Sixth post in a series describing the design and construction of a furniture piece based on the influence of a Japanese kitchen storage cabinet, or mizuya. A bit of a ramble today, so don’t say you weren’t forewarned….
I realize that most articles one reads on furniture builds or designs tend to focus on the build, with the design already largely resolved, or focuses on design as an issue in and of itself. Here, I’m trying to share my process of design, which begins with an inspiration, an influence, and then proceeds from there – hardly in a linear fashion though! There are steps forward, steps back, times I’m becalmed on the design ocean not sure where to go next or even how to get there. Sometimes the inspiration evaporates, sometimes it overwhelms like a storm rushing in and I can’t sleep for all the ideas bouncing around. Sometimes it’s all ‘there’ in a flash, other times I have to fight for every step forward.
Cabinets are difficult pieces to design as there is so much going on and they are among the most complex furniture pieces to tackle. Obviously, there are functional requirements, in this case storage for plates, bowls, silverware, cups, etc.. Unlike a display cabinet, which might be build especially for a particular collection of china, in this case the storage solution needs be be somewhat flexible to allow for future additions and changes to the dining ware set. I’ll add that I’m pretty good at accidentally breaking bowls, cups, and glasses, so I anticipate a pattern of attrition and periodic restocking, not always with the same stuff. My long-suffering wife has moved from being quite annoyed with my clumsiness, to some modicum of accommodation – even finding it humorous a lot of the time. We all have our talents, and mine involves finding creative ways to drop pieces of china.
Through the first few posts of this thread I’ve been looking at the decisions and directions taken regarding the framing system for this cabinet. That process is by no means complete. Even after the drawings are, for all intents and purposes, ‘complete’, I think it is likely that further revisions, re-considerations, and even outright reversals will occur during the course of the build. Even if it is carved in wood, it still is not carved in stone, if you might allow me to play with a metaphor for a moment.
So far, I have been moving forward with the idea of making a frame and panel cabinet, the frame being cocobolo, a type of rosewood, and the panels being bubinga, an African wood which, though not a true rosewood, is sometimes referred to as ‘African Rosewood’. That, despite the fact that there are true rosewoods growing in Africa. Let’s not get into the topic of common tree or wood names – -not a swamp I want to wade through at this minute. Normally, rosewood is not something with which one would consider framing a large cabinet, given its scarcity and the small size of the trees in general. However, several months back I acquired a stash of rosewood which had been brought into the US in the late 1950’s and I do have the option then to use some freakish chunks of the material. My mouth does water at the prospect, yet….
Thinking further about the matter though, I realize the material is so very precious that I hesitate a bit in regards to using it. Another factor in view was related not to the precious nature of the wood, but to its vibrancy. Cocobolo is one of those woods with the volume turned well up up, to ’11’, if you follow my Spinal Tap reference. Bubinga is also a visually powerful material, and combining the two woods, while they do harmonize with one another color-wise, lead to a result of a cabinet that virtually pulses with energy. And that energy tends to lead me to think that I really need to find ways to tone the rest of the cabinet down somehow:
That said, one of the things I really want to keep in this piece are the shippō-gumi latticed sliding doors, which are also hardly what you might call quiet. I experimented with several solutions to this conundrum, but what you get with the efforts to tone down the piece is that it starts to really look like little more than a monumental box- a box with lots of presence like the obelisk from Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with soundtrack:
If you’ve seen that movie, I imagine you’ll know exactly what I mean here. And I do feel a bit like a chimp thumping the ground with a stick at times as I try to do justice to the materials I have to work with.
I stewed on this matter for a while. While I want the wood to ‘speak’, in the piece, meaning that I want to present it in such a way as to celebrate its vibrant beauty, this isn’t mean to be a one-piece acoustic solo either. There are other voices I want to bring forth, other instruments. By that I mean I believe the hand of man (not to exclude women of course!). There is a capacity in my own hands and mind to create something of beauty, both by design and making. I want to try to bring that forward as best I can. Beautiful material, artfully configured, meticulously constructed. One can hope at least.
While stewing on the design I have been reading a lot. Looking at books on Chinese, Japanese and Korean classic furniture, and wading though the hundreds of woodworking magazines that burden my bookshelves. One thing I couldn’t help but notice, while looking at woodworking magazines such as Fine Woodworking and Woodwork from the 1980’s is just how dated the vast majority of the designs look now. I mean there was just some really hideous shit which was featured with regularity – ‘gallery’ stuff. I wonder what became of much of it? Another point I gleaned – furniture pieces which associate to a particular era’s technology often do not remain relevant for long. I’m thinking of cabinets to hold LP’s (yes, I realize that there are still people with LP’s, but they are, I would say, a rapidly-dwindling group), cabinets to hold VHS or cassette tapes, TV cabinets for little TV sets from 25 years ago, etc. The traditional cabinet for writing and storing papers, the secretary, is hardly something most people would actually use these days. Same for writing desks – few people actually write letters, or write much of anything anymore And what of our computer desks today? Will the computer with monitor and keyboard exist in 25 years? That’s very hard to predict, but I can’t help but think that slapping keys on a board or thumbing them on the i-phone already seems outdated and inefficient.
I’m sure readers out there can find any number of exceptions to the above examples, but I do think it is the case that a piece of furniture which is overly specialized in function, within the context of a world with a dizzying pace of technological change, seems unwise. Far better, I think, that the piece be capable, of being easily re-purposed at some point. At worst, be easily recyclable, yes?
