Hand tool furniture, or furniture made by hand tools. I was reminded of my long-stabled hobby horse (see previous blog entry) and have been mulling over the thing again. In the current furniture climate, taste leans towards the simpler design. Florid mouldings, veneer and painted effects are out; clean lines, solid wood and 'expressed joinery' are in.
I should make a confession here. I'm not sure if the term is recent, or I'd just forgotten it during my break from woodworking, but when I first read of 'expressed joinery' in my magazine catch-up I thought for some minutes it was something to do with the speed at which it was cut... D'oh.
Now I'm a bit dichotomous about exposed joinery. I think it can look fabulous, often as an accent in an otherwise fairly boring slab of timber. But I also think it's in real danger of being as overused as mouldings ever were. In this age when available timber, and inclination, is meaning we use more and more highly-figured woods, why not let the wood do the talking with one clear voice? Does shouting against a panel of figured walnut with 16 through tenons with contrasting wedges really improve it? Okay, so I possibly exaggerate, but I'm betting many woodworkers can think of a real-world example they've seen that has started along that road.
A more worrying possibility arising out of this desire for visible joinery is one of simple craftsmanship - using the wrong joint or the right joint the wrong way because it 'looks better'. Now at the moment the only examples I can think of are in tool cabinets - and one may have been a simple error of layout and not a design choice - but one was certainly done deliberately, and it makes me wince. Viz: Cutting drawer dovetails so the tails show at the front. i.e. Completely disregarding the mechanical advantage of dovetails. For heaven's sakes, why not just dowel the thing together and put some self-adhesive tails on the front and be done? Ack.
Now obviously that's a bit extreme and it's hardly widespread - yet. But will 'expressed joinery', in its own way, end up being taken to similar extremes as the mouldings and use of poor machine joints did before it? Will it become a by-word for all that's bad in furniture as the new age of real furniture advances in a cloud of ogees and ovolos? Okay, probably not, but don't say I didn't warn ya...
Anyway, one argument seems to be that designing modern furniture with hand tools in mind is rendered difficult because of this desire for visible joinery, clean lines and no mouldings. This floated into my mind over the weekend in particular. On the one hand I was reading the Lost Art Press reprint of 'The Joiner and Cabinetmaker', and on the other I went out to lunch at a local hotel.
Yes, it wasn't bad, thanks. The game terrine is recommended. The furniture though? Variable. One monstrosity clubbed me about the head and demanded to be recorded for posterity - a cursory inspection suggests it's not particularly old and someone went mad with the off-the-shelf mouldings. Somehow it doesn't speak of time-served craftsmen labouring over a carving bench, and I think I detected some machinery in it's manufacture. All told, pretty ghastly.
Meanwhile, in 'The Joiner and Cabinetmaker', the hero of the piece ends up building a chest of drawers as his final demonstration of how much he's learnt. And thus, because of the nature of the reprint, so does Chris Schwarz - and so I've swiped the photograph of his version from his blog (do hope he doesn't mind).
So what do we have from this piece of design from 1839? Clean lines, no mouldings and... exposed joinery. And it's all made with hand tools. Okay, so the original text suggests a paint effect and a bit of simple moulding round the base, but it works with this modern interpretation perfectly well. Now if I'm reading what Chris wrote correctly, he actually cut stopped housings (dadoes) for the drawer dividers, only to realise that actually they should have gone the whole depth of the carcass. Which kinda feels like it makes my point for me - we have a tendency to think like power tool users and make furniture accordingly.
Now I can't design stuff to save my life; I have enough of a learning curve on my hands trying to make things. The requirement for the amateur woodworker to master so many diverse skills that a professional cabinetmaker of the old school would have never contemplated tackling is another hobby horse in the stable. The last thing we should feel obliged to be is designers as well. But I digress. What I mean is I can't sit down and come up with the next big thing in furniture trends - I don't have the skill. But history tells us it'll happen, and it has been known to be influenced by the trends in woodworking tools before now. At the moment that really does seem to be using hand tools, so wouldn't it be lovely if the next trend was modern furniture designed to get the best out of old tools?
But in the mean time it seems we have 1839 to draw on... ;)