The spark of my work is passion – a love affair with curving lines and sensual forms, an urge to play with the orderly rules of design. But the process of transforming these sentiments into a useful and successful piece of furniture is lengthy, deliberate and painstaking. I do not design and make furniture by the seat of my pants. In my world of design guidelines, the artistic message must be conveyed simply and forcefully. The piece must work well for its user. It must last beyond our life time. It must conform to the highest standards of engineering in terms of balance and strength. I never go into the shop to start construction on a piece until I know exactly what I am going to do and how I am going to implement these goals.

Whale of a Bar – a full service bar built into a client’s home
Whale of a Bar – a full service bar built into a client’s home

All design starts with an idea. The design is how to implement it. In the earlier days of my career the ideas were often generated by something I needed or something I saw which turned me on. Increasingly, these days, the ideas come in the form of requests from old or new clients or from galleries or designers on behalf of their clients. If the initiating idea is from another party, my first step is to clarify exactly what my client wants. This may appear self-evident but, human nature being what it is, clarity can be compromised by rushing into a project too fast. Subjective visions of the client for the piece may be unarticulated and unknown by the designer. The context of the design in its future environment must be considered, along with potentially different viewpoints on this subject by the client and the designer. Important technical details such as dimensions and specific functional requirements by the client must not be skimmed over too lightly lest they come back to haunt us later. And, God forbid, the designer may have his or her own agenda (Oh boy, this is something I always wanted to make!). The most important skill of a designer is to ask the right questions – and listen.

Meeting with client (left) and architect on a major commission
Meeting with client (left) and architect on a major commission

Sketches

After the guidelines are established, I play with sketches on paper trying to hit upon a basic concept or point of view which I feel implements the idea. The key at this phase is to stay loose so you keep the door open to a wide range of approaches. The danger is to get locked into one image too quickly, cutting off maybe even better ideas. What this means is not spending much time on the first attempt and forcing yourself to move along and try different angles. Human psychology dictates that it is very hard to see beyond your first perception of something.

Scaled models

The trouble with sketches is they are two dimensional. Any view on paper omits that critical third plane which we see in real life. Without that 3D perspective, we have only the foggiest notion of what our design is going to look like. This is particularly true of my work where the lines and forms wrap around corners and flow from one plane to another. In order to make design decisions in three dimensions, I frequently make a small, scaled model of what I have drawn to see what it will really look like. This model itself may go through various iterations if the first attempts do not pass muster.

Early sketches of the Serpent I Coffee Table
Model of Serpent I
Model of Serpent I
Models of various coffee tables
Models of various coffee tables

Shop drawing

When both the client and I are satisfied with how the piece is going to look, I can turn my attention back to the technical aspects of the project. How will I build this piece? What joinery to use? Solution of structural issues of weight, balance, installation, even transportation. Exact dimensions. Details of the functional components such as doors, drawers and shelves. A list of materials needed to purchase. Of course, many of these issues must be woven into the design decisions during the sketching and modeling phases so that we can be sure our beautiful piece is practical and will meet all its technical guidelines. In the end, the shop drawing is the instrument I use to pull together all the final, detailed decisions about how to build the piece. It will serve as a blueprint for every step of the construction process which may unfold over many months. It backs up my memory and insures that anyone who is working on the piece is dancing to the same tune.

Shop drawing of Heron III Foyer Table

Full scale drawing during construction

Although all the design decisions have been made before I go into the shop to build, there are circumstances which arise that call for flexibility. This is particularly true in relation to carving. All the design decisions with respect to the carving motif to this point have been made in small scale on sketches, models or drawings. But the carving lines and depths must be redrawn full scale on the actual piece, using the small scaled drawing or model as a guide. When drawing is free hand there is no way a full scale iteration can be exactly the same as its small scale version. Interpretations are necessary. I may change my mind. The full scale drawing process is often an opportunity for a second shot at the esthetic of a design. I can reaffirm that I like it. Or decide to change it, make it better. “I don’t like the quality of this arc. Let’s make it flatter, simpler”. Of course I am limited at this point by what I have built but within these parameters I can still make changes. When it comes to carving, drawing always precedes the carving tool so I know exactly where I am cutting to and don’t take off too much. Drawing full scale is also a very deliberative process. I use chalk to rough out a line because it can be quickly erased or modified with a damp rag. When I am happy with the chalk line, I go over it with magic marker which is a more precise guideline for carving and does not rub off or smudge. I often mark carving depths in between the carving lines so that I can visualize the overall pattern and avoid making mistakes by cutting too deep.

Ebb Tide I drawing of carving motif & depths
Ebb Tide I drawing of carving motif & depths
Redrawing the motif on the actual cabinet
Redrawing the motif on the actual cabinet
Final drawing on left corner
Final drawing on left corner
Same corner after carving
Same corner after carving