It’s all around you, and it’s up for grabs
Designing a piece of furniture can be a complex equation. There are a million variables to consider: size, proportions, styling, arrangement of doors and drawers, type of hardware, joinery, etc. etc. But occasionally, you find yourself sitting on a lucky design launchpad.
Such was the case when I recently replaced a side table that had lived in my kitchen for years. Although not really to my taste, the piece was not without charm. Cobbled together with disparate woods stained into agreement, it was graced with modest flair in the form of a shaped splash, corbel-style leg brackets, a curved drawer-rail molding, and legs scalloped to imply feet. Sadly, time had not been kind to it; the frame was wobbly, the nailed-together drawer jammed relentlessly, and the finish had long ago lost its luster.
But I appreciated certain aspects of it, including the size, proportions, capacious drawer, and the open base that avoided crowding the small room. The shelf served as a display platform for large items or as temporary staging for everything from magazines to kitchen appliances. I incorporated what I liked about the design into a more contemporary version made from maple (p. 32). Keeping the basic size and proportions, I reduced the splash, used curved stretchers all around, and routed edging details in the legs, aprons, and rails as subtle surprises for investigating eyes. Small brackets serve as horizontal-to-vertical transitions, a trisected shelf accommodates wood movement, and custom pulls accent the front.
However, for all the finessing I did, I basically stole the fundamental design and made it my own. What’s beautiful is that—because I had been eyeing the piece for some time—I knew exactly what I wanted to lift from it. It reminded me that, as furniture makers, we should constantly practice our design-burglary skills. Perhaps a lovely dining table catches your eye when having dinner at someone’s home. Take note of what you like about it. And don’t be shy about asking the owner what they do and don’t enjoy about it; people love it when a woodworker takes an interest in their furnishings. Snap phone shots if they don’t mind, and take some rough measurements. Don’t always carry a tape rule? Shame on you. Use your body parts as a general reference. Take notes on a phone memo app. Just don’t spend the whole evening casing the joint, or you might give furniture makers a rude reputation. And keep in mind that crawling around under someone’s carefully set dinner table might not be appropriate at the moment.
The point is, keep an eye out everywhere you go for good ideas. And if there’s something to steal, go for it! But if you get caught, I don’t know you.