Canadian Woodworking

Referent-based design

Author: Ken Guenter
Photos: Ken Guenter
Published: April May 2019
Referent based design
Referent based design

How is it that we learn to create? Is it possible to learn creativity? Is there a skill set from which aspiring artists and designers can extract the tools needed to realize their vision?

Let’s discuss these questions, and my approach for teaching and learning the creative process as it relates to design in my Fine Furniture class at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C.

The information that’s available to us for the purpose of design is seemingly endless. Everything that we experience with our senses can be put to the service of creativity. While this may be so, without some sort of focus it is easy to become over stimulated, and the information becomes a confusion of images, sounds, and experiences. The sensory overload that we are exposed to every day can be overwhelming if we do not develop strategies to cope with the mass of input and sort the useful information to serve our purposes. To many who pursue a creative path this skill may seem intuitive, as they seem to be able to absorb and digest the information pertinent to their goal, while filtering out other distractions. Others can be intentionally taught the creativity of design.

Tall grasses, seen pretty much everyday in the warmer months, are something many of us walk past without even noticing. Their flowing lines are a great starting point for design discussion.

Bringing Nature to Life
Guenter designed this garden gate after studying the form of some tall grass.

After seeing this old copper tub (above) Guenter went on to design and build a piece with similar lines and colour (below).

One of Guenter's students, Colin Benoit, designed this table, while Brad Olthof, Frances Bryant-Scott and Donna Ashmore built it. It's pretty obvious what inspired the student during the design process.

Starting Point
In order to be a part of an exhibition, Guenter needed to create a contemporary interpretation of a piece in the Maltwood collection. He chose a late Italian Renaissance style box-form chair, circa 1560.

Interesting Detail
Guenter was intrigued by the fringe of the chair, and in his research he learned a lot about the design and construction of pieces from this period.

Sketch the General Form
In the process of designing his chair for the exhibition, Guenter took some aspects of the original chair, and added some curves to the overall form.

Mock It Up
To further refine the design a model was created. Here, proportion and shape could be adjusted until Guenter was confident with the piece.

Finished Piece
The fluted detail on the front and side aprons was heavily inspired by the fringe of the original piece. You'll notice many similarities, as well as many differences, between the original chair and this contemporary version.

Where do ideas come from?

Design concepts require the generation of ideas that usually come from our own experiences. Everything that our senses detect becomes part of our personal inventory. As our lives become full of responsibilities, the “cotton wool of daily life” takes over, giving us a uniformity of perception. Unless something is extraordinary it goes unnoticed. This makes it hard to grasp life’s aesthetic details.

I teach design and technical skills in a fine furniture-making program at a community college. The ten-month program attracts adult students with diverse backgrounds and a wide range of interests and expectations. I have developed a model to teach design that will not alienate those with little arts training, but at the same time will engage students who have spent years in the arts. The technique used allows students of various ages to access and retrieve their own personal inventory of mental and visual stimuli.

This model uses familiar referent-based stimuli that are easily accessed by students, designers and teachers alike. The model is centered on referent-based strategies to define and apply the formal properties of a design. The key to this model is the categorization of potential referents in order to focus the attention of the designer during the creative process. The four categories of referents are: natural, historical, cultural and manufactured.

It has been my experience that when people begin the design process they do not have a plan to see them through to completion. The referent model is anchored on the practical side by a strong emphasis on studio practice, including the tension between form and function. Design instruction includes the design’s impact on the environment, and client/designer relationships are considered when the product is undertaken. While the approach to each one of the referent categories may seem similar, each carries its own set of challenges.

The four referent categories

The referent categories sometimes overlap. The natural referent is the most unambiguous of the four. When a constituent from the natural world is used as impetus for a design, its representation is most often recognizable. A tree is a natural form, at times nurtured and manipulated by human hands, but for the most part it is a product of nature. Its form and structure is unlikely to be confused with objects from the manufactured realm. There may be a cultural and/or historical association with a referent chosen from the natural world, but as a design referent there is less crossover into the other categories.

The employ of any given referent will be largely determined by the need for the idea or problem. Most referents will have a number of ways they can be interpreted, lending depth to the presentation of the final product. I have my students work through a variety of projects that require them to complete an assigned object using an assigned referent. Students use the natural referent to create a serving tray, a historical reference to create a bookend – eventually working their way through all of the various options and exercises the model affords.

The remainder of this article explores the use of one of the referents in design: historical, and provides an example from my own practice for an exhibition held by the University of Victoria. The other referents can all play out in a similar manner as you’ll see below, but each and every time the details are a bit different depending on the referent selected.

