Mark ( on September 27th, 2008

Building on the information that I gleaned from the Graham Blackburn workshop that I attended, I wanted to go into a little more depth on the topics of design that were discussed.  Very often when woodworkers think about designing a piece of furniture they only think about things like joinery, style and the finish of the piece.  However, doing so is to consider only part of the equation.

According to Blackburn, there are three pillars of design: Function, Construction, and Proportion.  I’d like to explore these one by one, giving each it’s own post here.  So, let’s first explore the how the function of a piece relates to its design.


The function of a piece is sometimes hard to define even for what you would think is a straightforward item.  However, it’s very important to define its function completely before you design any piece of furniture.

As an example, if you were asked to define a table, how would you do it?  Is it something that you sit at in a chair?  Does it have storage for things like a desk would?  How about a stand to hold something like a plant or vase…is that a table?  How high should it be?   Round or rectilinear?  What makes a table a table and not a chair? You can sit on a table, can’t you?

A lot of these questions may seem silly.  However, at the workshop, Mr. Blackburn had us go through a brief discussion on the definition of a table in order to illustrate a point.  There was no one correct answer.  The definition of a table depends on its intended application.  Size, shape, etc. are dictated by how, why and where it is likely to be used.  Similarly, the intended use could dictate certain design decisions like how big or what shape it should be.  It’s also possible that the environment in which it will be used may also dictate some of the elements of its design.

On the subject of size, at the workshop we discussed different sizes based on standards, ergonomics and specific individuals.  Of course the ergonomics of a piece will vary by function as well as the size of the person that may use it.  Taller individuals may want a higher table due to their physical stature. Or, due to its intended function, a table might be designed to be much taller or shorter – for example to be used while standing up or for displaying something next to a chair.  Mr. Blackburn highlighted a reference text for standard sizes of all kinds of furniture and cabinetry, etc. called Architectural Graphic Standards.  He stated that any edition of the text is a valuable resource for details on standard sizes and determining efficient ergonomics.

So, defining the function of a piece of furniture is essentially just an application of common sense.  The theory is that that the form of a piece should follow the function of its intended use.  It’s important to ask and answer the necessary questions relating to the use of a piece of furniture before designing it.  Unless we are simply designing abstract art, the esthetics, style, joinery, color, finish, etc. should all be secondary considerations.   Of course, the material and joinery choices can become important based on the intended function of a piece as well.  That will be the subject of my next post on Blackburn’s second pillar of design: Construction.

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5 Responses to “Three Pillars of Design: Part 1 Function”

  1. It always amazes me when designing a piece of furniture all the questions that need to be answered and all the factors to be considered.
    In relation to your comment that ‘The theory is that that the form of a piece should follow the function of its intended use’ I thought you might like this quote by Paul Souriau, 1904: “An object reaches perfection within its genre when it fulfils its intended purpose. There can be no conflict between Beauty and Utility. An object is beautiful if its form is the full expression of its function.”

  2. Woodie,

    Thanks for stopping by the site.

    That’s a great quote that you offered from Souriau. You are right that the questions are many when it comes to designing a piece of furniture.

    I’ll be writing about the other two pillars soon. Please continue to visit and comment…I’d be interested in your thoughts!



  1. Designing Furniture - A blog to read « A Woodies Passion
  2. Three Pillars of Design: Part 2 Construction | The Craftsman's Path
  3. Three Pillars of Design: Part 3 Proportion | The Craftsman's Path

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