learn to see the design details in furniture

What are design details anyway?

A lot has been written about details in furniture, architecture and interior design, but like other words (my last blog), this one’s meaning has become a little fuzzy.

joints details

mortises and tenons


example: are these joinery details? Or design details?




Architectural legend Mies van der Rohe had something to say about details:

famous detail quote





So did the furniture design giant Charles Eames:

design details







But that doesn’t really make it any clearer what details, or design details, actually are.

 All of these are design details:

  • Edge treatmentmortise and tenon detail
  • exposed joinery
  • the sweep of a leg or shaping
  • an inlaid surface
  • the transition from a rail to a leg or a stile
  • proportions
  • choice of wood
  • hardware

Are they integral, though, or added on? Are the details an expression of the design down to its fingertips or are they slipped on afterward like a flashy dress or sports jacket or shabby bathrobe?

If the design, no matter what it is, has been thought through; that is, have its intent, materials and process (construction) all been resolved and fit with the original concept and need, is its execution ‘true’? Or does something happen in the real world that could cause an abort which then sets a ‘save’ effort in motion.

What’s a ‘save’?

The unforeseen always happens. It’s as much a part of the process of making something new, or custom, as finding out that things take longer or cost more than anticipated/estimated.

A good design allows for this, makes it part of the discovery/development timeline and adjusts to real factors.

A ‘bad’ design has not left room for contingencies, problems or complications. The original plan is rigid and inviolable. Any complication or obstacle during the making phase is met with a compromise – some way to ‘fix’ it or ‘save’ it. The design is not whole anymore.

Any new idea – read design here – needs to be tested before it can be produced, marketed and sold. For most products, that means it has to pass some level of consumer standards that have pretty much been accepted, some written and some are just common practice. A chair must hold someone up; a door must open and close safely and conveniently.

Will anyone get sued if a chair isn’t comfortable or a door doesn’t operate easily? Probably not; but most likely, not many of those varieties will sell very well. That said, there have been a number of chair designs that have sold exceedingly well because of their fabulous look in spite of being rigidly uncomfortable. More on that another time.

Why not wing it?

Testing an idea is slow. Making a mockup, building a prototype all take time and it’s largely ‘unproductive’ time; that is, no one wants to pay for it. The reason is discovery. Something unforeseen always happens between designing ‘on paper’ and building with real materials. With one-of-a-kind projects, the potential glitch or conflict can generally be worked out ‘on the fly’ without compromising the original intent too severely, depending upon how good both the designer and builder are. With bigger projects involving production of multiple similar pieces, ‘fixing’ the design during the making phase can be a bit expensive.

Every design has a core

There is a central idea, concept or vision that has been generated by a particular need. A set of expectations, parameters and a certain knowledge of possibilities sets this train in motion.

Every design has a flaw

There is also some conflict, contradiction or obstacle inherent in every new design – it’s an aspect, circumstance or condition that must be overcome, resolved or accommodated to some degree as the design evolves. Sometimes the flaw only becomes evident after the design has been produced and develops later either through its interface with users in the real world or through the introduction of new technology or an evolving environment.

What is ‘bad’ design?

Everyone probably has several mental images of a product that didn’t work as it was supposed to, looked stupid or failed in one way or another. Oftentimes it’s personal experience that dictates this impression but more often it’s hearsay or kind of a ‘collective consciousness’ that develops. In the ’50s and ’60s, Ford’s Edsel got a very bad rap as an undesirable car, obsolete, out-of-touch, a clunker, a lemon. The Rambler and Gremlin were also tarred with that same brush. Chevy’s Corvair became an overnight albatross because of an engineering/design flaw in the interaction between its steering and rear suspension systems. These are design details in the aggregate with impact.

Bad is also a comparative term; there can be no bad without good. 30 years ago, any furniture smacking of mid-century modern styling or Danish modern was certainly undesirable. Was it bad design because it was then out of style?

What is ‘good’ design?

People often can sense good design, literally when they see, feel, hear or touch it. Apple built its business on making well engineered and well built products that responded to and even anticipated their followers’ needs. Good design is a result that is true to its beginning; that is, it starts as a concept that is then worked through its glitches, shortcomings and problems, is tested in real-life conditions and then re-worked again. It’s prototyped and tested again. Its final version in some ways is a magnification of its beginning while still keeping a connection to all of its defining aspects.

Good design is made manifest in all of its parts as well as in its whole. Design details.

That’s the production model. The greatest challenge for any maker like me is to replicate in a one-off a similar result while shortcutting much of the development process. There are few project budgets that would support production-level design development for a one-off.

So, if a design is good, it’s been thought through, its inconsistencies have been resolved and there’s no trace of a struggle. Nothing is left hanging; all the parts represent the whole and there’s no sense of hurry. There’s a feeling of balance. If a design is good, its details bear up under scrutiny; even further, they invite it. There’s a subtle feeling of being drawn in, to discover more, to find evidence of the thought behind the design in the details that bear witness to the birthing of that design. (custom cherry kitchen)

handmade cherry kitchen details

stove hood detail

handmade cherry kitchen cabinet details

mantle detail, range hood

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