Good Design is Not Just Because I Can

wenge overdesigned table

Wenge, quilted Makore, Walnut, Maple, Satinwood, Bubinga, and Ebony…jeesh!

I don’t consider myself much of a designer.  I’m more a student of history.  I look at a lot of furniture and stopped buying “how to” woodworking books years ago in favor of coffee table books and museum collection books filled with images of furniture from every style.  This has developed my eye for what I like and what I don’t like.  I like lines whether straight or curved.  I like shadows that punctuate a surface and I like wood grain that echos the line.  I don’t much care for clutter and excessive ornamentation.  While I respect the technical challenges of some of the really crazy Baroque furniture, I just can’t get excited about it.  I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that when you look at the historical evolution of furniture and architecture since then.  We have “matured” to simpler designs that cast a striking silhouette or mimic a natural line.

bubina benchBut all things are cyclical and what was old is now new again.  Retro has been in vogue so often that it is hard to say when the incarnation of what is now retro actually is.  Each revival adds its own spin that posterity will mark as a separate style like an endless software release of new versions of the same application.  Such is the case for some of the new furniture I am seeing in galleries and exhibitions.  The lines seem to be the same but ornamentation is sneaking back in the form of wood grain.  It seems that our global marketplace has opened furniture makers up to the entire palette of wood and like kids in a candy shop we are consuming anything we can get our hands on.  The problem with this is I’m not seeing the restraint that defines good design.  Just because you have hundreds of wood species at your fingertips does that mean you need to incorporate all of them into your table or chair?

I think the wood can tell a great story but less is more when considering figured wood.  A highly figured board can be stunning, but when exploited to cover every inch of surface in the piece, that lovely figure becomes distracting and even tacky.  Now when the designer decides to contrast with a different species and makes that one figured as well.  It’s like wearing stripes and plaid!  You certainly don’t need an additional pop of inlay to punctuate the chaos between those conflicting figures as that just confuses a lost cause.

Bubinga overdesigned benchThe pieces seen here are just a few from a gallery that I ran across this summer and I honestly don’t even know who the maker is, but I took pictures because they reflect a growing segment of designers that seemed to have lost the ability to edit.  Just because you have access to all these wonderful and exotic colored woods doesn’t mean you have to use them all!  Believe me as someone who derives at least part of my income from the lumber industry, I want people to buy exotic woods and to utilize figured woods as well.  That’s the best way to protect them. But let’s use them sensibly and not waste them.  These figured woods are truly unique and when too much of them is used, it just dilutes the impact and even distracts. Frankly to me, it’s ugly! Let the shape and line tell the story. The bench pictured could have been really beautiful on the merit of the shape alone.

Can you imagine how much farther this highly valuable pommelle Bubinga could have been stretched if the craftsman would have edited themselves to just using it for one element?  Obviously this is all my opinion but I think history will back me up when one looks at “masterpieces” in museums and books.  Its not just figure either as I have seen many pieces where 5 and 6 different species were combined to create a patchwork piece that just falls short.  Personally I try to restrain myself to just 2 species in a piece and if I go beyond, the additional woods are used in tiny amounts like inlay.  Lately I seem to have gone back to a single species (not including unseen secondary parts) and a pop of contrast here an there with another wood.

Am I crazy here?  Is the greater availability of exotic hardwoods only making us lazy in our designs?

Your Turn

How do you edit yourself when building? Is there a time when many wood species and lots of figure can make a good statement?

19 Responses to “Good Design is Not Just Because I Can”

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  1. Nick Green says:

    I see what’s going on here. You’re just jealous because you couldn’t use all those exotics in the construction of the lathe!

  2. Jeremy says:

    I’m with you 100% on these abuses of figure.

    You make a point:
    “We have “matured” to simpler designs that cast a striking silhouette or mimic a natural line.”
    I disagree (in part.) Many spartan styles (Shaker/Scandinavian/mid century modern) are much driven by large marketing for the masses in support of production efficiency (profit margins). Figured veneers follows this trend since many consumers want the “cranked to 11″ version of anything and it’s nearly as easy to apply a burl veneer (or printout of burl) over particleboard as it is maple or melamine and the burl will make your product “stand out” (initially). With the advent of the cheap labor of CNC & 3D printing, styles will become more baroque/broke at least for a while. Time is the judge of good designs old and new, but every time also brings it’s own bias.

    • Shannon says:

      you can’t refute the marketing power of the Danish Mid Modern, but I think this paradigm shift started long before then. Look at Federal styles and Arts and Crafts. Both of these went the direction of silhouette and clean design. Obviously region plays into it as well as European Federal can be downright gaudy compared to American. While we can’t examine the design animal in a vacuum I don’t believe that marketing budget is the entire catalyst for the more minimal designs.

