Mizuya (6)

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.

Diversion ahead….

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

11 thoughts on “Mizuya (6)

  1. Chris,

    Cool to see your project moving along, and your deliberations. You are a loving husband to want to make such a cabinet for your wife!

    It occurs that how you do your panels, flat or raised, and if raised, what sort of detail at the thickness transition, is going to be a strong influence on the overall design, and how things tie together with the lattice doors. Also, to effect the greater or lesser degree of Asian influence. The question also comes up as to whether you will be carrying the panel detail theme to the drawer fronts as well? No doubt things that you probably have yet to work out.

    Chairs like the Chippendale designs, often being ornate, I have heard referred to as a “cabinet makers” chair, for similar reasons to some of your considerations on your cabinet, as opposed to simpler seating varieties, or the “turner's chair”. The periods in English history of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton, were also interesting from the perspective of divergence, and if one wanted to at least look at technical accomplishment with wooden furniture, those could be informative times to invest study in. As to why those designs developed and the public's interest in them, it would indeed probably make for some lengthy discussion.

    As for the hideous furniture that you mention, I enjoy looking through photos of those early periods when “studio furniture” in the states was taking hold, to see the better stuff that some talented people created that shone from a wisdom, rather than from standards that much arose given more time and varying reasons. I don't believe that it was so common, but particularly in cabinetry, there were some generally simpler pieces that were very nice, and where wood was seen as something to give voice to design, even before Jim Krenov later made such a concept popular.

  2. Dennis,

    I appreciate your detailed comment. Yes, the panel and drawer front treatments are fast approaching the realm of consideration. I imagine I'll mock up a few on the sketch and see how it looks, seeking that elusive balance point in the design.

    I recently acquired the first 50 issues of Woodwork magazine, and the 'better stuff', the designs that still look good today, are definitely in the minority IMO. A lot of the studio furniture is simply trying way too hard to make some statement, to be different for my liking. I appreciate the spirit of experiment though. I guess when it comes down to a piece that looks good but it poorly constructed, or a piece that is well constructed but not such a good design, I tend to form a more positive impression about the construction quality than i do about the design. You?


  3. Chris,


    I would tend to agree that good construction is a bottom line with “furniture”, unless the maker has something else in mind and seeks to call the object by another name. I would take an old paint covered chair that you could reliably stand on to reach above, over something exotic looking that might collapse and you end up spilling the bucket and also possibly breaking your neck!

    Some of the comments from the early days of studio furniture making that the makers might have added to photos, are also informative to read. Though some folks were doing reproductions, and some fine ones at that, lots of people wanted to see themselves as doing the unique artist's gig from the get go, and their comments were a reflection of such an identity. When Gary Bennett drove a big nail partly into the side of his otherwise nicely done cabinet and exhibited it that way, it started a trench war between the more puristic and the Antichrists, and the latter found their ranks quickly growing (Gary is a hell of a nice guy and quite pacifistic, by the way). Perhaps for some it seemed like a short cut to a sort of stature, or maybe at least a way to more quickly have fun, and galleries also soon developed to help. The states was very accommodating in that regard, being a huge and growing bigger market for interior woodwork at the time. Often with little formal training, one could soon be called an artist, and to some extent that niche remains today, though higher standards have been developed as a a whole, I believe, and often with the use of some very good tools that might not have been available before.

    Some of those Chippendale chairs and such, whether the designs meet one's criteria for beauty or not is one thing, but there are some pieces that exhibit a perfect balance of proportion, ones where the antique collectors will flip out and offer up millions at auctions. For most folks that don't have a rare talent, there certainly are some hints that can be gleaned by looking at that stuff, I imagine in the same way that you purse over your books on old furniture, Chris, and not minimizing your own talent too. I guess the point is that there is a lot if reference and energy out there from earlier days, but it seemed to have been largely past over as dead. From the beginning of the 20th century woodworking renaissance, lots of woodworkers never saw themselves as part of a history, maybe even turned their noses up at it. That isn't saying that one had to do the same old, but there certainly were some sensibilities there to possibly help move things along in a good way. America is a unique culture, and it gets reflected in ways for better and for worse.

