14 practical steps to designing furniture
1 – Inspiration from nature. The natural world is one of the most common ways I find new furniture design ideas. Everything from shadows and plants to animals and water can give me a general shape or form as a starting point. I then have to work out the details, and turn it into a piece of furniture. It doesn’t have to be an exact shape from the natural world; it can be more abstract or impressionistic. Once you start looking, you will be amazed how many organic, fascinating shapes you will find.
Au Naturale – The natural world has so many interesting and varied shapes and lines that you will never run out of inspiration. The design on this shoji screen was inspired by the general form of a bonsai tree. After making the frame, I applied the white background paper then cut and applied the four different papers that make up the image on the front of the screen.
It’s easy being green – Leaves often have simple, flowing lines, which make for great furniture. After seeing the simple form of this black cherry leaf I thought it would make a great coffee table top. Cherry leaf and berry inlay added a focal point to the table-top.
2 - Inspiration from humanity.
We see so many shapes, forms, textures, patterns, etc. on a daily basis – often we pass by them and don’t give them much thought. You can be in the supermarket, driving down the road or just going through your day-to-day life when something strikes your fancy. If it’s a shape or subject that speaks to you, then run with it. Inspiration can sometimes be in silly or weird places. I have paused a movie so I could take a photo of a building in it and I have also been inspired by the pattern made by swirling paint in a can as I stirred it up.
Everyday occurrence – After driving past this window many times, I finally noticed it. Nice proportions and lots of room for artistic freedom made me play around with the overall design when building this wall cabinet. I used hand-made paper for the door panels. Keeping your eyes open to things you see everyday will go a long way to finding new design possibilities.
Great-tasting idea – Part way through a box of chocolates one caught my eye. The graceful curves and comfortable feel inspired me to save it. Back at my shop I shaped some softwood model pulls that I could keep. Then, naturally, I ate the chocolate.
3 - What do you “take for granted” about a piece of furniture?
We take things for granted every day, and that can give us tunnel vision. Make a list of the things you take for granted about the general style of furniture you want to design. Once you have your list, go through it and consider what the piece of furniture would look like if you didn’t follow one or more of the points. What do you take for granted about the cabinet on a stand? 1-Cabinet on top of stand, 2-door(s) at the front, 3-cabinet is square or rectangular in shape, 4-two sides, one front and one back, 5-four legs, 6-drawers and/or shelves inside, 7-doors hinged to gables, 8-often simple or subtle in design, etc. After I made my list, I focused on “4 – two sides, one front and one back”, and made a hexagonal shaped cabinet.
Taking Things for Granted – After making a list of all the things I took for granted about a typical cabinet on stand, I chose one point and didn’t follow the typical route. This whisky cabinet (left) has everything most cabinet on stands would have; the only difference is that it has six sides, instead of the typical four.
4 - Use two, or a maximum of three strong elements in one piece of furniture.
Any more will likely clutter or overpower a piece of furniture. Often the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) theory is good guidance. “Elements” can be figured wood, strong curves or angles, texture, pattern, contrast, visible joinery, etc. If you cram too much into a piece the details tend to disappear and the piece of furniture becomes too busy and difficult to look at.
Too much of a good thing – By limiting a piece of furniture to two, maximum three, strong elements you ensure that the piece is not too overwhelming to look at. This legs on this chest (left) command attention, as do the rich red drawer fronts, made of chakte-kok.
5 - Give yourself time to think.
My favourite thing to do when I get stuck for ideas is to go for a walk in the woods and not pressure myself to continue the piece of furniture. By just allowing myself to relax, and not be forced to come up with an answer, I often come up with a solution. Walks may be the best thing for me to generate ideas. This might also be why I often bring nature into my designs. Another option is to work on another piece of furniture, until you’re sure of the next step. Be prepared to put something on hold until you come up with an idea you like, or you may kick yourself later for ruining a piece.
A walk in the woods – While trying to decide what to do with the top of a coffee table I decided to go for a walk in the woods. Once it started to rain, I noticed small water rings in the river. I immediately thought of the tables’ surface. I would never have had this idea if I didn’t head for the woods.
6 - Incorporate different materials into your furniture.
Rock, copper, hand-made Japanese paper, tile, stainless steel, glass, etc. are all great options. Depending on the material you can add colour, sheen, texture, pattern, functionality or durability as each material has its strengths and weaknesses. Often if you can’t do the work yourself, there is someone that can. Don’t think of working with someone else as a failure; think of it as a collaboration and a learning process.
More than just wood – Other materials bring wonderful strengths to a piece of furniture. Copper, on the face of this music stand (left), adds warmth and colour and can be textured with the right tools. Hand-made Japanese paper comes in many colours, weights and textures. When placed in front of a light, like this lantern, its natural fibres are easily visible.
