Glossary: Design

gombrich et al on design

Ian Kirby, (1) "Three Tenets of Good Design" Woodworker's Journal February 2011, pages 30-31; "Understanding Form and Space", Woodworker's Journal April 2011, pages 46-47.

Design: For a woodworking project, a mental plan, set to paper -- a chair, a table a bureau, a workbench -- in the form of a measured drawing, diagram or other similar representation. Design adds to plan an emphasis on both purpose/utility and artfulness, thereby suggesting a definite pattern. Design, primarily, is used in reference to a completed work, and indicates the degree in which artistic order, harmony, and integrity are achieved, in spite of diversity, in the parts, and where "beauty" results from unity in variety. In other words, from one perspective, aesthetics, design presents an important consideration: Is the appearance of a completed object satisfying to the eye?

Design, as a verb, preceded design as a noun by about two centuries. Both the OED and The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology show the verb design at roughly 1440, the noun at roughly 1588:

Before 1398 designen, design or shape (something), in Trevisa's translation of Bartholomew's De Proprietatibus Rerum; borrowed from Latin designare mark out, trace out, denote, devise.

-n. 1588, in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost; borrowed from Middle French desseign: purpose, project, design, from Italian disegno, from disegnare: to mark out, from Latin designare: mark out, trace out, denote, devise.

-n. designer, 1649, a plotter or schemer; later, 1662: one who makes artistic designs formed from English design.

Among woodworkers, design generates passion:

Design.-Without some knowledge of the principles of design it is not possible to build up a good piece of furniture. Good proportion, good colour, and the right use of materials and ornaments are essentials in fine cabinetwork. There must also be a knowledge of construction and of the methods of building up, with all their possibilities and limitations. Added to these are certain forms and sizes which long usage has fixed, such as the height of a writing table, a chair, or a sideboard. There are differences to remember when designing a wardrobe and a china cabinet; for in the one it is Carcase work with flat surfaces to cover, and in the other it is principally framing where the harmony of many lines has to be considered. The treatment of mouldings and their relation to position in projecting, receding, or on the flat, is important, as well as the proper placing of Ornament. The metal fittings are a feature which must not be underestimated, and in all work there should be a right appreciation of their value and position in a design. A careful study of old examples should prove of real practical value to designers and cabinetmakers alike, and especially in obtaining good proportion. For heavy, solid furniture, such as is needed for the hall, library, or dining-room, the best Jacobean period affords some excellent models, whilst the mahogany and satinwood work of the eighteenth century supplies many useful suggestions for lighter cabinetmaking.

Source: Percy A Wells and John Hooper, Modern Cabinet Work, Furniture and Fitments Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1922, Third Edition, page 24

For more on Wells, click here.

Below, the image on the left, for example, is Wally Kunkel's impassioned declaration about how significant design is to our response to woodworking, especially in how finely designed pieces are timeless, regardless of the prevailing styles of a given era:

wally kunkel on design

Some of the finest furniture made, in all of history, was produced in this country of ours — before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

It was exemplary because it was so elegant in design. The rococco styles of the European cabinetmakers were so implified by the great joiners in our own country — the designs were truly elegant. The names of Goddard, Townsend, Savery, Chapin, Frothingham, etc., were to furniture design and construction what Washington, Jefferson and Franklin were to politics.

Source: Wallace ("Wally") Kunkel, How to Master the Radial Saw! [no publisher, no date]

However, another component of design that cannot be overlooked, but -- especially among seasoned woodworkers -- is often taken granted: "Constructive Design". By "taken for granted", I mean that such considerations as "knowledge" in the craftsman "of the materials used and the correct proportion and arrangement of parts to form a strong and durable" piece that gives it  strength, stability, and serviceability. 

My attention to CD comes from discovery of a valued 3-part set of articles by the instructor of woodworking, William F Vroom. In the Manual Training Magazine early in the 20th century, Vroom writes that CD means more than merely designing for appearance, but also "to obtain the minimum of strength necessary to carry an article through a respectable term of existence". [more later 3-3-07]

... [W]ill the finished piece have the strength to endure the use it is put to? If this were all, the expert in construction would be forced to take sides against the art critic in defense of the veriest monstrosity which any crude imagination might devise, provided it did not fall to pieces when used. We mean rather designing in conformity with certain principles, and one of the principles which few, I am sure, will be disposed to reject, is that the design must be adapted to the characteristics of the material used. Now wood is a straight-line material; its grain is straight, approximately, and any cutting across the grain seriously weakens it. Any design therefore in which the important members are crooked, (as are both the legs and rails in the Louis XV table) -- image to come soon - and which tries to conceal a joint because the necessities of wood construction bring it where the designer does not want it, is not well adapted to such a material as wood.