      • Jeremy says:

        Good points for sure. For counterpoints consider the ornate Victorian styles as castings and mechanization made such decorations available to the masses. Also G&G within Arts & Crafts when money & time were taken out of the equation. I definitely believe the best designs are clean in form lines (though I’m not anti-ornamentation), but believe “simplification” trends are often more heavily tied to price point feasibility than strictly what the designer/consumer enjoys. As gaudy becomes affordable, it will again become the trend du jour.

        • Jeremy says:

          Which I just realize is the point I think you are making… that as exotics become easily attainable, they have a higher likelihood to be abused by over usage.

  3. Chris Wong says:


    First of all, I will say that material selection is probably the most underrated, underestimated, and under-appreciated part of fine furniture making. I can spend days choosing the right grain patterns and matching colours. For the doors of Insanity 2, I chose stiles that are half dark and half light (like heart/sap wood, but not) so that the light rails blend right in.

    I, too, have seen many pieces where fancy materials seem to be used in lieu of good design. I hear the piece say, “I may not be the most elegant table, but at least I’m made with very nice (and very expensive) materials.


    • Chris Wong says:

      I want to clarify that I am not saying that I think the pieces shown in the article exhibit poor material selection and/or design (or are well-designed, for that matter). Though I do find the stretcher of the bench, which appears to be made of straight-grained wood, to be jarring and out of place, I would prefer to experience the pieces in person (or see more photos, at least) before judging them.


    • Shannon says:

      I think that is the part I didn’t really say in this article that is key. There is nothing wrong with figured woods at all, but it needs more thought than just slapping it into the design. For instance, I was in a customer’s house lately that had used highly figured wood on the stair treads. The initial glance is assaulting with so much going on, but like one of those magic eye pictures that used to be so popular, as a minute looking at it you can see the thoughtful selection that went into it and creates a pattern that invites you to climb the stairs. It was masterful and I wish I could have gotten a picture, but the homeowner is pretty private. On the converse, I was inside a very high end yacht recently where the customer specified that Zebra wood be used for all the interior cabinet veneers. There was no thought put into the lay up and it just came off gaudy. Even the maker was unhappy with it, citing that it was the customer’s decision.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I must respectfully disagree. I find bot the design and execution in those pieced to be fabulous. The figured woods are stunning! I like them.

  5. Christopher Bowen says:

    Agree with you on the overuse of species/figure. That first piece looks like a Shaker table ready for some kind of undercover op in a tropical rain forest. The craftsmanship may be top-notch, and I can certainly respect that, but these eyeballs are a little overwhelmed at these types of pieces. Lots of examples of this overuse in hobbyist web galleries.

  6. Stan P. says:

    Everybody has their own taste, but I think you make a good point, why detract from the design with a crazy quilt pattern of figured wood. Yes, there will be people who like that and who will buy it, but I suspect they are the minority. I think a well designed piece with one or two woods and maybe a little inlay is far more pleasing to the eye than a crazy quilt piece, but then again, what do I know, that only my opinion.

  7. Mike Mallory says:

    Totally with you one this one. Well put.

    I feel like this has always been out there but no one really talks about it……It’s like there’s this whole realm of ‘woodworker design’ that’s just based on technique and wood selection, not from carefully editing the form and function.

    To each his own though…..


  8. Ian says:

    Waste of of good figured wood, I’m a painter and one of the basics is that if you want something to stand out you contrast it with a plain thing . Colours can be made brighter by having more gray in their midst. Its the contrast that delights the eye and the mind.

  9. Robert Horton says:

    Perhaps the problem is context: A riot of exotic wood being displayed on humble pine floor? Let’s wait till the pieces sell and are happily ensconced in a ritzy Manhattan apartment filled with sleek chrome and polished concrete. They’ll probably look just right there.

    • Shannon says:

      That is an excellent point Robert. This is a bit like perspective too when you build a piece and design it to look good while it is up on your workbench under bright lights, then it goes down on the floor in the shadow of a living room and all that “design” gets lost. Context is really key, thanks for that.

  10. Tom Buhl says:

    Yes, context is big.
    Balance, visual flow, harmony.
    All good things, but once in a while one might wish to scream.
    But please, keep in mind, if one is always screaming
    it quickly becomes noise.

    Shannon, this is a good topic for pondering and discussing. I appreciate that you did not reduce it to “Ten Rules to Perfect Design” or “Ten common design mistakes.” As there are some folks who do not handle rules very well. With that rebellion we get a range of responses from sublime to stunning to chaos.

    Have fun with it all, but reserve the screaming for special needs.

  11. J Goody says:

    I rely on my wife to tell me if my clothes match so it makes sense that she would be better at picking wood type and finish, when it comes to aesthetics. We don’t have to be our own editor.

  12. I strongly agree with your point that good design is nothing to do with the look of furniture if it has no good contrast colors. Really appreciate your thoughts on it. Nice work, cheers

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