7 - Use models to work out an idea.
Don’t make mistakes with your expensive exotic wood … do that with the cheap stuff: 2x4s, Masonite, Styrofoam, construction paper, etc. Use anything that is cheap, strong enough and easy to work with. You can also use different spray paints to mimic the colour of solid wood, allowing you a more realistic view of the finished piece. Models can be full sized or to scale.
Time well spent – This lantern model saved me a lot of grief and wasted time. As soon as I made it, I realized it looked more like a weird waste bin than a classy lantern. I removed the taper on the sides and was happy with the final result.
Big or small – Sometimes it’s much easier and faster to make to-scale models of a piece before you start building it. Details are easy to make and the piece can be visualized quite clearly. I changed this table’s base substantially before deciding on the final details.
8 - Add some asymmetry to your work.
Symmetry is quite common in our lives, so breaking from the norm can add intrigue to a piece of furniture. It’s a good idea to not ignore balance, as I think you can go too far, and create something that is more of an eye sore than a work or art.
Symmetry … sometimes – Asymmetry adds visual interest to a piece of furniture, and gives you lots of options when designing furniture.
9 - Add curves or angles to your work.
Curves don’t have to be difficult to cut – often the bandsaw and some basic handtools will get the job done. Bent laminations, steam bending and hot-pipe bending are some other techniques you can use to add curves to a piece of furniture. Curves and angles add energy and elegance to a piece of furniture, and they both go a long way to set your work apart from a store bought piece of furniture.
A slight twist – Curves and angles add energy to a piece of furniture, as well as separate a piece of custom furniture from their store-bought counterparts.
10 - Feel free to experiment.
Using new techniques, machinery or approaches to building furniture may help round out your skills and improve the pieces that you make. When I purchased a vacuum press, I expanded what I was capable of quite considerably. I could now add figured and exotic veneers to my projects as well as make curved panels with relative ease. Maybe you’ve always wanted to chip carve, turn, or make your own hardware. Try it out and you may be surprised how much you learn and how your furniture improves because of it. Your project may take longer to complete as you learn the new techniques, machines, etc. but it will likely turn out better in the long run. You will also have fun doing it.
Expand your horizons – By experimenting with different techniques and machinery you will likely enjoy the process more. You will also have more freedom when designing a piece of furniture. When I bought a pyrography pen, I was able to add some designs – Native American petroglyphs, in this case – to some of my work.
11 - Look at other furniture.
Sometimes a good starting point for overall sizes and critical dimensions is other pieces of furniture. There are many traditional styles of furniture available for viewing in books and museums. Different regions of the world have different furniture styles to inspire you. There are also many contemporary pieces available for inspiration. When looking at contemporary furniture, it’s very important not to “steal” designs, but to just be inspired by an aspect of the piece of style. Maybe it’s a combination of wood species, or how someone has performed a specific technique that interests you. Don’t follow 100 percent in their footsteps though.
Look to the East – Different countries and geographical regions offer a wide array of furniture designs. You may want to do some research on the different styles available, and be inspired by some of their work. This step tansu was used for storage in small homes, and was also used to access the upper level of Japanese homes.
Look to the West – If reproductions are your style then you have lots to look at. This empire style table by Ontario maker Jacques Mathurin is one of many pieces that you can look to for inspiration. There are many books on specific styles if you have your sights on something specific. (Photo by Jacques Mathurin)
12 - Don’t rely heavily on exotic/figured woods.
Sometimes people think that as long as they use enough heavily figured wood they will be left with a gorgeous piece of furniture. That’s not the case. My general rule is that a piece of furniture should still look nice if you were to remove all the figured wood and replace it with very simple, plain wood. Use exotic and figured woods to accentuate a piece of furniture, but don’t rely on them to disguise poor design.
Too much of a good thing – Exotics and figured wood will not disguise poor design. They should be used carefully, as too much figure competes with the overall design of the piece. The pomele sapele tops on this set of nesting tables are the focal point. To not draw attention from the tops the straight-grained white ash base has been ebonized.
13 - Use non-standard dimensions when appropriate.
Material thickness, overhangs, widths, etc. should sometimes vary from the standard, in order to create different looking pieces of furniture. Having said that, there are certain dimensions that generally should be adhered to: seat heights, dining table heights, counter heights, etc.
14 - Use a sketchbook to explore ideas.
Use it to work out different designs and shapes, and don’t get frustrated if the vast majority of your ideas don’t look good at first, or ever. After sketching out many different design options you will start to get an idea of what looks good and what doesn’t. And sometimes when you’re stuck for ideas, you can look back at some of your old sketches. Most people don’t enjoy sketching and are not great at it, but if you practice you will improve.