'D' is for Design

The easier part of embarking on a “designer-maker” course for me and many of the other students at the furniture school has been the “making”. We were very keen and eager to get their tools sharp, took great delight in being able to generate wispy shaving of less than 0.1mm in thickness and eagerly attacked their first set of dovetails. Our first design classes were on the other hand were a much more subdued and sombre affair!

Calling yourself a designer is a bold and some may say foolhardy statement to make if you have no previous background or formal training in the discipline. That said, being able to describe and translate the ideas in your head for a piece of fine furniture to either inspire or meet a potential clients requirements is a critical skill needed if you are going to be successful commercially. Equally important is developing the internal ability to know when something looks right or when an idea needs further refinement and detailing. So as much emphasis is placed on trying to develop these skills at the furniture school as on making techniques. We are lucky to have Will Acland, a formally qualified designer on hand full time to help us on our journey.

Five Key Design Values and Considerations


  1. Justification : It is always valuable to justify your design decisions
  2. Coherence : Is the whole design coherent?
  3. Details : “The details are the design” (Charles Eames.) OBSESS about the details until you believe there is no way of improving.
  4. Less but better : Designs should improve if focus is given to fewer details
  5. Structure : How will it be made and is it structurally sound?

A picture can paint a thousand words

One of the key challenges faced by many students is the ability to quickly sketch and draw furniture ideas freehand. My drawing skills are very limited but with regular sketching and water colour painting tutorial classes using drawing techniques such as using your non-natural hand, single line drawing, speed drawing and the use of negative space, marked improvements are possible and confidence gained by many students.

Another critical design tool for the modern day furniture maker is the use of computer aided design software. There are many programs out there, some extremely sophisticated and expensive, others more simple and cost effective. We are all taught and use Sketch-up at the school as its relatively quick and easy to grasp, affordable and there are many tutorials, books and support services available on line to help the user. That said, the program has its deficiencies especially if you want to use it for CNC machining and most students at the school experience a degree of frustration as they learn and especially as they attempt to draw more sophisticated work where an extremely logical and ordered approach and accuracy are required. Luckily Will is a patient teacher and has an unnerving ability to quickly solve problems in minutes that one has been sweating over for hours. As well as allowing us to explore and refine designs, the other real boon of any CAD program is its ability to quickly produce accurate workshop drawings and cutting list that are critical in the making process.

A First Design Brief

As well as talking with us often around the principles of good design (see sidebar box), Will also encourages us to draw inspiration from our surroundings and one of our early briefs was to design a hall table inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement in just 4 weeks. We are fortunate to be located in Lakeland where a number of leading exponents of the movement worked and where Blackwell House is located. Blackwell is a masterpiece of twentieth-century design built by the architect MH Baillie Scott as a holiday home overlooking Windermere for his client Sir Edward Holt and is a perfect example of the Arts & Crafts Movement. We spent a very pleasant autumnal afternoon visiting Blackwell, viewing the fine examples of furniture on display and sketching ideas for our brief whilst eating delicious coffee and walnut cake served in café overlooking the lake.

The Blackwell Console Table

I decided to take my design inspiration for my next project from the curves of the inlayed Tulip and Bluebell flower motifs set into a number of pieces of Arts and Crafts furniture at Blackwell and this quickly led to a number of sketch ideas which I was encouraged to refine and develop the details over the next couple of weeks. A real plus of CAD is the ability to walk around your design in 3 dimensions and this allowed me to see the potential of incorporating glass into my table to reveal internal faces of the top and apron both of which would be made of a contrasting wood to the outer faces and thus accentuating the curved design motif. Finally we were encouraged to work up a watercolor sketch of our finalized design and present back to the group as if they were commissioning clients. Feedback on my design was positive and allowed further detailing, timber selection and construction techniques to be finalized. The finalsied design has been converted into workshop drawings and work will start soon on making the table in Rosewood and Ripple Sycamore.

Students and Teacher at Waters and Acland practicing sketching

Finalised Tulip Table Design in Sketchup

Article published in Furniture and Cabinet Making magazine Issue 259