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Making is Not Designing


‘Tis the season,” well, no, not that one, but one that has many similarities. There is a destination and some travel involved, like a trip to Atlanta to the International Woodworking & Machinery Fair, new shiny objects large and small to see; a chance to meet old friends and acquaintances, and some woodwork “goodies” to look at.

The “goodies” are the pieces you will see in the IWF Design Emphasis student furniture competition.” If this is your first visit to the IWF, do make a point of seeing the work. If you have seen it in the past, as I have many times, you likely will be aware of the gradual improvement of the work and its presentation over the years. For perspective, I’m going to recount my own experience of coming to the U.S. in the 70s and watching it happen.

In 1973-74, I had a sabbatical year from my college in London and came to teach drawing and design at Cal State Los Angeles. At some point during that year in L.A., I was invited to teach the first semester of 1975 at the School for American Craftsman at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Best I can recall it was in early March that this well put together man walked into my office wanting to talk about a magazine he was thinking of launching. He had a dummy copy which included a completed article. His question amounted to, “was this a viable idea?” Even though my relevant experience was a year on the West Coast and a few weeks in these workshops, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

The first issue of Fine Woodworking was published in 1975. I emigrated to the U.S. from England in November 1976 to open my own school of furniture design and furniture making. The first article I wrote for Fine Woodworking was in the Fall issue of 1978.

Since that beginning, over 40 years ago, more woodworking magazines have come along. In the same time some have come and gone. The effect they have had on the practice of small shop woodworking and furniture making is profound. Generally speaking, their content was of a similar nature. They all included articles on materials, machines and woodworking techniques. As well, the content of every issue of every magazine included two or more articles on a project, sometimes emphasizing a particular skill, from simple to complex. The effect of all this began to show itself in different ways.

Woodworking clubs incorporated a show and tell segment into their meetings. Large guilds organized weekends where vendors would sell their wares, notables gave demonstrations and seminars, and members showed off their work with bragging rights for some sort of small prize or not. There were more adventurous weekend trade shows where makers rented booth space and brought their work for sale. And the student work at the IWF and later on at the AWFS Fair showed the same improvement in workmanship, which had its roots in a learning process we refer to as how to.

How-to learning can be summed up in this way; you are presented with a working drawing backed up with a cut list, detailed drawings, graphics and a step-by-step explanation to get you to the finished product. The point I want to make here is that the working drawing didn’t just appear out of nowhere. We have no insight into the process that leads to the creation of the working drawing or who gets the credit for the design work. What we do see is that the working drawing has its foot firmly in two camps. It comes at the end of the design process and it is the beginning of the making process. While magazines have done an excellent job of describing the making process, they have done nothing to explain or describe the design process. No surprise because while design and make are linked, they employ completely different processes. In the briefest terms, I will explain both.

The design process is cerebral; it’s all in the mind. It first defines the problem and then explores solutions expressing them as drawings, develops ideas then chooses a solution. The details are finalized, and the solution is expressed as a working drawing.

The making process requires an understanding of a working drawing. Then, using working methods and techniques, employs them with skill to complete the object as described by the working drawing.

Define and solve

I’m going to assume that the furniture making process is well understood by readers of this column, but I’m going to describe further the design process. The first thing the process requires is that you define the problem. You define it by writing it down. This may seem a bit superfluous, especially if the work is for yourself, but it’s not. Writing out the problem clears and focuses the mind. It may seem easy until you try it. If the work is for a client, then it’s a must. You ask the client everything and anything you can think of until you have a clear understanding of the problem because there can be no misunderstandings. This ensures that you won’t waste time and effort going down the wrong path. A design/building proposal often contains the “scope of work” that encapsulates the bones of the design problem.

Once the problem has been defined, solutions are developed and explored by sketches. I have a habit of calling these sketched ideas drawings. Whatever you want to call them they are the only way furniture design thoughts and ideas can be recorded. They are laid down in seconds with no apparent effort. It’s as if you were thinking at the end of a pencil. Once an idea has been illustrated it is a springboard from which further thoughts and ideas are generated and drawn. The process is a one-person dialogue which throws up further ideas, good and not so good. The process continues consciously and unconsciously until a solution is arrived at. The design dialogue is not always a lonesome act. It is often undertaken with colleagues and sometimes with clients. Design discussions are moved forward or solidified by the use of sketches or drawings made as the conversation unfolds. Once the solution to the problem is determined, details are resolved, and a working drawing is made.

The working drawing is laid out to scale as an orthographic projection which consists of a front and end elevation, and a plan along with sections and sectional details as necessary. These drawings are marked up with dimensions. In a block of writing called the legend, things that cannot be drawn are described in words, such as material, hardware and finish specifications.

The working drawing should be complete so that if it is given to three different shops or workers to make, you should get back three identical pieces. If the drawing is made for work that will be paid for by a client, it should be a complete drawing for two reasons, both assuming that the client has seen the drawing and agreed to it before the work begins. If the client decides to change the design after the work has a begun, a change order is made, and the maker is entitled to adjust the quoted price. But if the completed work doesn’t represent the working drawing, the client can make claim against the maker. So, the working drawing becomes a document of consequence.

A consequence of the learn-to-make process has been to draw a sharp dividing line between designing and making.

Throughout the U.S. there are schools large and small teaching the skills of furniture making. The culmination of this study is to make a piece or pieces of furniture. Doubtless time and thought go into this testimony piece but the goal is largely the making skill exhibited by a piece of workmanship.

