This story is kind of typical as it relates the steps I go through in developing a design for any client. While the process follows a familiar form, this particular tale is unique and bears repeating.
Recently a friend called with an unusual request: she had a few planks of walnut that had been cut from a tree on her property which she’d always wanted to convert to useful furniture but, for various reasons, had ended up just carting them around from house to house. After 25 years or so, she’d decided that it was now or never: find someone to build her furniture or find a new owner for the wood. That’s where I came in. Knowing I build mostly custom furniture, one-of-a-kind and limited run designs, she’d decided I was the one who could develop a piece that would be ‘unusual’, practical, ‘beautiful’ and inexpensive. Not necessarily a tall order for me but challenging for its own reasons.
She was interested in a coffee or parlor table she told me. For me, it’s critical that I see the space for the intended new piece and this is usually a delicate first step I need to take – distinguishing my fact-finding efforts from what could seem to her like an intrusion. I was careful to spell out what I was looking for: what are some of the stylistic reference points, ‘traffic patterns’, how much light is there, how does she live. All of these are key factors in my approach to custom design, as much as choice of wood and ‘function’, whatever that is. As an aside, and this case will shortly illustrate my point, what a piece of furniture does is not necessarily self-evident. A table, because of its horizontal surface, can be for file or book storage, a writing desk, a footstool, a place to serve and eat meals – so the shape and size is not locked in by any narrow function it might perform. In fact, I like to design my furniture so that it does double or triple or even quadruple duty, intentionally; that is, with forethought. So much for ‘form follows function’. My client wanted a flat surface between her couch and wood stove where she could rest her legs or put a cup of coffee or leave a book or magazine or have her lunch. She also wanted a shelf below where she could keep books or magazines she didn’t necessarily read everyday but could still have ready access to. And she wanted a closed storage area that would be closed and fairly secure. And she wanted few styling features that could be potential ‘dust-catchers’ as she did not want to feel tethered to cleaning the piece. Then there was the wood….
Generally speaking, I’m glad when clients want to use their own material for a project; it gives more personal meaning or investment for them and it also provides more ‘personality’ for me. That said, using wood that someone else has selected means accommodation for me; it’s more time working around defects that the client might not have seen and it generates more waste as yield was probably not one of their concerns as they selected their wood. So what might be an initial material savings ends up costing more in terms of labor. This was a case in point: the lumber had been cut many years ago and also milled or dressed to dimension; that is, to a certain width and thickness. Usually, wood is left ‘in the rough’ until it’s ready to be used. The biggest reason for this is that wood tends to move and distort when it’s in plank form, almost as though it’s trying to return to where it was in the tree. Rough lumber is generally 1/4″ thicker than needed just so those distortions – cupping, twisting and warping – can be machined out and the wood flattened and straightened just prior to constructing a piece. If, as in this case, the wood is milled and dressed years before it will be used, it doesn’t stay flat anymore which turns out to be a problem: it is absolutely critical that wood be flat and straight or it can’t be made into furniture. Nothing can be cut square and true – joints don’t close or fit properly. That said, I knew I’d have to figure out a way to deal with it as this was a non-negotiable aspect of the project.
So, I’d identified ‘the problem’. All I had to do next was drive the common elements together to create a ‘solution’.
The size was straight-forward: ‘parlor/coffee’ table is a little smaller than the client’s couch. The other part was more involved: some kind of allowance for storage that’s readily accessible but won’t be a dust and clutter magnet in a style that will enhance the space. It seemed to me that the key to solving this problem was the storage aspect – and I also realized that solving this central issue would inform the rest of the table design. The seemingly easy answer would’ve been just to make a cabinet below the top with doors; however, that approach would have violated the other parameters. Having to get down on one’s knees wouldn’t be ‘readily accessible’. Hard to clean, hard to see and hard to build (adding to expense) also weren’t in its favor. Instead, I started exploring the possibility of putting a more shallow storage cabinet directly below the top but not extending to the floor leaving shelf space below and accessible through the top. That is, make the top movable much like an extension dining table. 2 halves sliding away from each other would reveal more of a secret compartment accessible from above, well-lit and not prone to collecting dust or too much stuff. This approach would involve some extra expense in making the parts movable and also in providing 2 leaves for the option of making the table bigger. Overall, though, it seemed likely to hit most of the parameters without putting the cost out of reach. The bonus for me in this design process was to come up with a design that might have a broader application – maybe an expandable parlor table for a different way of dining, like on pillows without chairs!
After all that effort, it feels kind of strange to say, building the table was easy!