  4. Chris

    I'm a BIG fan of the new design with more bubinga, it was a corner that needed to be turned. My only caution now is the fact that glass doors demand a tidy housekeeper.


  5. Tom,

    good to hear from you. Yeah, the glass and lattice issue has been considered. I drew it at first with the glass on the outside, lattice on the inside, thinking it would drastically reduce the dusting required. But, it didn't look so good and made the glass a more prominent element than I would like. I talked it over with my wife and she felt that the dusting would not be such a big deal, and agreed the glass on front looked too obvious, so I reversed the position of the glass and lattice and i think it looks better. I've also been contemplating the idea of using Japanese paper behind the lattice, instead of glass. It would let diffuse light through, and be replaceable.

    Glad you like the design better as it currently stands – me too.


  6. Hi Chris,
    I know the feeling about the curvy, edge rounded furniture. I remember reading Krenov saying that “a curve doesn't need to be a pretzel to make a statement.” Is it possible that era came about because of a sudden availability of inexpensive routers and bits? The furniture I design/build tends to be squarish and rectilinear but that is mostly because I work in an apartment with hand tools. In both cases tooling is driving design. To my eye spare, lean designs are more desirable but maybe in the future, tastes will revert to the curvy and round.

    Great blog as usual.
    Harlan Barnhart

  7. Dennis,

    I guess it is one of those things – art/craft divisions – where I come down on the side that feels there has to be craftsmanship in the piece, as a baseline minimum, before I am ready to give it consideration as 'art'. Regardless of the medium or subject matter, the painting has to be done well, the carving of the stone meticulous, so well done that it disappears and the viewer can look only at the artistry of the piece. Of course,, something can be meticulously crafted and end up being ugly or clumsy, no denying that. I realize that this point of view is a narrower definition of 'art' than some would accept. If I look at a piece and see it is poorly constructed, I am, it would seem, hardwired not to see art – I just see something on its way to the scrapheap, something that wasted materials and time.

    Gary Bennett's statement with the nail – I was okay with that as the workmanship of the cabinet was quite good. The cabinet can disappear and I can look at what it means to put a bent nail on the door like that. Some -well, most- of his other pieces though do absolutely nothing for me. There is a line there between pieces that are functional and pieces more concerned with being artsy, if you know what I mean, and while I like to look at a fine piece of furniture, I also like to use it – the functionality piece. A lot of those more, well, 'whimsical pieces' remind me of architects designing structures that have no relation to their environment. I wonder how these pieces of furniture are going to fit into their surroundings. Of course, that is up to the patron/client to decide.

    But yeah, the piece you mentioned about having little formal training or skill in working with a given media and then calling oneself an artist, is something which I find difficult to accept.

    There is, as you note, a lot of energy and reference to be observed in older pieces. These are the survivors, and they survive, as often as not, because people liked them and wanted to keep them. I can sometimes almost read the mind of the maker by their own work, see what their intentions were, see what their failures were. It's a subtle form of communication to be sure.

    One thing I'll never understand are those who reproduce pieces that, while beautiful, have various structural or design flaws- like the well-documented issues with bracketed feet falling apart – and the reproduction carries those flaws through in the new piece (!). To me, looking at old furniture, or old architecture, is a great place to learn about what works and what doesn't over time. We keep the good and find a better way with the rest. Realizing too, of course that there may well have been some great designs and ideas that did not make it through time just because of plain old bad luck. On the other hand, sometimes I see bad designs and lousy constructions that have miraculously survived, and take them as lessons in what NOT to do. Just because it is old does not necessarily mean it is great, was well made, etc..

    Appreciating the discussion.


  8. Harlan,

    “Is it possible that era came about because of a sudden availability of inexpensive routers and bits?”

