A Ming-inspired Cabinet (2)

In the previous post I outlined some of the background to the design challenges I have faced over the past couple of years as I’ve attempted to come up with a satisfactory design for a sideboard. That post left off with a survey of the current design effort, and I received a couple of helpful comments from readers afterward, along with another private message on the Craftsmanship in Wood forum.

While I am not interested in ‘design by committee’, or some sort of crowd-sourced design, I often find that people’s comments are quite insightful and helpful, as they cause me to re-examine designs that I have been staring at for a long time.

One comment expressed a preference for a taller more rectangular case, while another warned against making the case too high for a variety of very valid reasons.

After further reflection, I decided to revisit a few areas of the design and play with some of the dimensions and part arrangements. I had initially designed the overall piece to have its mass as a golden rectangle, while later revisions squashed the height down closer to a common ratio one finds in many tansu, about 1:1.2, width to height. that, in an effort to reduce what I felt was an uncomfortable ‘looming’ tendency with tall pieces of furniture.

Taking a look-see, I pushed the height back up by another 6″, and found that it improved the overall proportion, and kept the height in a range such that the upper portions of the cabinet would not be difficult to access or inspect. Here’s a side by side of the ‘before and after’:

Now, the 2D woman in the scene is a little taller than the average woman, at 5′-10″, (178cm), however she is about average male height.

I also played around with the arrangement of horizontal elements in the support stand, reversing the positions of pillow blocks and upper ties. Though similar, it is is not exactly the same as a previous arrangement where there were two sets of stretchers, and I think it does increase the sense of vertical compression at the bottom of the cabinet – its grounded-ness, in other words – while at the same time also increasing a contra-distinct aspect, which is the sense of ‘airy-ness’ of the stand. Here’s how the cabinet looks with the revised stand framing:

The revised framing also involves a return to a leg section with sharp arrises and a outer concave bead, which increases the tie-in between the stand framing and the two tables already made for the client.

Part and parcel of the revised lower framing was the incorporation of crossed pillow blocks, a detail already part of the two tables:

Also, the cabinet sill assembly atop the pillow blocks was widened slightly.

I’m feeling like I have made some good progress with those design aspects just in the past 24 hours.

Okay, what of the inside of this cabinet? At this stage, the arrangement inside remains provisional, however I have a clear idea as to what sort of items the client wishes to store inside, and am arranging the interior elements accordingly, solving first for practicality, then for aesthetics, more or less.

As mentioned in the previous post, the doors are bi-fold in nature so as to be able to fully open and swing 270˚ around to fold against the cabinet sides:


Open sesame:


With the doors fully folded back, this then is the current interior configuration:

At this point, the interior cabinet components are in American Black Cherry, which I feel to be a complimentary material to the bubinga. It makes the interior tonally lighter than it would be otherwise, and adds a certain unexpected surprise when opening the cabinet. I will likely explore other woods – Shedua (ovangkol) is one I’m considering as well, along with Swiss Pearwood.

I had originally designed the interior with an asymmetric position of parts however I have moved to a symmetrical arrangement, save for the suspended shelves in the middle, which vary only in their arrangement, not in volume.

At this point, the back panel has been omitted as the interior design work remains ‘in progress’.

A perspective view:

The middle section down at the bottom is for storing serving platters. The drawers are slightly graduated in height. Up top, the sliding doors are glassed for the moment, however they may have wood panels put in – not sure yet. The staggered shelves, chigai-dana, are useable for display or for parking coffee cups. The frame and panel work surface allows for a variety of situations to be accommodated.

Keep in mind that there will be hardware like drawer pulls, hiki-te for the sliding doors, etc. so that will enrich the scene later on. Also, all the drawers will feature the glue-less through tenoned construction I prototyped on the side table, so the drawer fronts will have several through-tenon ends exposed to view.

That’s where things, er, stand for the time being. I imagine further tweaks will come but I’m feeling more comfortable with the design more and more.

All for now, over and out. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. On to post 3

9 Replies to “A Ming-inspired Cabinet (2)”

  1. Siavosh,

    ah, you're thinking that the doors are solid slabs? They are not. If you look again at the 'Ming Inspiration' posts (the dining table) you will see that the top on that dining table, though it looked like a slab, was in fact not a slab. These doors will be made in a similar manner.


