Furniture Details: Are We Perfection Obsessed?

2008.0009.2Times have gotten complicated and so have the people that live in them. Life used to be so much simpler, but was it less perfect? I’m not talking about the quality of life, but what we as a people expect of it.

I see it in many aspects of our lives, but it’s most clear to me in woodworking (probably because I’m fully immersed in it daily). What I’m talking about is our quest for absolute perfection, and I’m as guilty as any. Somehow I just don’t think our forefathers were as worried about the minutiae of things. They were too busy hunting and gathering to worry about taking a “half-a-thou” shaving with a handplane.

The Industrial Revolution has ruined mankind. We’ve driven the soul out of the creative process. Everything is all “piston-fit.” Sometimes I just think we need to relax and enjoy things for what they are – not what we wish they were.

The cupboard pictured in this post is a beauty. It’s a large piece, but it doesn’t appear to be bulky. The feet look large enough to adequately support a piece of this size and the crown molding certainly doesn’t look like a shrunken head up there. The door panels give the piece good lift while not being so tiny that they look out of place. The drawers look roomy, but don’t stand out as being way out of proportion to the rest of the piece. And the size of the panes of glass in the doors is large enough that you can see the contents of the cabinet, but small enough that the doors themselves don’t look gargantuan. All-in-all it’s a cupboard of great design – a real thoroughbred.

The things that are going to bother most people are the shelf placement in the upper cabinet and the door pull placement. And this is exactly what I’m talking about at the beginning of this blog post. Who cares if the shelves don’t line up with the door mullions? And there’s a practical reason the one stirrup drop is higher than the other. When I look at this piece, I see the work of a highly skilled craftsman who had a tremendous eye for design. What he didn’t have was an obsessive-compulsive need to line up everything perfectly. And he’s not alone.

There are lots of 18th-century pieces out there that have misaligned hardware and/or shelves placed for optimal use rather than optimal aesthetics. I’ve seen hardware that was mismatched or missing altogether. There’s something to be said for appreciating the quirks that some makers built into their pieces. And in the case of this particular cupboard, just because the guy was building in the Chippendale style doesn’t mean he had to make absolutely everything symmetrical. Sometimes, we just have to appreciate things for what they are – with all their faults included.

— Chuck Bender





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5 thoughts on “Furniture Details: Are We Perfection Obsessed?

  1. Sure would like to know a little detail about this piece. Who, what, where, whatever you can reveal!

    thanks Chuck.

    1. Bill,

      Most of those things you ask about are usually unknown when it comes to the majority of 18th century pieces. This cupboard, however, descended in the Foltz family and now resides in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley ( ). The piece is made from walnut with yellow pine secondaries. That cool little punchwork design under the crown, is a Shenandoah Valley thing. It’s really a pretty spectacular piece, in my opinion. If you have more specific questions, ask away.

      1. Iam in the process of making a cherry Country Hutch based upon the FWW plan purchased just before Christmas, so this raised my interest immediately! The space below the upper section certainly is unique and referenced in the museum web site description.

        What is “cool little punchwork design under the crown” referring to, do you mean what I see as the dentil just below the top or am I going to learn something else new from the gang of three?

        Thanks again for the nice blog entry.


        1. Bill,

          I’ve added a close-up view of the punchwork detail to the original post. The photo’s not huge, but if you look at the square blocks between the reeded sections, you should be able to see a pattern. It’s those little groupings of five dots that I’m talking about.

          The space below the upper section is fairly common on Pennsylvania step-back cupboards and is called a pie shelf (I’ve also added a picture of a cupboard I made that was a mash-up of several period designs that lived in my house until the move to Ohio). I realize this cupboard is from the Shenandoah Valley, but a large group of people moved from the area around my old home in Chester County, PA down through The Valley and into North Carolina. They took with them a lot of their design sense and construction techniques. So much so, that pieces from The Valley are often mis-characterized as being from eastern Pennsylvania.

          Keep the questions coming.

  2. Outstanding piece Chuck. Absolutely spot on in my opinion.

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