Shortcuts to Good Design


It’s in Chinnery. A staked backstool shown on page 77 of Victor Chinnery’s “Oak Furniture: The British Tradition” (Antique Collectors’ Club, 1979).

This is an excerpt from “The Anarchist’s Design Book” by Christopher Schwarz.

All of the pieces in this book were designed using dirt-simple techniques that rely on photos of old furniture, a pencil, scraps of wood and wire clothes hangers.

The method allows you to stand on the shoulders of successful designs and alter them to fit a particular space in your home, to remove ornament or to even change the purpose of the piece (you can turn a stool into a desk).

It begins with finding a piece of furniture with an attractive form or, as I like to say, “good bones.” It doesn’t matter in what style or period the piece was built. What matters is that the piece’s proportions and lines hit you in the gut.

The chair and backstool in this book both began with a piece from Victor Chinnery’s classic “Oak Furniture: Fine British Tradition.” I liked the rake of the legs, the four evenly spaced spindles and the smallish crest rail.

But there’s a problem when starting with a photograph. As a photographer friend says, “Photos are lying bitches.” Well-designed furniture looks good from almost every angle, and a photo shows only one view-point. The solution is to make a quick digital model or small mock-up.

To do this, you need some dimensions. I use a pair of dividers and a ruler to work these out. For example, I knew that the seat of the back-stool in Chinnery was about 14″ from the floor. That allowed me to figure out the width of the seat and the other relevant dimensions. Some dimensions, such as the depth of the seat, I guessed at using ranges from “Human Dimension & Interior Space.”

If I’m building a case piece, I then make a quick 3D model in a computer-aided design (CAD) program. No joinery. No details. Just boxes that reflect the mass and major components of the piece. Then I rotate the piece and look at it from all angles to see if the photo was lying.

‘Modeling’  Projects in ‘Wireframe’
Modeling chairs or any staked piece in CAD, however, is stupid. OK, “stupid” is a strong word. It’s much faster to make a half-scale model using scraps and wire.


Fix you. Just like in nature, the answer was to help the model stand up a little more straight. In a chair, I usually make changes in 3° increments or so. But because this chair looked splayed like a squashed spider, I changed the angle by 5°.

I epoxy the wire legs into the plank seat and bend them into position with pliers. As you’ll see in the next section on staked furniture, this modeling process will also solve the geometry problems for you when building the piece.

Then I put the model on a table and walk all around it. I bend and snip the wire legs until the piece hits me in the gut the same way the original photograph did.

At this point I’ll do one of two things: If I have the time, I build a quick full-size prototype from junk wood. This allows me to work out some of the joinery and construction problems that I might not have anticipated.

If I’m in a hurry, I take a picture of my wire model, print it out and draw on the printout. I might add bulk to the legs, scalpel bulk from the seat, add spindles and other details.

Then I head to the shop and build what I pretty much know is something that will work.


Run Forrest. The 5° alteration changed the stance significantly. Viewed from the rear and the front, the chair looks more like a bird dog in the field.

If this process sounds arduous, you might not be ready to design your own pieces of furniture. Stick to plans – there’s no shame in that.

Design, like anything in woodwork, takes a little effort. I’ve never met anyone who can design a piece using pure inspiration and nail it on the first try. The process outlined above, however, is the shortest distance I’ve found between desire and satisfaction.

Meghan Bates

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2 Responses to Shortcuts to Good Design

  1. Shel Sanders says:

    Questions of style preferences aside, one should adopt a process that works for them. Not every design requires modeling to the level described here. For this I would use a freehand sketch, maybe sketch up to get a 3D sense of it. That said, the joinery must be planned both for strength and contribution to th the aesthetic.

    The greatest inspirations I have had come from museum pieces. The greatest collections are available on line, but inspiration in the round is a must.

    To set things straight, I am not a devotee of the clean line geometric approach to conceiving furniture.

    • For the most part, I like (and in many ways teach) this method of practical designing as reflected in this post. Some may not be in full concordance with this method, yet again how many here have built extensive collections of both traditional furniture forms and timber frames architecture without the use of contemporary measuring tools and only embrace the experiential modalities of design? I think one must fully incorporate an acient and/or traditional system before they are fully equipt to discount or even question it effectively…

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