Vroom drives home his point convincingly with the example of a "plain box": the beginner woodworker (I know that, as a high schooler, it is what I had to learn) will place the ends, and perhaps the sides also, with the grain as at A (i.e., end), instead of horizontally as at B (i.e., side). As the neophyte quickly learns, the exposed edge of the end, A, is subject to bending strains from within or without, and the grain of the wood should therefore run parallel to that edge. (As Vroom notes, if the thickness of the workpieces used on the ends is increased, the problem of the box breaking, or otherwise collapsing, is reduced.

Vroom highlights six important factors in constructive design:


1. Parts should be so arranged that all strains of compression or tension shall be in the direction of the grain of the wood, and all bending strains crosswise.

2. Wherever practicable let all parts be secured at the ends and free at the edges. (The terms " ends" and "edges" are used here with reference to the direction of grain, and not to the shape or position of the piece)

3. Let all parts be of such form that the grain shall be continuous from end to end. This principle is opposed to the practice of cutting wood into forms unsuited to its nature.

4. All large surfaces should be broken into panels or otherwise arranged to provide for shrinkage or expansion. In conformity with this principle, panels are used in house doors, wainscoting, the ends and doors of cabinets, and many other similar places.

5. Let some transverse support be provided for any detached board, such as a shelf.

6. Insert members running the full length, breadth, and height respectively of the article to be constructed.

In his 1908 Furniture Design for Schools and Shops, Fred D Crawshaw, Professor of Manual Arts at the University of Wisconsin and author on numerous books on Industrial Arts topics, picks up on Vroom's theme, "Constructive Design":

Design may be divided into two parts, pure and applied. Pure design deals with principles and terms used in producing pleasing forms without any particular reference to their application in useful objects. Applied design makes use of the same principles and terms, but always as elements in a problem, the solution of which is the production of a pattern for use. There may be a problem set in pure design, such as the arrangement of certain abstract or conventional spots to illustrate, for exam*, the principle of balance, Fig. 1. If now these same spots are to be arranged as a part of a symmetrical group for the decoration of a book end, for example, the element of application enters — a use is to he made of the spots as arranged, Fig. 2. The result secured in the first instance might be used to decorate some object. The arrangement in the second case, however, is made for the express purpose of decorating some particular object. In the first case we have an example of pure design. In the second one of applied design.

Now, if an applied design requires mechanical construction as distinct from that which does not involve principles of mechanical operation in carrying it out, it is spoken of as a constructive design, Fig. 3. Manifestly furniture design is a part of constructive design. (For more, click here.)

Henry Lionel Williams (How to Make Your Own Furniture New York: Avenel Books, 1951, pages 170-175) drives home this same theme, that furniture design necessarily contains the dual components, appearance and utility. He also laments about the impact that machine production had upon furniture design, i.e., design "suffered." :

... well-designed furniture must appear, as well as be, wholly adapted to the purpose it is to serve. Appearance is important, and second only to utility. The degree to which the two can be combined is a measure of the designer's taste and skill. But it should be remembered that any well-designed piece looks like what it is and not like something else.

Don't make a piece till you have drawn it to a fairly large scale. This will give you an idea of its final appearance, perhaps from the front and one side. Pay special attention to the joints — the potential weak spots — in deciding upon the principal dimensions. There should be no great or sudden change in sectional area, and top-heavy effects are to be avoided.

... When hand-made furniture gave way largely to machine products, design often had to be modified to permit of mass manufacture. In many instances design suffered because the little refinements and manifestations of careful hand work were lost. Many modern furniture designs have been introduced, some of them frankly experimental, but most of them intended to take full advantage of machine production while minimizing the effects of its limitations. In many instances this has resulted in a sharp breaking away from traditional design, but in some important exceptions the adaptations of the hand-made pieces have proved equally as attractive as the originals. In other cases, equivalent results have been achieved by hand-finishing the machine. products.

... In all these adaptations and combinations of materials the important thing is to avoid any suggestion of cheapness, sloppy workmanship, or crudity. The design must be good, and carried out with a high degree of skill and care. You cannot take liberties with these products of modern master-designers, any more than you can with the fine old traditional pieces, and expect happy results. Where line and proportion, color and texture are all vital components of a design, you need to give the whole piece careful study. And you need to know some-thing of design yourself before tampering with it. Therefore, if you copy any of the recognizedly acceptable pieces, old or new, copy them as exactly as you can.

