I’ve thought a lot about furniture for awhile now: how ergonomic it is, how long it will last, if it can be repaired or recycled, is it a good value for the price, that sort of thing.
As much as I’ve thought about these things, it’s always been from the perspective of a consumer buying furniture for my use at home or for someone else’s use at an office. It’s only recently that I’ve thought about it from the perspective of someone who makes furniture. Like any thing, once you start thinking about making a thing, you start thinking about the thing very differently. You start to really see and appreciate the object’s individual elements, how it is assembled or subtleties in the design and manufacture. You quickly become the sort of irritating pedant who can’t ever be pleased because you now see more than you should. “This is cheap paint. They stained this pine to look like cherry. This is dyed cotton and not a woven pattern in linen. This chrome is cheaply done and too thin. They recorded this on a portable DAT so you don’t hear the true sound. The Amiga had that feature two years ago. Digital cameras will never replace film.” Well, you get the idea….
On my own, I’ve sketched out a few different things and even started making an artsy furniture rack for my friends Laura and Eric. I’ve made a few mistakes in the design and procedure that I’ve been able to fix but it’s still taking me much longer to finish than I’d like. My measurements were mostly ok, I took into account blade width when making cuts, I’ve got great tools, but every little mistake in design or fabrication order sets me back a half-hour or so trying to fix it. Another problem is that I have to empty out half of my garage to even start to work on it due to the size. (Yet another an error in design and planning — don’t build things bigger than your shop.) Oh, and I prefer TIG/GTAW welding which is slower than any other form of welding ever invented. (But it’s so pretty! So, so pretty! And you can weld pretty much anything to anything!)
Right as my frustration was starting to peak, I saw a listing in The Crucible‘s flyer for a furniture making class. If nothing else, maybe I could finish the rack there, where they have plenty of space and a wider collection of tools.
My First Furniture Class
In most of the Industrial Design programs I’ve looked into, classes in furniture making are only offered to Juniors and Seniors. There’s probably all sorts of good pedagogical logic behind this, but I think there’s also a lot of value in learning-by-doing and worrying about the theory later. Rather than wait two or three more years to take a class on furniture, I signed up for a 16-week class at The Crucible. The title is “Furniture Fabrication and MIG Welding”, it’s taught by a professional furniture fabricator, we get to use damn near every piece of gear at The Crucible and there are only 5 people in the class. The only down side so far is that it starts at 10am on a Saturday and it takes me about an hour to get there.
The instructor, Gomez, has a great background and is a really good instructor. He’s a professional furniture fabricator, but he also has a MFA in Sculpture. He can also pack in the information — our first class included visiting a metal supply house, checking out the Bruce Beasley retrospective at the Oakland Museum, and a refresher on MIG welding. In our second class we dealt with laying out patterns on metal, brakes, presses, more MIG welding and grinding. We were instructed to have projects ready to start the next week. I had some rough sketches I could show him and we gave me enough feedback that I could go off and start buying metal right away.
It’s clear that Gomez has made a lot of furniture and seriously knows what the hell he’s doing. I showed him my rough sketches and he was immediately asking the sort of second-iteration questions I ask junior UNIX(tm) geeks when I want them to find and fix their mistakes. “What’s this side drawing going to look like from the front? Do you know how heavy this will be? How are you going to finish the legs so they don’t scratch the floor? What are these bits going to be made of? How do you plan on fastening these other bits together?”
Furniture making is really different than I expected it to be — design and layout can be tricky and some of the fabrication methods are really tedious. But I think I was right that getting my hands dirty without having much design theory is going to help me when I start learning the theory.
(I’ll update this soon with photos and sketches soon of the various works in progress and a review of Galen Cranz’s The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design.)
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