It can feel limiting when you have the motivation to crack on, but aren’t sure what to build.
Or you know what you want you’re furniture to look like, but can’t convince yourself that once you’ve made your vision a reality, it’s going to look ‘right’.
There are many considerations to what makes ‘good’ design when planning your furniture. Some are mathematical, and others are practical, and over time we’ll have a look at several of them in more detail.
But to start with I wanted to give some thought to the more unpredictable factors. Considerations that have become a large part of my understanding of ‘good design’, but which are more rarely discussed.
These are the ‘us’ factors. The reasons that all design, no matter how masterfully conceived, is still subjective.
They can at first make the job of designing seem more complicated, but once they’ve sunk in, I hope they’ll boost your confidence instead. You’ll realise you’re not chasing the ‘perfect’ design, and you’ll give you’re expressive self a longer leash.
The ‘Us’ Factors Of Good Design.
Familiarity is a strong one.
If you want to build furniture that people won’t hate, then stick to convention.
Most of us would look oddly at a five legged chair, but will accept the four legged one immediately.
Being ‘normal’ isn’t likely to excite us, but it is a safe bet if you’re looking to please the crowd.
Becoming familiar with a design will help us warm to it as well.
If you’ve ever had a friend piping on about a TV show, you might remember feeling dismally disappointed when you’ve finally got around to putting your feet up to see what the hype’s about. You find it odd, nothing like you expected and the simple task of watching becomes a chore.
But if you had enough snacks to make it worth sticking out, by the time you pulled yourself through to Episode 4, you may have accidently become a devoted fan.
You got used to the distasteful wardrobe, and accepted the unrealistic setting.
It became the norm, became familiar, and the (flimsy) story line got you gripped.
Familiarity can be as powerful as any mathematical formula in your furniture design.
Even when you want to challenge the norm, you can give people a little of what they’re used to, so that your piece can be seen as intriguing, rather than completely odd.
And if weird is your thing, then perhaps you need to keep getting it in front of people. Someone will eventually warm to it. The world always accepts a Picasso… eventually.
You can’t depend on familiar design to be a fail safe.
What’s normal to one will be alien to someone else, but it’s what we associate things with that makes it all really complex.
You may have a strong dislike of something that you’re familiar with, not because of how it looks, but because you’re connecting it with something else that you’re not keen on.
You could use Arts & Crafts detailing in your bookcase for example, to give it a pleasing finish. But then there’s always a chance that one of your friends is going to look at it and recall the fusty smell of a great aunt’s living room, and the hateful glare of her cat staring back from the shelves in the corner.
What we associate with what, can be unpredictable. We likely don’t realise it ourselves that we like or dislike something, based on a time, a place, or a person that we connect it with. But I think we all do.
How can association help with our furniture design process?
It helps remind us that we need to understand who we’re designing for. And it highlights why we can’t hope to please everybody.
If you’re designing for you, then do it to please yourself (and anyone else who’ll have to live with it daily).
It doesn’t really matter what anyone else would think of your eccentric colour choice.
The more useful aspect of association though, is when it can be somewhat predictable, and this is more likely to be the case when you understand the culture of who you’re designing for.
The use of fairly typical associations can add a bit of something else to our furniture designs, without becoming a copy or even close to the original.
It could be a very loose association, such as picking the colour purple because the piece should feel luxurious or regal, or choosing curves or wavy lines because the piece should be informal or playful.
Or, you might use something much more specific.
Borrowing classical proportions for example, or even using ornamentation from a particular classical order, could make your piece feel formal, even if the main look of the piece is very modern.
I’m including influence here, because I think that to some extent at least, we look to outside opinion to help to determine whether we like something or not.
If a maker has the confidence to put a five figure price tag to their work, then it has to be good. Right?
Or if a piece is decorated with design awards, loved by your favourite celebrity or best friend, you’ll at least look twice at it. When in all fairness it may be perfectly uninteresting otherwise.
Influence is less useful when we’re at the drawing board, but it can help to highlight why ‘good’ design isn’t entirely about mathematics and practicality.
Good Design & Being Human
Design rules are always relevant, and if you’re not familiar then consider doing a quick search on proportion, scale, repetition, balance etc.
But it’s being human that keeps design in motion, or that’s how I see it anyway.
If you think about it, without our fickle ways, the question of ‘what is good design’ would have concluded hundreds of years ago. Reaching it’s pinnacle of evolution, with everything looking the same for ever more. Possibly with slightly altered dimensions as we grow gradually larger, and our things ever smaller.
But instead, what we choose to surround ourselves with, continues to change.
Design doesn’t evolve and slowly head towards a perfect result. It’s in motion, like the seasons, and we’re the force driving it.
Wanting to recapture a magic from childhood.
Not wanting to see ourselves become our parents.
Romanticising a time long gone.
Trying to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
It might all sound dramatic, but our surroundings are, and always have been, a cross between practical fulfilment and self expression.
Furniture is an opportunity for practical art, and this is why despite the mass scale of flat pack solutions out there, there will always be a place for the small maker who’s bold enough, and has something to say.
So What Is Good Design?
Having all of this in mind might make starting a design for your furniture feel impossible. But really it makes things easier.
Good design meets it’s objectives.
That doesn’t mean that everyone loves it, or even likes it, only that it achieves what it sets out to do.
The more you hone those objectives, the more guidelines you give yourself, and the more interesting your piece is likely to turn out.
Lets say you’re designing a chair.
It’s going to be a good idea to ensure that it doesn’t collapse when you sit on it.
And it’ll be better still to make sure it’s comfortable as well.
But the thing that will make it most interesting, are the challenges you’ve overcome ensuring that it meets your objectives.
Don’t just give it five legs because you want to be different. Make decisions based on who you’re building for, what’s important to them, and what you want to express yourself.
For example, you might have decided that a goal is to create strength whilst keeping materials minimal – now you have a good cause to consider three legs instead.
And your next step is to experiment with splay for that much needed stability and strength.
Your objectives can direct your furniture design in all manner of ways. They could be practical challenges such as the speed of the build, the budget, the tools used, or wanting to source all materials locally.
Or they can be about how people react to the piece – will it evoke a sense of grandeur, or perhaps playfulness?
And once you have your objectives to guide you, remember to use well known proportions, and ergonomic figures for additional guidance.
You don’t have to stick to the rules strictly, but it’s worth knowing what they are before you break them.