Furniture Design – Intuition, Inspiration, and the Rules

I have been giving some thought to furniture design as of late. It is not a simple black and white matter. The rules of design, when followed religiously, tend to produce designs that may be acceptable, but somewhat sterile and lacking in passion.
For every rule of design there exists an exception to that rule. Every new art form, at its inception, breaks the rules in one way or another, and then proceeds to set up its own set of new rules.

On the other hand, if the rules are given little or no respect, chaos will rule instead and there is likely to be neither cohesion nor balance.

That is not to say every great designer started by making a rigorous study of the rules. I am sure there are many gifted artists whose innate sense of balance and proportion is such that a study is not necessary. Their intuition is their only guide.

For the rest of us mortals I think it necessary to make a serious study of the rules, but at some point in time – when the rules are infused into our consciousness – we must let them go. If our designs are to have fire in their souls we must allow our inspiration to ignite the process and our intuition alone to be the guide.

Last year I was reading about Louis Sullivan and came upon this quote:

“……formulas are dangerous things. They are apt to prove the undoing of a genuine art, however helpful they may be in the beginning to the individual. The formula of an art remains and becomes more and more rigid with time, while the spirit of that art escapes and vanishes forever. It cannot live in text-books, in formulas or in definitions.”

Some of you may be interested in a related essay I wrote and posted on my website:
Regulae Stultis Sunt
(Rules are for Fools)

5 replies
  1. toddclippinger
    toddclippinger says:

    I really enjoyed this entry Darrell. You summed this up very well here and in your other essay.

    I am always interested in the perspective that others hold on the topic of design. This is what defines the person as an artist. Many chase after the topics of “pins vs. tails” or “hand tools vs. machines” but these all lead to pointless arguments. It is the individual’s ability to design that makes the artist and less the technique.

    I briefly touched on this matter of design formulas in my own site with the following:

    It is easy to share with others the knowledge of a technique such as cutting dovetails. It is very difficult to impart the knowledge of emotional expression through material.

    There are formulas for proportions and balance that theoretically should look pleasing. Often those formulas are imposed without emotion. The effect is seen in mass produced pieces that are designed for machinery and devoid of life, that is of emotion.

    I tend to design based on “emotion and feel” while maintaining awareness of the design principles.

    Todd A. Clippinger
    http://www.amcraftsman.com

    Reply
  2. Darrell Peart
    Darrell Peart says:

    Very well said – Todd!
    Skills and techniques are important, but they are essentially just the vehicle used to get you there. I agree that getting bogged down on issues of correct or incorrect techniques really does not get you where you need to go.

    Although there is a side to the “getting there” that involves creativity of its own kind. There often arises technical problems that need solving and a little creativity is what solves it.

    Emotion must be a big part of any successful art.
    When I go to a museum – and am in front of a piece that really gets me excited – I like to just soak it in -stare myself into a stupor and forget about trying to analyze it – just feel it.

    Reply
  3. Mark
    Mark says:

    Darrell,

    I enjoyed this as well as your other essay. Very well stated.

    I think that you hit it on the head when you said: “For the rest of us mortals I think it necessary to make a serious study of the rules, but at some point in time – when the rules are infused into our consciousness – we must let them go.”

    I have always felt that design rules are just another tool. Just like a saw or hand plane, the rules help us to develop a design that we want to realize if applied judiciously.

    However, application of rules alone does not make a great design. To get that “fire” that you speak of into our designs we have to break away from a strict application of rules and impart some true artistic personality. With the rules part of our intuition we can go beyond them to realize very special designs.

    This is something that I’m personally still working on…trying to transcend beyond the ordinary to something unique.

    –Mark
    The Craftsman’s Path

    Reply
  4. Greg @ Firefly Creek Estate
    Greg @ Firefly Creek Estate says:

    The rules are the grammar of woodworking.
    One cannot express themselves poetically if one does not grasp the concept words coming together to form phrases and sentences. Once the language is learned, however, the artist can play the parameters to craft their piece.

    Reply
  5. Jean
    Jean says:

    Inspiration comes from 'above'.

    The simple application of rules alone does not make a great design. To get that "fire" that you speak of into our designs we have to break away from a strict application of rules and impart some true artistic personality.
    With the rules part of our intuition we can go beyond them to realize very special designs.

    And if you really start listening, then beauty can rhyme with freedom

    Reply

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