New Core77 Column: The Sidewalk is Your Design Homework


Those of you who have read my peckings for a while know my deep interest in architecture. And if you’ve read any of George Walker and Jim Tolpin’s books on design, you know that (most) furniture design springs from architecture.

How can architecture help you in the workshop? That is what my latest column at Core77 is about. Walking around an old neighborhood with your eyes open can help you get a feel for design – good, bad, right and wrong. In many ways, a neighborhood walk can teach you more than a visit to a museum, where the furniture is mostly high-style and well-preserved.


I get pretty passionate about this stuff and am half-tempted to take my furniture students out on an evening walk through Covington’s many historical neighborhoods. But that would be weird, I think.

The column, “Your Design Homework is on the Sidewalk,” can be read here and is completely free.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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13 Responses to New Core77 Column: The Sidewalk is Your Design Homework

  1. An architecture/ furniture design walking tour would be awesome, and very educational – sigh me up!

    • Andy says:

      Reminds me a lot of what I appreciated about Savannah, as an art student there so many years ago. Nice post.

  2. dusbel says:

    Not weird at all! When I took a Tolpin/Walker design class in Port Townsend a few years ago, we went on a field trip to study the Jefferson county courthouse (in Port Townsend). It was well worth the time/effort (and it’s a very strange mash-up of architectural styles!)!

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  3. sjschmidtky says:

    Chris, I’m with you! There is so much bad architecture around, that I wonder what is being taught to Architecture majors these days. The new Lakeside Park City building is driving me nuts right now, since I drive by it often. The windows are so out of proportion that they look like postage stamps on the front of the building.

  4. sjschmidtky says:

    One more comment (you hit one of my hot buttons)… lately I’ve been reading through the book “Get Your House Right”. It’s full of what to do right in classical architecture and what to avoid. I wish architects would pay attention to contents of books like these so we can enjoy their buildings vs. cringe every time we look at them. I know what critics are thinking… “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

  5. Marc Stonestreet says:

    Totally. Your neighbourhood has all those amazing cast iron pilasters and dressed columns. It blew my mind when you mentioned they were cast and that was the reason the profiles didn’t return back to the wall. Aesthetically it was cool, and that it was less to do with design intent and more to do with manufacturing restrictions definitely made me think.

  6. Curt Lavallee says:

    If I ever get the chance to take one of your classes I would love to go on a little architecture tour. It might be a bit different, but that’s precisely the reason I find your work (and that of the other LAP authors) engaging and interesting. Taking the time to delve into the inspirations, design process and history behind the work that you do makes the projects feel like more than just a thing that you’ve built.

  7. Steve Baisden says:

    If you want an education about what is good architecture and how it influences furniture. Take a walk down Boston’s Back Bay; Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street, Marlborough Street and even little Newbury Street. If you can get inside one of the houses prepare to be amazed. Check out the local furniture at the Museum of Fine Arts on Hunnington Avenue. Great stuff.

  8. tsstahl says:

    Many, many moons ago, I took a class at UIC. It featured a Saturday afternoon walking tour of downtown Chicago buildings. I was pissed about the requirement, but my attitude changed within a half hour or so of the commencement.

    An experience closer to your home is when I walked from LAP to the bar with the good sausages. I stopped to look at an incredibly detailed building facade. It was boarded up and painted sidewalk to gutters in a horrible shade of red. You had to look closely to see all the intricate details the builders put into that place. If it wasn’t for that tour nearly 30 years ago, I wouldn’t pay attention to such things.

    In short, your field trip may qualify as weird, but it is far from fetish. 🙂

  9. Tony Zaffuto says:

    Take your walks at early-to-mid dusk: the diminishing light hides ravages of age or decay, but has enough light remaining to see the intent of design. Don’t limit yourself to specific areas, but tour residential and commercial areas. Sometimes designs are individual, sometimes similar enough to reveal an evolving design.

  10. morrisruskin says:

    Students often like (slightly) weird teachers the best.

  11. Gav says:

    You are not the only one, it ain’t weird just very focussed and many people don’t understand. In my area there is a wide range of external finish carpentry on trim, verandahs/porches and awnings which covers an era from pre WW1-1950’s , some Federation, quite a lot of Australian /Californian bungalow. Then the 60’s hit and it turned to crap or steel. The lull between the two World Wars and the impact of the second was especially evident. Materials and trade skills/knowledge dropped sharply along with available money and people. Buying a house in the area drove my wife nuts due to details obvious to me and not apparent to her giving away how much was spent on the materials and trades forming my subsequent opinion along with the aesthetic of the detailing . It is my understanding that a fair bit of leeway was given to some of the carpenters on site in terms of interpretation and execution of the builders drawings. The tiled awning over our front window has more interlocking joinery than not and would have not been a quick endeavour to fabricate in 1936 or now. It also knocks the current methods of nailed butt construction on ‘sympathetic’ new housing out of the park. Probably should treat it with bit more respect and give it a new paint job.

  12. John Koenig says:

    Have you ever walked any of the older parts of Westwood? I grew up near Mercy High School. The homes there have so much character; a lot of them were mansions, at the time (I’m still so upset they tore down the Gamble estate). We would often find rail spikes in our backyard from the old line that P&G had built to carry the execs downtown.

    I had two hard-fast rules for our agent when we bought out here in St. Louis: 1) If a house has a full brick front and vinyl on the three other sides, I don’t even want it mentioned and 2) The neighborhood must have trees taller than the homes. Perhaps Westwood spoiled me (it’s a bit rougher these days, though). But my theory is, if a neighborhood can survive long enough that the trees have outgrown the homes, and it’s STILL a nice place to raise a family, then it has some staying power. All these subdivisions out here that clear-cut the trees are simply a sign of an unestablished neighborhood in my mind.

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