Design: Obviously design in furniture cannot be considered as a mere abstraction. Artists often create designs that are of great beauty and high artistic merit: if they are not adaptable to utility, however, the basic purpose of the object is lost, or subordinated. Hence the artist-craftsman is his own best designer, for he will scrutinize and criticize his product from the essential viewpoint of service. Not only will he choose a bold or delicate design according to the characteristics of the material employed, but also he will insure that a chair is comfortable or a table is sturdy and of the proper height. The same will be true of his selection of contours or embellishments, for as a craftsman he is always aware of the basic requirements of purpose.

Source: B. W. Pelton. Furniture Making and Cabinet Work. New York: Van Nostrand, 1949. Page 3.

In 1997, the University of Chicago Press published William R. Everdell's The First Moderns: Profiles in Twentieth Century Thought. An intellectual historian, Everdell assembles much of the intellectual background that informs an applied field like woodworking, including its, spinoff, amateur woodworking. For example, on the shift in terms, from "decorative arts" to "design", he writes

In the 1870s William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement reconstituted decoration as 'decorative art'. In the 1890s, with styles like Jugendstil and Art Nouveau, and the founding of institutes like the Vienna Werkstatte (Workshops) and Kunstgewerbeschule (Handcrafter school), decorative art began to become what we now call "design."

Example: D Conway, "Decorative Art and Architecture in England", Harper's New Monthly Magazine 49, no 294 November 1874, page 777:

In passing from the consideration of works of a public and semi-public character, I cannot help from paying tribute to the most influential decorative artist whom England has produced, and whose death in April all lovers of beauty are still mourning. Mr. Owen Jones carried into decorative art that spirit of archaeological accuracy one -- one might almost say that profound scholarship — which was brought into pictorial art by Delaroche in France, Baron Wrappers in Belgium, and Maclise in England.

And finally, Matthew Denney, "Utility Furniture and the Myth of Utility, 1943-1948", in Judy Attfield, ed, Utility Reassessed: The Role of Ethics in the Practice of Design, Manchester: Manchester University Prees, 1999, pages 110-125, explores the government-sponsored (in the United Kingdom) attempts toward furniture designs for a war-torn UK recovering from WWII.

My attention to the post-war policies toward assiating British veterans returning to society after peace treaties were signed for both World War I and World War II comes from the delightful little woodworker's manual, Percy A Wells. Furniture for Small Houses: A Book of Designs for Inexpensive Furniture With New Methods of Construction and Decoration London: Batsford, 1920. Designed to address a specific need -- recovery in the aftermath in Britain from the devastation of World War I -- Wells directed Furniture for Small Houses toward engaging furniture producers in creating furniture for the "working man".

Wells gives us "a group of designs for furniture intended for the homes of working people, some of which were shown publicly as room settings in London and regional centres, and published in book form.

In design, Wells's recommends furniture with an Arts and Crafts theme, but, as Stuart Evans, the material culture historian, notes, "pared down and without the expressiveness and individuality produced by that movement". Each of its seven sections cover one type of furniture - for example 'Dressers and sideboards' - with several alternative designs for each type of furniture. Nonetheless, it becomes clear that comments by Wells in the book are addressed directly to a trade reader, when we read the following:

the revival of wooden bedsteads is not only popular, but is likely to develop into a permanent demand.

Sources : William F. Vroom, "Constructive Design in Woodwork", Manual Training Magazine Part I 1902, pages 83-92; Part II 1903; pages 25-30;
Fred D Crawshaw, Furniture Design for Schools and Shops. Peoria,IL: Manual Arts Press, 1908
B. W. Pelton. Furniture Making and Cabinet Work New York: Van Nostrand, 1949
Henry Lionel Williams How to Make Your Own Furniture New York: Avenel Books, 1951
William R. Everdell The First Moderns: Profiles in Twentieth Century Thought Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997
Matthew Denney, "Utility Furniture and the Myth of Utility, 1943-1948", in Judy Attfield, ed, Utility Reassessed: The Role of Ethics in the Practice of Design,Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999, pages 110-125
Stuart Evans, "Furniture for Small Houses", Furniture History: the Journal of the Furniture History Society 42 (2006), pages 193-205.

For a woodworking project, a mental plan, set to paper -- a chair, a table a bureau, a workbench -- in the form of a measured drawing, diagram or other similar representation. Design adds to plan an emphasis on both purpose/utility and artfulness, thereby suggesting a definite pattern. Design, primarily, is used in reference to a completed work, and indicates the degree in which artistic order, harmony, and integrity are achieved, in spite of diversity, in the parts, and where "beauty" results from unity in variety. In other words, from one perspective, aesthetics, design presents an important consideration: Is the appearance of a completed object satisfying to the eye? Read More