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Ian Kirby Woodworking Design: Laying Out Casework and Cuboid Furniture
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Cuboid furniture, literally just casegoods "resembling a cube in shape," can't rely on shape to be attractive, so developing a great form is the key to creating it.

The first article of this series focused on the primary tenet of good furniture design — proportion. The next two had something to say about the wood parts and that area between them — the form and space. Tables and chairs, stick furniture as we called them, were the main subjects.

It’s time now to turn to the other major furniture group, which the furniture industry refers to as “casegoods.” You might call it storage furniture. It includes objects with shelves and drawers and cupboards with doors.

To preface my remarks on designing storage furniture, it’s important to recognize that we are not designing doors or drawers: they have already been “designed.” What we are doing goes back to the beginning, which is getting the proportions and details of the various parts of the case into a visual order.

In designer language, this furniture form is often referred to as cuboid, a real-enough word meaning “resembling a cube in shape.” A cube as a working drawing is a series of squares. A cuboid as a working drawing is a mixture of rectangles and squares.

The conundrum, from a design point of view, is the division of this visually solid block into its practical parts: doors and drawers. In the case of stick furniture, the division revolves around form and space. With a cuboid piece, there is no space as part of the mix ... it’s all form.

Pattern Value
Cabinet Pattern Value When building a cuboid like this cabinet, pattern is important, the layout of the drawers, doors, and trim all must be considered in the design stage.

The front face of a cabinet is divided into doors and drawers and will present the most complex “break-up” of the rectangle. We refer to the “break-up” as its pattern, and the whole as “pattern value.” The patterns of the sides and of the top are affected by the structure of the piece. For example, if the sides are made as a frame and panel structure, they will have a different pattern value than if they are made of flat pieces of solid wood with through joints showing.

Over the last half century or so, stick furniture hasn’t changed much. Tables and chairs are about the same height as they ever were and do the same job. Not so with casegoods. Chests of drawers nearly six feet tall and better than three feet wide were common. Wardrobes were so big that you could easily step into them. Now we have closets and dressing rooms built into the house to do their job. Those oversized earlier pieces were often adorned with architectural detail: for example, a cornice so large that it looked like a crown molding. As well, there were pillars and pilasters, along with carved details that were often gilded. The days of building those oversized pieces are past.

Architectural Form and Casework
Brick Mill Building Brick buildings built before 1920, like this mill, were designed and laid out much like modern cuboid furniture, and can provide a lot of inspiration for woodworkers.

Solid wood and sound construction techniques tend to provide an orderly layout of the parts of the piece. Modern dimensionally stable materials such as veneered MDF bring wider composition and detail opportunities. The design goal is to bring wit and imagination into that order. To better exemplify the point, I’m going to go down a path which may, at first blush, seem odd, but bear with me. I want to draw an analogy between commercial buildings built before 1920 and casegoods design. Think of brick and stone buildings four or more stories high. In those days, designers and builders were working, as are woodworkers, with traditional materials and techniques. What you see is the result of the designers’ effort to combine proportion, pattern, color and texture into an oversized cuboid.

Even in the plainest of buildings — say, the mills found in the manufacturing towns of New England — the proportion and placement of brick panels to windows speaks to a carefully studied assembly. Once you get close enough to observe the detail in the brickwork, even on such an elemental structure as this, there is evidence of creative flair by both designer and builder. As you look at such buildings you may well think, “We couldn’t afford or find the skill to do that sort of detailing on today’s buildings.”

However, you can be assured that every mill ever built was budget driven. In spite of that budget, designer, bricklayer and owner wanted a result that showed their contribution to the end result, whatever their role in its making.

Commercial buildings in towns and cities show an endless variation in the juxtaposition of windows and structure. Doubtless, the form will not translate directly into a piece of furniture, but a 10-story building, after all, is a structure with distinct vertical and horizontal lines, as is the furniture form under discussion. There is enough of a connection that you can learn much by diligent observation of architectural forms, which will have a realistic payoff with regards to your understanding and manipulation of pattern in your casegoods furniture. Put another way, I’m suggesting that you will develop an awareness of pattern by looking at buildings which, after all, are oversized repetitive cuboids. The thing to look for and to realize is that, hidden in what appears to be a complex structure, is a skeleton of simplicity. As furniture designers and makers, it is the utilization of that simplicity in the composition of our casegoods that we are aiming for.

Of course, all casework is not a block sitting on the floor. Much of it comes elevated, so that space is involved in the composition.

posted on August 1, 2011 by Ian Kirby
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