Imagination Makes for Better Design

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“Readers of my column will know that I never make two chairs alike. Numbers of sticks, their spacings and length, the size of the seat and its shape, angles of stretchers, type of arm either steamed ash or solid wood, colours etc… the combinations are endless. I have gone to great length never to let anyone make a measured drawing, I just pluck the shapes out of the sky as it were. This is a reaction to a lifetime spent making things to others’ designs. I do however keep detailed measurements and photographs.

“This leads me on to gripe about some of the woodworkers I come across. I hope you will forgive my opinion. When I talk to readers or get letters it often seems to be about the petty cash of woodwork (technical points about dovetails or getting joints to fit), but rarely about shape, proportion or colour. I don’t think joints are that important. I would prefer to see woodworkers look at the total picture, is the piece they have just made beautiful, will it hold together, will it do the job it was made for?

“Woodworkers don’t buy my chairs, but they spend ages looking at the details of construction and then frown disapprovingly. They want engineering perfection. People who buy my chairs do so for two main reasons. Firstly and by far the most important point, they buy because they like the look of them. Secondly they buy them because they like sitting in them. They rarely inspect the joints. They think they look good, they think they will do the job they are made to do and even though the parts don’t fit particularly well, they are strong enough!”

— John Brown, Good Woodworking, June 1994, Issue 20

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11 Responses to Imagination Makes for Better Design

  1. Gregory Medis says:

    It would certainly be wasteful and pointless to discard a piece of furniture that has intrinsic beauty in it’s design and is functional just because a joint or two has gaps. However, well made joinery has it’s own beauty and value that deserves recognition.

  2. J.C. aka BLZeebub says:

    Bravo! Form, fit and color is what matters. How will the end product serve it’s owner/master/maker? Sam Maloof developed his methods to serve the end use. Traditional rocking chairs were prone to failure. This would not do. He understood the technical and made it his bee-otch. Yet that is NOT what he’s known for among end users. Rather it is the sheer beauty of his designs are what still set him apart.

    As a photographer, I’ve always operated under the HCB [Henri Cartier Bresson] school for nabbing the best picture, “F-5.0 and be there!” A bit simplistic but it drives home the point that everything else is technical and tertiary to one’s intent. Like whether you prefer producing a highboy with hand-cut dovetails or a CNC machine. The end alone justifies your VISION.

  3. kerry doyle says:

    Technical aspects are there to promote our vision. They are what promotes the longevity of the piece. For most, aesthetics drive the buying decision. As we slide toward the engineering end of decision making, it’s probably more toward the functionality-only end of the scale.

  4. mike says:

    I agree 100%.

    Every month I show the FWW reader’s gallery to my friend who is an interior designer. I ask which pieces she would put in a client’s home. So far she has not found anything she would use. Woodworkers spend far too much time on mixing species (usually in a garish way to maximize contrast – purpleheart/maple, cherry/maple, etc) and obsessing on razor thin DT pins.

  5. kaisaerpren says:

    he inspires us all.

  6. Richard Motz says:

    Very True , Indeed !

  7. MarkYourWaste says:

    If the point of this post is that design is more important than good joinery, then the OP clearly hasn’t sat in an Ikea chair recently. They are complementary, as far as I’m concerned.

    I think this says more about how John Brown perceived his own joinery skills more than anything – which is pretty funny, as they clearly were very much good enough to meet the needs of his work. Even masters have vulnerabilities I guess!

    • Good design is comfort and appearance (in my book, at least). JB’s chairs are crazy comfortable. And beautiful. IKEA’s fail on at least one of those points.

      • MarkYourWaste says:

        Oh god, please don’t think I’m putting Ikea up as paragons of design or anything. For “mass consumer grade” furniture though, some of their designs aren’t too bad, but they are invariably let down by the appalling construction. We had one of their lounge chairs for a long time when starting out, and it was actually quite comfortable, right up until it broke.

        I get it that you’re saying great joinery won’t save bad design – and agree – but I’d also say that bad joinery will also let down even the best design. Clearly JB wasn’t in either of those categories though 🙂

        • There is a wide swath between “bad joinery” and “perfect joinery”. I’ve made plenty of joints that are far from perfect, but also plenty strong to “hold together” and “do the job it was made for”. This excerpt doesn’t give me the impression that Mr. Brown was a proponent of shoddy work.

  8. Fancy Lad Woodworking says:

    “petty cash of woodwork” What a great line.

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