We got off to a running start yesterday for the Chair Design class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine. We did a rather different kind of woodworking – the quick and dirty kind – but by the end of the day, everyone had a prototype that they could sit on. Everyone also had a much better understanding of what makes a comfortable chair. We actually modified the prototypes multiple times over the course of the day, and with each modification, that understanding grew. I found this all quite exciting, as students would go from, “This is ok,” to “Oh, this is much better,” to “Oh wow! This is great!”
These comfort prototypes answer some of the important questions when building a chair, but now we’ve started down a similar path with many of the visual elements. To figure out how their chairs will look, everyone is both drawing and doing rapid prototypes in insulating foam, MDF, cardboard, or poplar. And then there will be countless modifications as we get closer and closer to a good design.
I’m fascinated by chairs. I’ve been building them for 27 years now. And after all this time and hundreds and hundreds of chairs, I think I’m starting to get somewhere, too. More and more, various aspects of chair design and construction are making sense to me. And my enthusiasm continues to grow as I explore and create more.
The previous version of the rocker
My current project is an update on my rocking chair design. This is a chair that is definitely pushing my limits. I’ve had to develop new joinery techniques (I’ll talk about these over the next couple of posts), and I’ve been ‘enjoying’ all of the shaping. It’s amazing how tough it is to get 3-dimensional curves just right from all angles. In an earlier version I was shocked to see how just how awkward certain curves looked from one particular angle when they looked so good from somewhere else. Many subtle (and some major) adjustments later, I think it’s much closer to working from all possible angles.
The most important lesson I’ve had to re-learn here is that it takes real fortitude to get through the design process when it gets complicated. It’s hard to look at a part of the chair I’ve just spent much of the day making and decide to scrap it for something just a little different. But that’s what I’ve been doing over and over throughout this process.
There’s still plenty to go, and I’m already on to the next version in my head. More little changes on tap there, mostly having to do with bending technique. This version and the prior one were laminations. I want the flexibility of bent solid wood, so the main branching parts can be shaped a little bit more freely.
It all began simply enough.
I have a lot of confidence in my ability to make a very comfortable chair – that’s partly experience and partly the fact that I often build a ‘comfort prototype’. I wasn’t about to skip this step on this design. I’ve learned that making a rocking chair is much more than just adding rockers to a chair. Rockers also seem more personal. Some people want them to rock back easily, others want something more upright. I decided I wanted something that settles you back into a position that takes stress off the back, and that rocks fairly easily. A quick trip to the scrap pile and an afternoon’s experimentation and I had a couple of prototypes. I played around with seat and back shapes (I ended up with a back contour I’ve used before), and rocker position and shape until I had something I liked (actually, something I fell asleep in at lunchtime the next day). And then the real fun began.
I’ll detail all of that fun over the next few posts.