Design: Is it a learnable skill?Designing vs. building, the creative vs. the practical—there are two distinct aspects to building furniture, and simply because you have technical skill doesn’t mean you naturally have a talent for design
Synopsis: Designing vs. building, the creative vs. the practical—there are two distinct aspects to building furniture, and simply because you have technical skill doesn’t mean you naturally have a talent for design. We ask four talented furniture designers (who also happen to be teachers of woodworking) whether the fundamentals of good design can be taught. Here’s what Hank Gilpin, Laura Mays, Aled Lewis, and Michael Cullen have to say on the subject.
Long before I ever started thinking about designing furniture, I knew I wanted to build furniture. I grew up watching my dad, a mechanical engineer, making things while I hung out in his basement workshop. I was in awe of the way he would look at a spot in our house, envision what he wanted to build based on a need, and then set to work making it. Voila, it was in place and in use as if the house had never been without it. We had built-in shelving, beds, outdoor furniture, radiator covers, and they all looked perfect. What I now realize is that there’s a huge part of the process from the concept to the finished product that I hadn’t noticed or considered. The designing.
At some point I started making things, and I quickly realized how separate yet intertwined and muddled are those two aspects of building furniture. Designing vs. building, the creative vs. the practical—where do the two things separate? Converge?
To see more work from each of the designers inteviewed for
this piece, click the “Launch Gallery” at the bottom of the page.
Clearly, it is possible to learn the techniques of building, and with a lot of time logged one can become skillful at it. Sure, some people have better hands than others; some are more mechanically minded and more adept at machine maintenance; some just have more aptitude or desire for pushing lumber through machines than others. In the end, though, the techniques are concrete, teachable skills.
But can one learn how to be a good designer, or is that an innate talent given only to the lucky? I’ve made enough of my own furniture, seen enough furniture made by others, juried enough exhibitions, watched enough people struggle through the process, and read enough on the subject to know that this is an elusive, daunting topic. Good design can come with experience, building confidence and trusting in your instincts that something just works or maybe doesn’t. I know I’ve learned a lot about design since I first began thinking about it (and I’m sure there’s a lot more I can learn). But I am just one maker. So I turned to a few people for help wrangling the topic, people who have been making beautiful furniture for a long time, and who spend a lot of time writing about or teaching people to make beautiful furniture. I asked them if the fundamentals of good design can be taught.
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