I guess I would say that I could expect tables, chairs and generalized storage chests to remain relevant for the foreseeable future at least.
Reflecting on that, I realize how much comfort and safety there is in closely reproducing classic designs from the past. In many respects it reduces woodworking to a largely technical exercise. Far easier to faithfully copy a piece, to dissect it and learn its secrets than to venture off into newer designs, the vast bulk of which will end up, I would say, on the ash heap of history in short order. One is safe, the other a risk. Yet…if there is no new thought applied, then furniture design becomes, it seems me an awfully stale and unimaginative affair. Further, a lot of what passes for ‘classic’ east and west, if blindly copied without regard to what it actually may have meant. So much of the classic western pieces are reactions themselves to earlier fashions in furniture, whether it be the Georgian style as a backlash or the Shaker style as a backlash, or the Art Deco style as a backlash. Is that all we have – movements and their backlashes? Are we just going round in circles?
I look at the commonly used, perhaps hackneyed design elements seen on Western pieces, like the cabriole leg with claw foot wrapping a ball, or the scalloped shells on the front of the countless Goddard/Townsend replicas, or the architectural borrowing of the curved pediment – the scrolled broken pediment as it is more specifically termed – atop chests of drawers, clocks, highboys etc. – What does it all mean? Why did that gable end decoration become such a significant ornamental detail? What does it convey to people? Why is it continually reproduced? Why do we like the same thing atop a doorway;
…as we have atop a piece of furniture?:
I know what some would say – who cares what it means, I think it looks cool! Well, fair enough, I wouldn’t argue with the fact that they are attractive features in either case. And maybe that’s all the reason there needs to be.
I do ponder though what exactly is going on when we replicate these forms over and over, sticking them here and there. I mean, the pediment above the door is the representation of a gable, and I can see why it would make sense as a means to decorate and signify a doorway. What I find a bit mysterious is why Chippendale started sticking it on furniture, and why it remains today as an artifact still being emulated when actual decorated gable pediments on buildings have kind of gone the way of the dodo bird. When I look at those dated designs from the 1980’s magazines, a lot of them have curved and rounded parts, but they just don’t look good, at least not to me.
I certainly don’t have the answers to any of those questions, nor do I know if definitive answers can be teased out. But when you’re designing a piece and considering the forms of past examples of furniture, what does come up for me is, what does that element signify? What is it’s function? If it is strictly decorative, then is it to cover something else up, to make up for a shortfall elsewhere or is something else going on?
In the case of those pediments, I note that Thomas Chippendale is the primary source, the one who, more than any other, popularized the use of that decorative element, and he wrote the The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director in 1754. That book contained derivative French, English, Gothic, and ‘Chinese’ designs. Such a hugely influential book, and I do ponder why the effect has persisted so long, and seemingly in such disproportion to the quality of the designs I’ve seen in that book.
Back to our story…
It does seem to be the case, returning from that detour to actually try and make some sort of point here, that it is really, really hard to design something truly timeless in its design. If you’re going to design things to last, then one certainly wants to avoid a design that is dated within a decade. The best one could hope for with a piece that dates rapidly is that it might come back into fashion in another 75 years. People cherish things that are beautiful and useful, that’s a bottom line.
I appreciate the classic designs yet want to do more than simply reproduce something. I suspect though, that largely conforming to classic patterns is the way to go, with a little bit of lateral room to be carved out by a desire to put my own stamp upon the piece. That is already happening in terms of how the piece is made, but accomplishing the same thing on the aesthetic front is a good deal more difficult. I’m humbled by the challenge.
So, in the past week I’ve moved towards reducing the volume of the piece down from 11 by making more of the piece out of vertical grain bubinga. At this point, only the main sliding doors, frame and lattice remain in cocobolo:
I’m thinking that by toning things down a bit on the wood front, a little room opens up for more expression in terms of molding and hardware. I’ve tried to make the lower pair of hinged doors blend in somewhat with their surrounding drawers. This, after having explored designs in which they stood out more than their surroundings.
Here’s a view of the back, where the panels retain, for now, their cocobolo frames:
I’ve been making adjustments to the structure as a result of the drawer system (detailed in the previous post) I’ve come up with. I had designed the back originally with a solid beam going across which would accept the drawer dividing panels, which were to be solid planks as well, connected with multiple mortise and tenons. In the redesign, that solid beam and solid dividers have been replaced by frame and panel arrangements, and the wrapping band of timber around the cabinet has been beefed up to replace, in function, the beam.
Here’s a look at the back of the cabinet with the frame and panel backs removed:
I do plan to put dust shelves in there between the drawers.
And a look at the front of the cabinet showing those same system of lignum vitae drawer runners:
The bottom of the cabinet sits on a sill and I had relieved the front sill surface, as a form of decoration and to visually lighten what is otherwise quite a chunk of wood. This design detail was present in the previous iteration, however it is much easier to see now that the wood has been changed to bubinga:
I’ve made some progress with the hardware as well. After looking around as the commercially-produced stuff, both here and coming out of Japan, and contemplating making my own, contemplating making wooden hardware, etc., I’ve decided to adapt my makers mark, a Chinese bellflower in a pentagon, to be the hardware design motif. I’ve been in contact with a jewelry maker who will fabricate that hardware for me, basing the work upon my designs and having input artistically of their own. Here’s my design for the upper sliding door pulls:
These will be make in copper or shakudō and the petals will have a bit of 3D curvilinear shape to them, not simply flat as in the above sketches. The jeweler will make a sample in the next week it looks like.
All for today. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. On to post 7