Learning to Design Furniture

      Tips on good books and resources for learning the principles of furniture design. November 26, 2006

I run a small finish carpentry company and try to offer custom cabinets/furniture, but mostly I trim out houses. I have a couple of clients now that want me to build some custom furniture. I have been building for a few years, but I don't really know anything about art design. What books or classes have you found to be helpful in design?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor M:
Where are you located? If you're in southern California, you're in luck. Cerritos College has a great furniture design class, and great woodworking program as well. Palimar near San Diego might help you as well as College of the Redwoods further north in California.

From the original questioner:
I'm in Seattle, but thanks for the heads up anyway.

From contributor W:
I highly suggest Thomas Moser's Measured Shop Drawings book. Shaker, Winsor and some Mission inspired work, but well proportioned, simple and elegant designs. A great place to start and many different items.

From contributor M:
I have that book and can't believe I didn't mention it. It's a great book.

From contributor D:
Thomas Chippendale's "The Gentleman & Cabinet-maker's Director" is a great book that contains all the rules of classic proportioning. Fine Woodworking's "Making Period Furniture" also has some good sections on design.

From contributor W:
Keep in mind that there are many rules people have evolved over time: proportions, ratios, do's, don'ts, etc. It is good to start with them, however, don't become a slave to them. The biggest do's are: develop your own style (it could be based on historic styles), build to last generations, and fit your customer. That way, you will be happy doing the work and your customer will be happy with your work.

From contributor D:
One of the most valuable tips I ever got was to simply copy stuff that is thought to be good. That is, get an old copy of Wallace Nuttig's book on antiques and notice the proportions of height to width and the ratios going on. Compare them to the top line Euro design things (Ligne-Rosset, etc) and also FL Wright and T Moser. You will see some similarities and differences. This will become a good starting point for your casework. It doesn't mean you have to build 18th century, but look at enough of it so you know what and why it is considered good. Carry that on to your designs and evolving style. Learn to draw/sketch. Learn to look. And don't assume/agree anything is well designed until you feel you know why it is well designed. If you are reading Moser, that's great. Add Nakashima, Greene and Greene, Nuttig, and some 20th century. I'm not a big fan of art schools - long story - but I'm a big proponent of good design and historical evolution of design.

From the original questioner:
Wow, thanks for the info. I'm getting a list together of books to buy soon.

From contributor P:
Another aspect, and in my opinion the most important feature, of good design is solving the functional problems that the client presents.

From contributor L:
Seattle Central Community College Wood Technology Division, also known as Samuel S. Gomper's, is a very good school with cabinet, boat and carpentry divisions. The teachers are all experienced woodworkers and are quite knowledgeable and friendly. If you stop, by I'm sure you could bend an ear for a few minutes and get some good tips. It's also a pretty good place to find beginning woodworkers with useful experience. The cabinet and boat divisions both give a very good education on building jigs, and the cabinet division does a nice job of covering ratios and aesthetics. Some casework furniture; I'm not sure if they cover chair making.

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