The ground work

Today I’m going to start a whole new project. The education of the masses on what makes one piece of furniture better than another. Sure, we woodworkers would probably look at the construction techniques or the refinement of the carving and make the determination based on that observation but we’re missing something. The sum of the collective parts is not necessarily greater than the whole. What I mean is, if a piece is meticulously crafted but is lacking in design, and detail, it will still be something less than a masterpiece.

Much like my Woodworking Fundamentals courses, I think we need to start with a Connoisseurship Fundamentals. Without the proper foundation, we can never hope to fully understand what makes one piece better than another. This is going to be the first in a series of posts on design and aesthetics. That doesn’t mean we won’t discuss construction techniques. In many instances the construction techniques are an integral part of the design. In others, while not seen, those techniques enhance the overall quality of the piece. I’m also not going to limit this discussion to “period” furniture. The rules and principles of design and connoisseurship apply regardless of the style or time frame in which a piece is made.

The first concept you need to understand is “there is nothing new under the sun”. Even the furniture makers of the period (I mean the guys in the 18th Century), were building their work on the shoulders of those who went before them. Whether it’s Chippendale’s inclusion of Greek and Roman architectural elements into furniture or Greene and Greene’s take on Jacobean furniture, very few craftsmen have ever gone in a completely different direction than everyone else who has ever lived. Sam Maloof put his own spin on a 1920’s arrowback rocker and became a modern day woodworking legend. What people don’t usually figure out in all of this is that even the Greeks and Romans based their variations in architecture on elements of things they were exposed to in the far reaches of their empires.

I guess we could trace the origins of design back to the first caveman who decided that a log laying across two rocks looked like a better place to eat than on the ground. From there everything built on what came before. In this analogy you saw two elements of connoiseurship at their beginnings. Form and function go hand in hand throughout this discussion. The caveman saw a need. He needed to get his food up off the ground. By laying a log across a couple of rocks (or maybe even just a large flat rock spanning two other rocks but this is a woodworking blog…) he opened up the door to embellishment and changes in construction techniques. A flattened board would look, and work better than a round log. Higher rocks meant he didn’t have to stoop as much. Exchanging the rocks for wooden legs joined together by aprons meant he could move his new found piece of furniture around.  And so on. It is this evolution of design combined with the discussion of construction techniques that will be the basis of this connoisseurship discussion.

With a little luck, this discussion will never end. I’ve been intently studying the aspects of connoisseurship for over thirty years and I still have a long way to go. So, just what is connoisseurship? Webster’s defines it as being “expert”. A connoisseur is “one who understands the details, techniques, or principles of an art and is competent to act as a critical judge” additionally it is “one who enjoys with discrimination and appreciation the subtleties”.

As you can see from that definition, connoisseurship does not focus on only one aspect of an art form. It is the appreciation and knowledge of the art form as a whole and in its intricacy. As a woodworker I may tend to stray from the path at times and focus on the techniques or construction details that make one piece better than another. If I seem to be leaning that direction, hopefully some of you will set me back on the path. In this ongoing discussion I want to consider everything that goes into making a great piece of furniture from, and here’s where the scope of this discussion narrows a bit, wood selection to joinery techniques to proportions and even hardware choices. Essentially I want to discuss anything that directly impacts the overall standing of a piece. If there are things you’ve always wondered about, make sure you ask. This discussion, as I said earlier isn’t going to be limited to one type of furniture, or even one type of woodworking for that matter.

Until the 18th Century, most pieces of furniture were relatively simple. Now I know that statement is going to get me into trouble with the 17th Century crowd but I did say “most” and “relatively”. Function dominated form. Oh sure, they did some embellishment but it was primarily decorative carving or applique. Tables tended to be simpler in form as did chairs. And chests were little more than boxes…literally chests (hence the term).  With that said, even the simplest forms can be critiqued. A masterpiece will always stand out. It is the attention to detail that drives it to a higher level. Even the simplest of boxes has aspects of its nature that cause it to rise to the top. Proportion, construction, wood selection, coloration and finish all combine, with many other aspects, to create a whole. That whole can be viewed critically and ranked.