    I believe the expression was, 'California Roundover'. I think that certainly account for some of the designs, but only a percentage.

    Tooling certainly can drive design – or, put it this way, some choose to work within the bounds established by their tooling more than others. Some will, just to give one example, design mortises to suit available chisel dimensions in their set. Others will design on a different basis, then adapt the tools they have, make or buy tools they need to accomplish the design.

    I tend to advocate for designing with more on the 'possible' and less on the 'what tools do I have' line of thinking. Then the challenge is finding a way to realize your designs within those constraints. And that pushing against the boundary can lead to some intriguing discoveries and the acquisition of new skills, like making your own plane, designing a custom tool, etc.

    Unfortunately, some leap from a recognition that their tool set is limited in some way to the idea that they can't make very much as a result of those perceived limitations. And that is too bad, because it truly is a false dichotomy.

    Thanks for your comment Harlan, always a pleasure to hear from you.


  9. Chris,

    Wanting to at least try to stay open to all possibilities. my thought was that Gary's cabinet would have been cooler if he would have made the bent nail out of wood. It might have even added some perplexity, which is what he was after, along with the statement that precision is not an end in itself when it comes to craft. I seem to recall some mention of him taking out the nail at some point, otherwise the Smithsonian might have purchased it.

    I'm with you on a lot of the “art furniture”, and though the craftsmanship often is quite good, it doesn't seem to have staying power in terms of design. Living with the piece, with many I believe I would lose interest in the visual qualities. I am keen on originality, i think it shows gumption, but see it as harder to pull off than a lot of folks seem to want to think. Obviously it is subjective and location is a factor, and like the guy that made a chair to hang on the wall, possibly turning the world upside down, or in that case, sideways, may well be the intention of the makers, if only to impact for a short time. As I mentioned, Gary is a cool guy, and did you know that he was highly supportive of other craftsmen, even before he became so well known, both Jeff and I have chairs in his collection that he purchased. I can't help but think of his work also within that light, and he will be the first to tell you that he isn't an engineer, so if he is having fun, i think of it as a good thing….or his right to his “artistic liberties”. It seems to sell rather quickly, which to be honest, I find confusing sometimes, almost to the point of a jealous rage! I get the impression that initially it confused him as well!

    The late Art Carpenter started the Bolinas Craftsman's guild, probably the main metropolis for the Cali round over school, and settling back in the states not far away, I got to know him a bit. His shop was in a lovely spot on the coast, and his son is there now, I believe. Art was the most welcoming guy you could ever meet, always offering encouragement and wanting other people to find the success that he was having, hence one reason for starting that association. It was just that a lot of those people had very good intentions, but were like horses turned loose in a field with no fences, they wandered about without certain constraints or guidelines, that had they been tied to some tradition at some point earlier in their careers, or maybe even looked at some books, different parameters might have been more present and allowed a somewhat different focus. For the real gist of it, one would have to travel rather far to seek other opportunities, there wasn't much happening from a traditional perspective…..maybe a few Italian carvers in the city. A lot of it also was the desire for an alternative lifestyle, instead of a regular job, just doing your thing in your own shop was very appealing, and if people would purchase what came out of it at craft shows or wherever, then it could become an open ticket. California does have it's own set of circumstances. This was in stark contrast to what I found at a Japanese workshop, where craftsman sometimes wore plain gray uniforms and punched a time clock, and would get angry at you if you commented that the weather was nice outside. Talk about different worlds…

    I once had the great privilege to meet Edward Barnsley at his cottage home in the Cotswolds, a craftsman from a long and well recognized woodworking lineage, in addition to his other educations. A generous man by all accords, even inviting me to stay for a wonderful roast chicken dinner, made by his wife, a countess no less! One of the highlights of my life, but when I asked him if I could find a place in his shop with a job, he flatly said that he wasn't in a position to take on any more “school leavers”. His descriptive buggered up my thoughts for many years to come.

Anything to add?