Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dabbling in design

We've been in our new home for three months, during which time I have been preoccupied with repair and maintenance.  I have rearranged my shop several times until it felt right, made plinths for my workbench, upgraded the lighting etc.  It's time to get back at it.

Unless I am following someone else's plan, I tend to approach projects with only a general idea of where I am headed and make it up as I go along.  It's foolhardy but I enjoy it and it does seem to enable creativity--at the expense of taking some wrong turns.  The next project, however, involves a lot of expensive riftsawn white oak and a lot of work, so even I recognize the need to mend my ways, to a degree at least.

The project is a desk to give my son for his graduation from law school next spring.  He is going to work for a large law firm in San Francisco and so he will spend hours at this desk late at night or early in the morning.  It's essential that it be comfortable and very functional but it also has to be fairly small, easy to move and attractive when not in use because space is at a premium in San Francisco apartments.  To me this translates into a desk that is 28" deep (so it will fit through a 30" interior door easily) and 4'-5' wide, the bare minimum for a good desk in my opinion.

As soon as I decided on these dimensions, I knew what the basic design would be.  Grant was close to his grandmother growing up and she gave us her library table (also her typewriter, by the way):

They are variously called craftsman, arts and crafts or mission style and either library tables or writing desks.  There are hundreds of versions of this classic design and several of the major magazines have plans and articles for making one.  I like this classic design very much with a couple of exceptions.  I hate the wide center stretcher because it restricts your legs and is very uncomfortable to bump into.  Some I have looked at have a stretcher on the back or just move the stretcher toward the back.  Corbels strengthen the front legs side to side.  I'll be doing something like this.  The second thing I don't like about the classic design is the drawers.  If you have long legs, they hit the stretcher under the drawers when your feet are flat on the floor, uncomfortable when the desk is in use for long periods.  You could lengthen the legs of course, but that would raise the desktop, uncomfortable for keyboard use.  I just think these drawers add too much thickness to the desktop and I am going to eliminate them and install a narrower top stretcher in their place so my son will have lots of legroom.  I know it won't look as good, but, as I'll explain, my design draws the eye elsewhere.

Especially with the drawers gone, this desk needs a place to store materials and supplies so they will be readily accessible but not visible when the desk is not in use.  I envisage a cabinet sitting on the back portion of the desk with drawers or shelves behind doors.  I was congratulating myself on this design innovation when I again looked at internet images and found similar historical examples, including some by Stickley.  That gave me confidence I am on the right track.

My original plan was to build this desk in the Greene and Greene style, which I like very much.  However, my son thinks it's too elaborate and prefers the simplicity of the original arts and crafts style.  I have some ideas about using some subtle Greene and Greene influences that I am going to try out on him.

This desk can be made in two pieces, the table and the cabinet, so it will be easy to move and I can focus on building one piece at a time.  I have a strange idea.  I am thinking about making the desktop only on the front 16" of the desk and having the cabinet fasten to it from behind using table leaf hardware to align, level and hold it.  Then it would take only seconds to disassemble it for moving.
I didn't find a plan I liked so I will be designing my own version.  I have not taken the time to learn SketchUp, so my design will be a crude drawing.  Yes, that's risky and I often realize things too late, but I always seem to come up with something and I like the creativity that it makes possible.  Things occur to me as I go along and see the piece taking shape.  As I'll describe in the next post, you never know what you will find at the lumber yard and that impacts design too.

Recently, I went to a lecture by John Economaki, owner of Bridge City Tools.  He talked about design at length and said that beginners should copy the classics until they learn more about the principles of design.  My approach is more copy with tweaks.

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