Since everything that has ever been built is a progression on what has gone before, we will be studying many things both old and new is this discussion. I may show you examples of extremely early pieces set beside a Wharton Esherick piece so that you can understand how we got from one point to another. We might look at the subtleties of a David Ellsworth turning in comparison to an ancient Egyptian vase and a 17th Century gateleg table. As you can imagine, this conversation can go in nearly any direction over an unlimited period of time. With a little luck, it will even be entertaining as well as educational. I’ll begin to narrow the scope of the discussion in the next segment, Connoisseurship Fundamentals 1 (original isn’t it?).

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10 thoughts on “The ground work

  1. Chuck this sounds great. I can’t wait to get started learning what makes a great not good peace of furniture. Also the history of some of the styles 18th vs 17th ect.. and were to find addtional information sounds like great. I think this will become a great rescouce for many people. thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us.

  2. Chuck,

    Your comment “if a piece is meticulously crafted but is lacking in design, and detail, it will still be something less than a masterpiece”, is so true.

    At the time when I was building muzzle loaders, I tried to explain to beginning builders that a poorly designed piece will never look “Right” no matter how much carving and inlays you put on it. A very plain rifle will be elegant if the architure is right.

    Form follows function in almost all cases.

    Good post, Chuck and a great start.

    Keep ‘um comin’, I’m thirsting for knowledge! 8^)

    Charlie M.

  3. Hey Chuck,

    This is the type of discussion that can add to the knowledge of many woodworkers and folks that study furniture. Given I focus on 18th and early 19th century work – as do you – I await the next entry. Count on me to read, enjoy and participate in the upcoming discussion.

    Keep it coming,

  4. Thanks guys for all the comments and welcome to the discussion Glen. Charlie and daddy-O were getting lonely here. It’ll be great to have your thoughts and perspective as this progresses.

    This is going to be an incredibly fun series for me. Like I said, it may never actually end. This subject has been the main thrust of my entire furniture making career. If you can learn and understand all the different facets of a piece, you’ll certainly be well on your way to making masterpieces time after time. It’s just one more piece of the puzzle that most woodworkers never get the chance to explore.

    Dovetail saws are coming soon!

  5. Glenn,

    I’m glad you’re joining in on the discussion. I have read your magazine articles often and have a couple of your books. I find them to be great reference material.

    Chuck is obviously a very talented individual with a fire in his belly to build beautiful pieces. I hope he starts writing more. His knowledge would be a great contribution to all woodworkers.

    As for myself, I am mostly self taught with a strong capentry background from my dad and grandad. In fact all my ancestors from the Revolutionary War onward have been craftsmen of some kind.

    I am endevoring to, as you say, “Go build something beautiful”!

    Charlie M.

  6. Glenn thanks for the comments I like Charles also have a few books with DVD’s in fact I talked with Chuck about some of the demo’s you did in your dvd. Ogee bracket feet. The thing I like is with you and chuck in this discussion we will have many ways to get to the end result. Chuck and you do Ogee braket feet a little diffent but in the end you end with the same thing. A well crafted ogee bracket foot. Thanks for jumping in on this on going subject and look forward to reading your’s and chucks comments. By the way Chuck when are we getting this plane off the ground? I’m looking forward to it almost like Christmas!

  7. Chuck I do want dovetail saws. Can you at least give us an idea on the first topic so i can think about it and sound some what knowlegdeable. Okay you can all stop laughing now 🙂 but really do you know what the first topic is?

  8. Plane? I thought you wanted dovetail saws! 😛

    And I’m pretty sure it’s off the ground. I believe the first lessons were so well crafted you hardly realized you were learning something… 😉

    Charlie, hold on tight, you may get what you wish for…if my constant posting here isn’t enough writing already. I am a woodworker you know…

    And if I didn’t make it abundantly clear before, the guys certainly have now. Thanks Glen for joining in the fray.

  9. Dovetail saw post is over half way in the bag. It should post tomorrow morning some time.

    Form and function is all I’m gonna say…

    Ok, it’s not ALL I’m gonna say but I’m not going to elaborate until the next post. the other lesson that got underway is “what is connoisseurship?”. The longer this discussion continues, the more refined our definition will be…which is the definition of a connoisseur, actually. Lastly, there was something about originality but I may have said that before…

    See you tomorrow!

  10. […] connoisseurship? It’s been quite some time but I talked a little about it in an earlier blog post. The simple definition is that connoisseurship is the educated, intellectual, critical analysis of […]

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