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An Esoteric Lesson in Furniture Design: Pt. 1

Posted on December 7th, by Andy Brownell in Design, Projects. 2 comments

I’ve gone out of my way to really try to push myself in design and technical execution over the last few years. Doing so has taught me that having curiosity to try new things and a willingness to fail are two critical elements for moving forward my passion for woodworking. This is as true for visual design as it is for learning new woodworking skills. Like anyone with a hobby like this, I only have a limited amount of free time to spend on woodworking’s many facets (design, tools, technique, writing, and everyone’s favorite $$) so the choices I make on how and where I focus my time has to be deliberate and impactful.

Brownell Furniture Renwick Stool

Renwick stool variation made in Sapele, finished with General Finishes Java Brown Gel Stain.

The Design Inspiration

This is the case for my most recently completed project, a bathroom stool with a carved seat. The project was a commissioned piece and had a few customer-driven requests:

  1. Match the color and material of the client’s current bedroom furniture (built by Jeff Miller) and bathroom cabinetry: I used a Java Brown stain by General Finishes on Sapele wood.
  2. Carry a modern, 20th century studio furniture design aesthetic
  3. Be comfortable and sit at 16″ high
The Renwick Stool by David Ebner in Purple Heart

The Renwick Stool by David Ebner in Purple Heart

I shared a project inspiration board on Pinterest with my customer appropriately named “Stool Samples”, and used that as a general guide for design and structure. After discussing a few elements of design the customer liked, solid construction, heavy joinery and carved wood seats, I landed on attempting a variation of the Renwick Stool by 20th century artist and craftsman David N. Ebner. Asian-influenced, carved and solid joinery, Ebner’s pieces look at furniture as functional art. This is evident by his influence and instruction by artist Wendell Castle, whose stacked lamination wood creations push the limits of furniture as a functional art. And, from what I’ve been told through reliable sources, unlike Bruce Wayne, Mr. Castle has been known to show up to public events wearing a heavy wool cape. More on Castle in my next post “Design Along A New Dimension: Pt. 2“.

This project was the first time I’ve ever carved a wooden seat bottom. Despite its density, wood can be shaped to achieve exceptional comfort. Two friends and fellow woodworkers, Ian Grunder and Jeff Miller take wood to a whole new level of comfort.

Maloof-style desk chair by Ian Grunder

Maloof-style desk chair by Ian Grunder

Ian’s furniture style is classic Sam Maloof, proven comfortable based on the enduring popularity of Maloof’s style.

Bent Lamination Walnut Rocker by Jeff Miller

Bent Lamination Walnut Rocker by Jeff Miller

Jeff’s work blends design, comfort and technical execution, and looking at his work tends to make the most skilled woodworkers scratch their head in amazement. Jeff always pushes himself to tackle challenges he doesn’t necessarily have a complete solution for at the onset of his designs. This is a piece of advice he also imparts to his students around design, always push yourself if you expect to progress. Evident from the rocking chair shown above, one doesn’t simply sit in a chair built by Jeff, rather you “melt” into its contours and forget you are on something relatively dense.

The Build & Tools

I selected a single 17″ wide board of 6/4 ribbon stripe sapele, and then purchased an ArborTech Turbo plane cutter head that is made to fit most 4.5″ angle grinders. This is used to help speed up the process of carving the wood to achieve the comfortable convex cup of the set bottom. To hold things together, I decided to use heavy, hand-cut dovetails, rather than the finger joints of Ebner’s design. I also increased the severity of some of the curves and lines between the sides and seat bottom, using a French curve as a guide. Gorilla Polyurethane glue and their 2 part epoxy mixed with some Sapele dust helped hide a few minor flaws and a bit of tear-out in my handwork. Here’s a video link on that particular process if you are interested.

Niangon fruit bowl.

Niangon fruit bowl.

The learning curve for the Arbortech TurboPlane is fairly quick. This is very consistent with what they claim on their web site as well as a video posted by Marc Spagnulo “The Wood Whisperer”. The price of ~$165. sounds steep at first, but is the same as a couple of hand tools designed to accomplish the same thing. I practiced first on a small shallow carved bowl from a scrap piece of niangon, and then plunged headfirst into the seat bottom for the stool.

The Esoteric Lesson

Borrowing from another area of personal curiosity, I was struck by how this experience can be equated to a principle of evolutionary biology known as Punctuated Equilibrium. The principle in its simplest form, states that significant evolutionary change in a species take place quickly over what are mostly long periods of stability.

Connecting the dots back to how I spend my time in woodworking, I work over longer periods of time on one particular facet such as a complicated build (the stability). I’m then pushed to change and adapt (the punctuation) because of a need to design something that’s outside of my wheelhouse such as learning to use a particular tool that helps in the execution of a new design. This project as well as another current project have allowed me to try something I was unfamiliar with—carving through the process of removing wood—adding a new dimension to my woodworking and designs. Esoteric for sure, but lesson learned.

Part 2 of this series will cover the design and building process for a new coffee table that is a Wendell Castle-inspired stacked lamination piece. Plenty of carving and organic curves to follow.

Note: Independent of my mention of their products, (Arbortech, General Finishes and Gorilla Glue) I received no compensation for this post.

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