One of the most commonly asked questions that I get as a wood furniture designer is “what does your design process look like?” To be honest, there really isn’t a simple answer to this because I look at designing from two different angles: designing for my collection and designing for a client. Because of this, how I approach each type of project is markedly different.
When it comes to designing for my collection, I hesitate to even use the word process as to me it doesn’t truly resemble the word. I have a general idea of where I am going, but I do not get there by taking a straight line. I want it to be clear that it couldn’t be more opposite when I am working with a client. When designing with a client, I have a clear set of parameters that I am working within and a specific end product that I am working toward. That isn’t to say that designing for clients is less creative, but that my creativity has more direction.
Designing for My Collection
1. Sketches and Thoughts: I have just stated that when designing for my collection I use the term process very loosely. I sketch a lot and in many different notebooks. There is no rhyme nor reason to what sketches go where; it is just a matter of which notebook I am closest to at the time. My design notebooks are scattered throughout my house and workshop, you truly couldn’t shake a 2x4 without hitting one. I regularly make entries in these notebooks — both sketch and written. My sketches are oftentimes incomplete, definitely not anywhere close to a final design and don’t even necessarily represent a single piece or concept. They are simply shapes or elements such as a leg and foot or a joinery design.
2. Putting a Design Together: When I am ready to create a new piece, I consult my notebooks and pull bits and pieces of design elements to capture and create the perfect idea for a new piece. I play around with different design elements, adding and subtracting them as needed until I get them manipulated to fit the project at hand. Even in this stage, my designs are rarely hammered out in great detail on paper. I prefer having the flexibility to work with what the wood will inspire in my design, and I enjoy the freedom of making alterations accordingly throughout the fabrication process.
3. Bringing the Design to Life: Having a design on paper is one thing, bringing it to fruition is another. It isn’t simply a matter of transferring what I draw onto some pieces of wood and having it work out exactly right. These beginning idea sketches evolve through multiple renditions, and after hours, sometimes even weeks of work, they eventually turn into models and prototypes of the new piece. Generally speaking, making a piece is going to involve a lot of pre-production planning. What is the general feel I am shooting for. Clean, sharp and refined or more organic? What type of wood(s) do I want to use? Grain structure, color, and orientation must be considered. What size of glue-up(s), am I going to have to undertake? What joinery am I going to use to maximize function and structural integrity. Once pre-project planning is accomplished, it’s time for rough milling operations. It is at this stage that the wood begins receiving assignments based on that pre-planning stage. I often draw my design onto the wood before beginning to cut and shape it.
Here’s where things get interesting. Every stick of lumber is unique and special in its own way and sometimes, what I have designed does not fit what the wood lends itself to. I can draw out the shape that I want, and it will look awkward with the woodgrain or it may not compliment surrounding components. Then it is back to the drawing board to come up with something that fits the design better. It’s my job to find the best location within the project to highlight this uniqueness, picking and choosing the best piece and making sure they play well with other elements of the project. If the uniqueness is truly remarkable, I will often make design alterations to incorporate this board in an effort to bring attention to this piece. This is why the design process for my collection is incredibly fluid throughout. If it were set in stone, this would be a major ordeal. But as I want to accentuate the wood itself, reconfiguring is just another part of designing furniture.
Once, I have the design so that it works with the wood. It is time to cut, shape, plane, sand, join, glue, sand some more, and finish the piece. Writing it out, it looks short and sweet, but countless hours go into this final step of perfecting and bringing my designs to life. For me, what I am able to create makes all of the time and effort worth it.
Designing for Clients
Even when designing for a client, my process can look a little different from project to project. Though they usually fall into one of three categories, every client is different as are their requirements, making each project unique even within the following categories:
For clients who want an existing piece, there is no design time because everything is already planned out and is ready for me to just follow my tried and true pattern. The most common alterations for an existing piece might be what type of wood that they want to use and dimension changes to better fit your space and needs. Sometimes the alterations for existing designs can become quite extensive requiring extra design time. For example, when a design for a bench gets turned into a table.
But, it is for my clients who want a completely custom piece of furniture designed from the ground up that the following process truly applies.
Creating One-of-a-Kind Hardwood Furniture
I like to think that clients come to me because they have seen my work and enjoy my style. Even though they like my work and want to have something designed by me, clients always have guidelines and design aspects that have to be incorporated into their piece. Most of these are generally in relation to size, wood choice, storage needs, and functionality, but they do sometimes include the look of the design to some degree. For me the most important part of designing for clients is to make them feel connected to the process so that they know that they have played a part in the designing of their piece of functional furniture art. No two clients are the same. I have had clients who range from intensely involved to “I love your work; make me a dining table this size, and I will adore it forever.” This means that ultimately my job is to make sure that I have checked all the required boxes for the client and that the end product is constructed to last while staying true to the design aesthetics and function.
I realize that at this point my design process for customers is still probably as clear as mud, so here is a breakdown of that process as it typically unfolds:
1. The client inquires about a custom piece of furniture. At this stage any idea of design is incredibly vague, so it prompts me to respond with a series of questions to the client about particulars. Usually, this evolves into a back and forth Q&A that helps me to gather enough information to get a general idea of project cost and time.
2. Making a quote. Going off of the information that I have gathered on the client’s criteria, I like to generate a VERY ROUGH quote. It is important to present this figure to the client because usually the first question a customer has is “how much?”. This gives me and, more importantly, the client a way of determining if we are a good fit.
3. Start Designing. With a budget in mind and the client’s criteria solidified, designing can start. This is the hard part or if not hard the most involved, and this is when I reach for a notebook to start sketching. This overall step is similar to my designing for speculation “process.” Unlike when designing for speculation, designing for a customer generally has some built-in guidelines . That is not to say that I am not free to be creative nor that the design has no room to change, but that when designing for a client, I have to fit my creativity into their set of needs. It is very common for design alterations to occur during fabrication when new ideas present themselves or the wood “speaks” to me. Of course these alterations are presented to customers before proceeding.
Hopefully, this blog has given everyone a better sense of how I approach custom furniture design and gives you all a better idea of the time and effort that I put into not only my collection but into my custom design for clients as well. If there are still questions, I am always happy to answer any queries. Just beware that you might get more than you bargained for as I enjoy talking about my work almost as much as I enjoy creating it.
See you next time in the shop!