In a school of design – whether it be industrial, architectural or furniture design – students are directed at problem solving. Written problems are presented describing fully the situation, the site and the problem. The outcome is a presentation of the solution in the form of visuals showing the designers development of ideas along with discarded ideas towards the final solutions. The final visuals and working drawings complete the project. Making a mockup or finished model of the design will depend on the situation.

Fixing the competition

Full disclosure on two points: In 1992 I entered four students into the IWF competition. One of them won the Best in Show prize given to the outstanding furniture piece entered. The second point is that I attended the 2019 AWFS Fair expressly to look at the Freshwood student design competition. For all intents and purposes my comments, which follow, about the IWF Design Emphasis applies equally to the AWFS Freshwood competition.

Here are the entry instructions for the Seating Category of the Design Emphasis competition: “To include upholstered and non-upholstered seating. Structural components should be made primarily of wood or wood-based materials; style function, comfort and stability must be addressed.”

The first reaction of a student entering this competition might be the anomaly of these words relative to a seating problem. The second may be that the words do not speak to design in any way. And finally, he or she would conclude that anything that can be sat on is fair game.

A section in the Judging Criteria explains that I have to make a chair and it’s the making that will be judged. It’s “raison d’etre” is of no consequence. In the end, my chair is going to be judged in a competition against other chairs which have nothing in common, except that they can be sat on.

Objective adjudication is out the window.

By definition, a competition must have the competitors on the same page. In a design competition, the same page means a set design problem to which each entrant will offer a solution. This is the case whether the problem is a building or a sailboat. A furniture design competition is no different. A situation is described where a piece of furniture is needed. The description has to be full and complete since if the prospective entrant has a question not answered by the brief, there is nowhere to go for an answer.

The design brief is a description in words which can be backed up with photographs and/or layout drawings. Anything which will make the design problems come to life for the entrant. That said, most student furniture design problems are not real life situations. It’s the job of the design teacher or the organization setting up the design competition to invent them. The layout and the graphics of how the design problem is presented is a yardstick, by which the presenter of the problem will be judged. Designers tend to display the “written up” problem in their work area. Having the proposition right there has an absorbent effect and what’s needed will sink into the designer’s mind while contemplating the potential solution. At the back end of the competition comes the judging. The judges have a responsibility to judge the entries against the problems as proposed and their decision of who wins what should be accompanied by a clear statement of why the winner is the winner. Once made public, the competition viewer will be judging the judges.

Try it this way

Here is my proposed design problem for the Seating Category:

Scratch is a small successful bakery in the shopping district. The customer enters to an area with tables and chairs on the left and the display cases and counters filled with breads and pastries ahead of you. The overhead lighting along with the large glass front window give plenty of light and a view to the outside. The floor is a light colored vinyl planking. There are seven tables and 26 chairs in the seating area. The tables are clean, sturdy and stable and were from a used equipment supply house. The 24” x 24” laminated maple tops are inch and a half thick. They are supported by a steel center column with a cross foot. Their weight tends to keep them in one place. The chairs not so. They are a hodge podge of diverse origins. The owner would like to replace them. You are invited to offer designs and a working sample.

Unlike the tables the chairs are often moved from table to table as customers assemble in groups. There is no order to this grouping at any table at any time. Might be one, might be five. The average stay of customers has been determined to be less than 20 minutes. Breakfast coffee and pastry or lunchtime sandwiches and coffee or cold drinks are served but diners clear their own waste which is all recyclable material. The ambiance and atmosphere in Scratch is very pleasant. The baking operation behind the counters is visible. The walls in the seating area are colored a soft green.

You are required to offer your solution on three 22” x 28” illustration boards.

  • One showing drawings of the different solutions you considered or developed
  • One having the drawings of your solution of choice showing detail variations whether technical, aesthetic of both
  • One having a working drawing of your chosen solution
  • Any other visual or mock-up work you consider relevant may be included
  • A completed sample chair

In the judging, points awarded for workmanship in the sample chair will be no more than 20 percent of the total.

On a personal note

Simple arithmetic will tell you that I have now lived in the United States for 44 years. If I were to make a list of the various things I have undertaken, writing, lecturing and so on, designing for small shops and some not so small would appear on the list.

My takeaway from these experiences is how receptive both the lead and bench workers were to the design chatter. Some of the chatter was in broad brush strokes, some was deep in the weeds. There was meaningful to and fro, heavy give and take and ideas that came fast once a stone was turned over. Time after time the thought crossed my mind... “If I could get you in a design teaching situation for a while, you wouldn’t need me ... you’d be off to the races.”

There is no doubt making woodwork has come to a good place in the U.S. as far as quality is concerned. It would be great if a design spigot could be turned on now as a making spigot was turned on 40 years ago. Unfortunately there isn’t a simple solution to design understanding as there was for “how to” making.

A good start would be to give the ubiquitous nature of the word design real meaning. The IWF Design Emphasis is billed as a student furniture design competition. Along with other furniture shows where cash prizes are given, for whatever reason, it would more accurately be described as a well-organized show and tell competition.

The greatest service the IWF could do in the name of furniture design is to continue its student design competition but offer it in a way that the design problem and the design process are preeminently on display so that the awards both show and make reference to that display of acuity.

Finally, a clear purpose of the presentation of Design Emphasis should be visitor centric, displayed in such a way as to inform the viewer of the problem as the student designer received it, what altogether took place in the designer’s mind between problem and solution, what the competition required to solve the problem, who won the competition and why. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.

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