Mark (TheCraftsmansPath.com) on June 10th, 2008

I was reading a recent post at Chuck Bender’s new blog about the differences that make one piece of furniture good and another one great. Two quotes in Chuck’s excellent post were particularly interesting to me:

“…there is nothing new under the sun…” and “…if a piece is meticulously crafted but is lacking in design, and detail, it will still be something less than a masterpiece.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the concept that in the design of furniture (and most other things, for that matter), much of what is done today is built on the shoulders of what has already come before. Most proportions and design elements of furniture are based on architectural elements of ancient times. Methods of joinery developed and perfected long ago are used to execute these designs and as a result, the designs themselves are somewhat influenced by these chosen methods of implementation.

This is not to say that there are not new takes on old ideas…some recent masters like Maloof and Krenov (whether you like their styles or not) are evidence that refinements on the ideas of past can lead to very different and new implementations. The results are modern masterpieces, in and of themselves. It’s interesting to contemplate just why the designs of these pieces, new or old, are desirable while others may not be.

I tend to believe that what make certain designs great are the basic elements and proportions on which they are built. Whether it is a modern piece, an antique, or a reproduction, certain elements and proportions are always there in a well-designed piece. I also contend that in design: “Simple is Elegant”. The most basic proportions and details can yield designs that are stunningly beautiful and extremely functional. Yet, an over-embellished piece may appear gaudy or contrived. All of the elements of the design need to work together in harmony in order for the suite of elements to sing.

Ellis_Dresser.JPGShaker_Rocker.jpgThe works of Stickley and Harvey Ellis or the Shakers are probably some of the best examples of an understated elegance (the first picture is a reproduction of an Ellis dresser design that I built, the second picture is a beautiful Shaker Rocker by Kerry Pierce). Have you ever seen a Shaker piece that did not have a simple balance and beauty to its design? I have not. Although often simple in design, Arts & Crafts pieces from the past usually have pleasing proportions and functional details that make them stand out. Likewise, a design that lets the beauty of the material itself speak is often much more appealing than one in which the embellishments overwhelm the material (and the design for that matter).

Again, building on what Chuck discussed: it’s not the details of how something was built but rather all of the elements taken as a whole that, in my mind, determine the merit of a design. Perfectly executed dovetails on a box with dubious proportions do not satisfy the requirements of good design – better to have a box with appealing proportions and simple rebates to join it at the corners. Taking this a step further, what if the box has good proportions, but the dovetails do not? My point here is that the concepts of detail, proportion and design can be examined iteratively from a more and more focused perspective.

At some point you probably do have to consider the craftsmanship with which a piece is built. However, I always remind myself that exquisite craftsmanship will not make up for poor design. Similarly, good design will not reach its full potential with substandard craftsmanship. I like to look at this as a kind of harmony between the object and its maker – much like the harmony between the design elements of the object. In my view, simple is elegant here as well. The methods by which a piece is constructed and/or finished should be simple and functional. Going beyond this certainly has the potential to compete with and/or overwhelm the elements of the overall design.

It will be interesting to follow Chuck’s blog on this and to also take this discussion further here. I’d be interested in your thoughts on design and what makes certain pieces great and others not so. Please leave me a comment here using the comments link that the end of the post or send me an e-mail at thecraftsmanspath@gmail.com.

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3 Responses to “In design, simple is elegant”

  1. Mark,
    Excellent take on this subject. If more bloggers expounded on the subject like this, my meager attempt would be instantly relegated to obscurity. The concept of “simple is elegant” is one that many people hold true. This deals primarily with design however, which is only part of connoisseurship (the subject of my blog series). The choice between simple and ornate is really a stylistic choice.

    Your Ellis chest is an excellent example of the concept of “less is more”. Excellent wood selection, top quality craftsmanship and great proportions make this a stellar piece with little added adornment. This does not, however, preclude pieces with lots of embellishment from reaching the same classification of “masterpiece”. In every “period”, and region, there is a bit of pop-culture that influences the general trend in adornment.

    When you say “I tend to believe that what make certain designs great are the basic elements and proportions on which they are built. Whether it is a modern piece, an antique, or a reproduction, certain elements and proportions are always there in a well-designed piece.” you have truly hit the nail on the head. You’ve leaped from the discussion being directly solely by design to an expanded discussion which includes a variety of elements. The “certain elements” to which you refer can include certain design features but most likely will also include certain construction details as well as aesthetic elements that make up the greater whole of the piece. It is precisely those details that take a piece, regardless of style or adornment, to the level of “masterpiece”.

    I hope you continue your discussion of this subject here on your blog and I hope to have you join in on mine. One of the things we can all take away from these discussions is that the longer the discussion continues, and the more people participate in it, the broader our knowledge will become on the subject. Hopefully, all of us will be able to take advantage of this knowledge and improve our own work.

    Great post! Keep up the good work.

  2. Hey Chuck,

    Thanks for your insightful comments!

    I would agree that I was focusing a bit more on the design aspects of a piece and that is only part of the equation of what makes something rise to the level of master work.

    I also concur that there are stylistic choices for the amount of adornment given to a piece. Embellishments and adornments certainly have their place and used judiciously they can set one piece apart from another. However, one point I wanted to reinforce is that the adornments do not automatically make the piece a masterpiece.

    As discussed there seem to be certain attributes or aspects that well-designed pieces seem to share. The same is probably true for their adornments, etc. I think that this concept is worth exploring more in future posts.

    –Mark

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