My 7-year-old daughter has an art supply collection to rival most craft stores. She decided to use these supplies to make me something for my birthday. That morning she came into my office and asked if she could borrow one of my furniture books to get some ideas. I gave her Great Designs from Fine Woodworking, and off she went.
A few hours later, she brought back my book and her creation. It was a desk/table thing and, most importantly, a sweet thought my little girl was proud of. It, of course, didn’t look anything like one of the pieces of furniture in the book, but it did have many elements. There were curved rails on the sides; she even took the time to color in what I think are dovetails.
When it comes to my designs, I go through a similar process to help me get to my end result and make it as original as possible. I look through tons of Google images and design books, looking for elements to incorporate into my design.
When I find a piece of furniture that really speaks to me and I want to use it for inspiration, I study the design. I try to determine what parts I like and are drawn to and what parts I am not drawn to. I keep those in mind as I work towards my final design.
Next, I go to the drawing phase. After I have studied the inspiration piece or pieces for a while, I cover up the photo and redraw it without looking at it. Several things happen as I do this.
First, I have no idea what size the piece is in the photo, so I have to decide for myself what size it needs to be. To come up with the right size for the piece, I think about where I would put it. If it is for a client, I ask them where they plan to put it. Oftentimes times their needs will dictate the overall size it needs to be. Just changing the size can change the look and feel of a piece of furniture because all the proportions will end up different from the original. Defining the overall size is the first step in making it my own style.
The second is to change the details of the piece. I can’t remember every aspect of the piece as it appeared in the photo. This is when the piece really starts to take on a life of its own. I have to fill in the blanks in my memory using my own experience of how I think things should look. For example, if it‘s a table I am working on, I most likely won’t remember what the original apron looked like. I will have to decide how far to set the apron back from the edge. I would have to remember if the apron was set back from the legs creating a reveal, or if it was flush with the legs. Then I have to decide how to join the legs to the apron. Do I want to use standard mortise and tenons, or add some visual interest by using through mortise and tenon joints?
Then I would have to try to remember the shape of the legs, where they curved at the end. Did they start out thick at the top and get thinner as they went to the bottom? If the legs are one of the elements I didn’t like in the original photo because they were too thick, then this is the time to change them by thinning them down or making it a more gradual curve.
This list of things to remember from the original will continue as I redraw the piece. Several things you can change from the original will change the overall look and feel of a piece of furniture. It is even as simple as using different wood spices or throwing in an accent wood to add visual interest.
By deciding on how to handle all those subtle differences, and by using my preferences and not referencing back to the original, I come up with something inspired by but different from the original. All those design and construction details, as small as they are individually, add up to big changes. I had to decide on each as I redrew the piece, bringing in my design tastes and personality.
Many times, I am not 100 percent satisfied with my first redraw. From that point, I will repeat the process and redraw it several times, tweaking this, that, and the other things. Each time I ask myself what is not speaking to me, I change that until I have come up with a design I am excited to build.
However, it doesn’t stop there. Once I am in the shop, I may redraw elements of the design full size to get a feel for how the finished product is going to look. Alternatively, if I can’t decide whether the leg should be 2-1/2” or 3” wide, I will mill an extra leg at 2-1/2. To get a feel for what it is going to look like. If I like it, I will adjust the design on the fly. When I am finished, I am always satisfied with my inspired design, but not a direct copy of the original piece.
If you would like to see more of my Custom Furniture Design, please check out my Website at Benham Design Concepts.