Case study: Historical referents

The histories that make up our communities are rich with imagery that can be harvested in the service of the creative process. The Greek and Roman architectural orders are perhaps the most familiar historical referents in western culture. We see examples of this in the buildings and furniture around us to such an extent that we take them for granted. The furniture of the Renaissance was a re-birth of the classical style in human scale. The scale that was to become the hallmark of Renaissance architecture was recreated in many of the cabinets and applied intarsia made by artisans in Florence and Udine.

London’s neo-classical designer Thomas Hope discovered the classical proportions while on his Grand Tour of southern Europe in the eighteenth century, armed with pencil, brush, and sketchbook. Being a member of a family of considerable wealth, his tour was one of comfort and luxury. This is reflected in his interpretation of the classical cultures of Italy and Greece. Because of his observations he became an influential figure in the creation of England’s Regency furniture style.

In Austria, the neo-classical style of Biedermeier, and in France, the style of Napoleon, drew upon Rome, the emperors and their gods. The many classical revivals of the Victorian era, the sumptuous Art Deco period and the audacious decoration of postmodern design are all testament to the 3,000-year hold that classical antiquity has on us. Artisans, artists and architects all embraced the rediscovery of the ancient knowledge of Greece and Rome.

How the historic referent affects the end product depends on a number of variables. Firstly, there will be a cultural bias when studying a historic period. Political and cultural histories are written and interpreted by many people with different agendas. Information, both visual and written, has been handed down through the generations, and the events of the day will colour the interpretation.

Times have changed

Secondly, the physical tools we use for our research will also influence the way we understand and re-interpret the information we receive. This is true for all four referent groups to a greater or lesser extent. However, for the historical referent, the research process becomes especially important.

As the tools of documentation began to include the camera, photography became not only a tool for documentation but a medium for the creation of art. New technology provides for a new look at ancient antiquity. Today it is possible to view new worlds, both contemporary and ancient, in the comfort of our own homes. Those who have never directly experienced the marvels of the world (a privilege previously reserved for the wealthy and adventurous) can now see them as if they were actually there. From photographs and the Internet come new interpretations of history and representations of the forms of classical antiquity.

Real and virtual images are available to us in unprecedented quantity. We have a plethora of publications providing interpretations of other periods and cultures in varied forms and with different agendas. I try to help my students understand how to access referents that will contribute to their success as designers.

One approach to the use of historical referents is the use of an existing historical artifact as inspiration for a contemporary project. In 2003, I co-curated and participated in an exhibition entitled, “They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To”. Participants were asked to select an item of furniture from the University of Victoria’s Maltwood collection (which dates from 1480–1970) as inspiration for their piece in the exhibition.

The curators of the exhibition presented the problem: create a contemporary interpretation of a piece in the Maltwood collection. My choice was a late Italian Renaissance style box-form chair (sedia) circa 1560. It was upholstered and featured fringes, with a small amount of carving and gold leaf on a walnut frame.  As part of my research process, a few ideas were recorded in my sketchbook from my initial viewing, and information contained on the museum’s accession label was documented. Details were recorded with a digital camera.

Putting the theory into practice

One of the first steps after choosing a referent is to research the context within which the referent was created; seeking important information that could be useful to the design process. Types of material, joinery technique and upholstery styles provide information that can be used in service of an updated version, or as a springboard to a new direction. The object’s context will often explain social and political norms that have had an impact on the aesthetic of the referenced period. I make reference in this context to the dichotomy of art and craft that is generally attributed to art historian Vasari.

My approach to the contemporary interpretation of the Maltwood’s Italian Renaissance sedia was to sketch the chair’s general line and shape, but rather than using the straight lines that defined the historical period of the referent, I chose to employ curved lines. The curves began to appear in my earliest sketches.

I was intrigued with the upholstery (especially the fringes) that bordered the bottom of the seat and back cushions. This detail was photographed and sketched to see how it could be incorporated into the design.

As I was looking at examples of Renaissance architecture it seemed to me that the fluting detail used on so much of the architecture could be incorporated in the chair and used as a replacement for the fringe on the original’s upholstery.

The curved lines and revised seating configuration that I used for the contemporary chair suited the uniform colour of the walnut used in the historical referent. This also references the wood that was used extensively in Italy during the late Renaissance.

The most important historical discoveries in design come about through research.  The end product will be influenced in some form by personal experience and will depend on the direction and depth of your research. The more varied and democratic the approach to research, the more in depth the artist/designer’s results will be. The historical referent provides a strong springboard for combining research and creativity in design.

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