See Like a Designer | Popular Woodworking Magazine

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Good bones. Learn to see the form to understand the hidden structure of a drawing.

Look for the “bones” to see how the shape defines the design.

IIt happens during almost all furniture design workshops. At the start of the second day, a load of students shows up 20 minutes late.

One would think they would be embarrassed, but instead they all break out giggling and excited. Then the story comes up. They were on the road with plenty of time until they noticed a courthouse, library, cathedral or theater across the street. Minutes early, they massed for a closer look. It was then that they realized they had new eyes. Instead of just seeing an old building with stone walls and wooden doors, they first saw what the original designer saw: the once hidden shapes and patterns, now alive again for those who can see.

I have yet to distribute the punishments for these latecomers. Truth be told, once you start seeing yourself as a designer, it’s hard to resist the lure of a large building or masterful piece of furniture. So what does it mean to see you as a designer? What do designers see that most mortals don’t see?

Order out of chaos

strabismus. Close your nearly closed eyes until the details blur to see the bold shapes in this design.

It’s not that a designer’s eye doesn’t see the same things we do: details like woodwork, wood grain and color. But those are all separate elements that, on their own, are each but a piece of the puzzle. If anything, a designer’s eye sees details with greater depth and understanding because each is seen in the context of the entire project. In some ways, details can be obstacles to actually seeing a drawing, such as being too close to a large painting so that it is impossible to take the entire masterpiece. So let’s take a step back and look through a designer’s eye.

The first and most important thing is to take shape. A shape is usually a simple shape or a combination of simple shapes that is invisible just below the surface. A shape gives bones to the design, whether through a bold and simple geometric design or a complex exterior that hides elusive shapes beneath. It can be as simple as a circle or square, or a combination of different shapes, such as rectangles, ovals, or triangles.

One way to find the shape in a piece of furniture is to look at it and squint almost half-closed eyes. Squinting will blur the details and allow you to see the shape underneath. Try this technique of squinting at something that is overdone in ornament or decoration. You will see over all the surface noise what lies below and you may be surprised to find something unexpected.

Once the general form is displayed, the door opens to unpacking a project. Take a closer look at how it breaks down into simple smaller shapes, such as doors and drawers or even open spaces.

But it is important not to think about what you look at as doors, drawers or open compartments. Instead, try to see only squares, rectangles and circles – simple shapes. And once you’ve identified the smaller shapes, take a step back and compare them both to the overall shape and to each other. Depending on how complex the design is, you may also be able to identify smaller secondary shapes. Ask questions about how these simple shapes relate to the whole. Are they arranged symmetrically? Are the rectangles different in size to play with each other?

Good lines and bones

What’s inside. The sloping parts, such as the back and legs of this chair, are easier to visualize when viewed against an internal form.

It is often said that a piece of furniture has beautiful lines. It might sound cliché, but there’s really something important about the lines of a design. Lines reveal how the actual boundaries of a design relate to the internal form.

Going back to our bone analogy, lines are like skin and muscles that echo the skeleton, or shape, below. Our design could be built around a rectangular cuboid shape, but the actual lines of the piece could curve in relation to that internal shape. And knowing this can go a long way in understanding and seeing the curves. If you can compare a curved line to a straight line on the shape below, your eye will have a reference to measure the sweep of the curve. Suddenly, a curve that was floating in space gets a visual anchor to help us see it.

But it’s not just curves that refer to a shape. A design can have angular lines that spring from an internal shape, such as a chair design with lines that are neither vertical nor horizontal. Yet a designer’s eye sees these lines in relation to an inner form.

Our modern industrial approach uses degrees to measure the angle of a line. But when you think about it, using degrees is just a mathematical way to describe a sloping line. What a designer’s eye looks for is how lines or edges relate to vertical or horizontal planes in an underlying shape. Degrees are useful when setting up a machine for a cut, but are less important than being able to see how angled lines relate to a shape.

There is no going back

There is a drawback to flipping the switch in your head that allows you to see the underlying shapes in a drawing: once you start selecting shapes, you can’t miss them. You will gain a greater understanding of why some designs are attractive and why some are downright awful, and you will become gruffier about what you like and dislike. But I think it’s actually a good thing.


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