  2. Chris
    Is this a mizuya in a Ming candy coating??

    Seriously, the front of a mizuya is very 'busy', maybe having doors to close it off will give it a formality it needs.


  3. Tom,

    I agree that Mizuya typically have quite 'busy' faces. That said, I don't find them overwhelmingly busy, especially in comparison to some other pieces of furniture you will see (say, those baroque and Rococo pieces from 16th~18th century French makers).

    I think the quiet front doors on this piece and the fact that they rotate completely out of the way gives the owner a choice in the way this piece presents itself to the space. The piece can sit with doors closed normally or doors open. Quieter or busier, as one prefers.

    I am not wild about the term 'candy coating' as it implies something superficial – though that may not have been what you are implying. I first designed the outer case, and then worked out an arrangement for the interior which met the client's requirements, so it is not a case of putting a shell on, rather more a case of filling in details. The client seems to like the staggered shelf arrangement, which is an overtly Japanese attribute, however it is a detail which may not remain as the design work moves along. I have a secondary purpose in mind for those shelves as well….

    I think that I like aspects of Ming furniture and aspects of Japanese furniture and I brought some of those ideas together in this piece. Maybe I could work towards achieving a greater clarity of design purpose in that regard, however I am not likely to move any further towards the tansu pattern, and there are no Ming kitchen storage cabinets to reference, so the direction is not as clear as I might like. That's been one of the challenges from the beginning in designing this piece.

    The interior arrangement is still in flux. We'll see where things go. I made some further progress on the stand today and am waiting on the client for feedback on the interior arrangement. Practical storage considerations, more than anything else, will dictate most of the interior configuration.


  4. Anton,

    your comment is a pleasure to receive.

    Technically, at least to the way I look at it, the upper elements in the stand are not stretchers, since they do not penetrate the legs, as do the lower stretchers. To clarify here, I'm using the word 'stretcher' as a substitute for the Japanese term 'nuki', which means 'penetrating tie'. I often use the term 'stretcher' as a euphemism for 'penetrating tie'.

    The earlier design did in fact have two sets of stretchers, however this revamp inserts what might be called a 'tie ring' instead. This ring, comprised of four rails, mechanically locks to itself at the lap joints, while the posts connect to it by piercing through the lap with a tenon.

    The pillow blocks were also present on the earlier design, however they were employed singly atop each post. With the new upper tie ring, I felt it made sense to return to the lapped pillow blocks, and in recent days I have made a further change in regard to the arrangement of the pillow blocks in fact.

    Getting closer to the build phase all the time.


  5. Hi Chris, I recently borrowed a copy of “Chinese Household Furniture” by George N. Kates, which includes quite a few cabinets of similar size to the one you are designing, so I'm pleasantly surprised to read this thread. Several observations, most were composed of a bottom cabinet around six feet tall and an upper cabinet, usually around two feet, fitted directly above. One advantage of this arrangement is smaller doors which are less likely to give trouble over time. The widths were a little less than four feet, leaving doors around 22″ in width which seems around the limits of practicality. Most did not have a base, but rather the vertical framing members carried through into legs.

    To my eye, the “golden ratio” cabinets are indeed golden, not looming at all. I found the design with the circle of Japanese inspired gridwork particularly attractive as it seemed to balance the tallness of the cabinet.

    Harlan Barnhart

  6. Harlan,

    thanks for the comment.

    I have Kate's book, and it is one of the early ones in the field of Chinese furniture appreciation. The cabinets you mention are wardrobes for the most part, and so the configuration and arrangement of openings is with that function in mind. There was one such cabinet on display at the Sackler-Freer gallery in DC a few years back which was about 8' tall and close to 6' wide. Quite an imposing piece, all huanghuali, and the doors with one-piece panels.

    Keep in mind that such cabinets were situated in rooms with quite tall ceilings and it is as much the setting for the cabinet as the cabinet itself which affects how tall or short the piece appears to be. Here, I'm working with a room which has an 8' ceiling, and the function of the cabinet is different than a wardrobe.

    Glad you like the cabinet with the open circular area and shippō-gumi latticework. I liked it too, but after staring at that design a good long while I was not convinced totally into taking that direction.

    I think the idea of having the doors bifold, so that they may tuck in completely to the cabinet sides is worth prioritizing, and that idea, more than any other, led to the latticework infill idea being put to the side, at least for the time being.


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