmetrical pattern created by the dark, bold pulls. The figured wood of the case, while quite beautiful, fades into the background for me. I think that the piece is very well balanced.

  8. g2-87cc707f0aa4e62f4a92f77f89ccba9d says:

    As gorgeous as the wood is, I still notice the drawers and frame looking practically air tight.

    • Everything will shrink from this point. We are in the most humid months. So I know (from long experience) that nothing will swell shut from this point.

  9. jeeperjeff says:

    Well, I didn’t read this until this morning, so I say…. “It’s your birthday. You can build it out of whatever the hell you want. Happy Birthday, Buddy!!!”

  10. Scott Taylor says:

    I like it, a lot. I like the MCM aspect, minimalist, understated, excellent proportions. Great execution of course. In this case the material enhances the piece.

    As a fellow determinist it is obvious you were to design and build this…

  11. shopsweeper says:

    I appreciate you opening up the design process with this piece (and opening yourself up to criticism along the way). Opinions on the piece don’t interest me as much as people thinking about how THEY might have chosen differently on the chose-your-own-adventure path.

    A person wonders if you didn’t open this particular piece up knowing it would generate strong feedback. Either way, you are mentoring design without ever getting in a room full of students – bravo!

  12. Personally, I love it. I don’t think the grain detracts from the form at all, in this case. If anything, I think it adds to the form.

  13. I almost forgot to ask, but are the chests stackable? It appears so in the picture.

  14. James Russ says:

    Is it safe to assume when broken down into transport mode the stand fits in one of the drawers?

  15. I think it is gorgeous, my friend. But then again, I love figured woods, so it is right up my alley. Good work! J

  16. hbm-la says:

    The whole thing….. There’s nothing like understatement.

  17. Noel says:

    I’ve been excited by this whole piece from the first shot of it (in a drawing?) on the blog. I’ll just add two tiny items to all of the above: First, you’re totally allowed to make something that’s not exactly part of your ATC/ADB manifesto. If you’ve got the foresight to find the figured wood, and the skills to make them play in the design as you’ve done (not a given for many of us), then do so as often as you want. Second, I think the highly figured wood on top of that ingenious base is one of the coolest juxtapositions I’ve seen in quite a while. I keep thinking it’s a sort-of “Roorkee Chest” while I’m looking for the rivets + leather.

  18. Brian Clites says:

    It looks great Chris. I like the way that the empty drawers appear jet black beneath the cut-out pulls in this photo. Have you thought about putting a painted back behind each of the drawer pulls? (And on the side lifts as well?)

    I thought you had mentioned in an earlier post that this was a commissioned piece. But here it sounds like its more for yourself. In either case, what do you expect to store in it? As much as I love the design of the pulls, I’d worry that having a rainbow of underwear, socks, and t-shirts peaking through might greatly detract from the simplicity of the lines. (Because the grain doesn’t distract enough already!)

    Fabulous work.

  19. My first guitar had an almost shockingly figured flamed maple, but largely on the back – such loudness without the need for attention! I quite appreciate that this grain figure has been given to so private and humble a purpose, and without need for physical ornamentation. it is vernacular in the architectural sense, whereby it may bear repeating to the eventual extent of influencing the building culture.

  20. pinusmuricata says:

    Kinda busy but I like it. My one quibble is the base seems underscale.

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