Originality in Furniture

Wednesday, November 6 2013

Originality in furniture design is actually pretty rare, and often misunderstood. Originality, or perhaps more accurately innovation, is usually associated with the introduction of new materials such as plywood, or the development of new methods of production, such as CNC technology. It is hard to imagine Charles and Ray Eames having any significant impact on the world of furniture design had they not been intrigued by the sudden possibilities presented to them by the development and availability of plywood caused by the Second World War.

Fashion often goes hand in hand with innovations in technique and materials. IKEA, for example, is a pioneer of using new production methods and new materials in combination with a very particular sparse, clean aesthetic.  This “look” suits IKEA’s modern materials and manufacturing methods perfectly. The aesthetic is driven by the technology, and vice versa.

Many young designers are now CAD (Computer Aided Design) savvy and can model furniture designs straight onto their PCs without ever having to have any relationship with material. These modern designers are “generating” arcs rather than drawing them and often rely heavily on geometry. The result can be furniture that looks like an image rather than an object.

Pushing against these modern trends are people like us, the designer/craftsmen (sometimes called Studio Furniture Makers). We tend to use traditional methods and materials, bringing a more craft based approach to design. This approach results in very “personal” furniture that displays aesthetic sensitivity and a craftsman’s selection of materials.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to misunderstand what the word craft in this context actually means.  A craftsperson has a relationship with a particular material- an “extra” feel. This relationship is more than just a working knowledge of that material. I have a working knowledge of basic metal work, and I can bring my woodworking skills, such as accurate marking out and an understanding of process, to the work; I do not have a craftsman’s relationship with metal.

Some materials, such as plastic, are so “artificial” that I doubt anyone has a craftsman’s relationship with them. The processes for working plastic are essentially industrial (such as injection molding) so there is little opportunity for the visceral interaction of a craftsperson and their material.

Wood, glass, textiles, hot metal; all these materials can be worked with the hand and the eye in an immediate way. The design process can become one with the making process. When you buy anything truly “hand made” in this sense, you are buying something individually created. This is a very human thing to want to do, both from the buyer’s and the seller’s perspective.

Supporting craft is really just responding to a natural desire to interact with people who are pursuing their passion.