Furniture Design Books
January 1, 2010
Eric Campbell compiled this list while he was a student here, and now he is one of our instructors. Here's what he has to say:
In compiling this list of books on furniture design, I found that I liked two kinds of books — “How-to” design books and books to read for inspiration. There are many picture books — surveys of furniture styles illustrated in various degrees of love and competence and a solitary textbook on what a furniture designer needs to know and what he does for a living.
In addition to the books I reviewed, I read several others that were not as useful for me as the ones listed. Every book listed is good, but different books will be good for different readers. Although many are out of print, they are available through ABE.com, Amazon.com (and other booksellers) and through the Minuteman Library Network (covering Metrowest). All but the Postell are available through the Boston Public Library.
Please let us know if you would like to add your own reviews.
Design Your Own Furniture, by Jim Stack
Popular Woodworking, 2002, 128p
This is an excellent introduction to designing your own furniture. It starts with elements of design, sketching, fooling around with ideas, and progresses through making working drawings and materials lists. The author then quickly traces through the process of designing and building a small project.
The remaining chapters cover various furniture types - beds, dressers, sideboards, hutches, bookcases, tables, chairs, stools, and rockers. For each furniture type he discusses requirements for use, standard sizes, and other design considerations. Every point is illustrated with examples of good design, in a variety of styles. The identifying features of each style are explained.
This book packs a lot of good information into a small package. An experienced designer may not return to it, but a novice will never get lost or bored. It is a great first book on furniture design. Even if you don’t buy it, borrow it from the library and read it before trying to design your first piece.
Woodworker’s Library, Taunton Press, 2000, 177p.
This book covers the same ground as Jim Stack’s, but in a different way. It is a collection of magazine article reprints from Fine Woodworking magazine, each by a different author. That is not a criticism, as Fine Woodworking is the best of the woodworking magazines. The first three chapters cover aspects of sketching and model building - how to describe your idea without being bogged down by the nitty-gritty details of building it. This is followed by a short chapter on going from sketch to working drawing. Then come the three miscellaneous chapters. “Designing along the Grain” is an excellent essay on what wood grain is and how to use it to enhance your furniture design and how it will bite you if you ignore it. “Finishes for Outdoor Furniture” and “Choosing the Strongest Joinery for Doors” are just what they seem to be.
The rest of the book is divided into three sections on design options for tables, cabinets, and chairs. Each chapter within a section is devoted to considering a single design issue and the relative merits of a series of potential solutions. A typical example, “Attaching Tabletops,” explains how to fasten a top to a table so that it is secure yet lets the top move as it swells and shrinks with changing humidity and so avoid cracking or splitting. The author presents eight solutions in enough detail you could design and build any of them with confidence.
This book is more detailed than Jim Stack’s. There are fewer design issues presented, but each is discussed in more depth. It sits on the border between furniture design and woodworking technique, but is more strongly in the design camp. Some of the solutions in the latter chapters are presented in more detail in the woodworking books. But it is hard to find a book that covers the pure design issues like this one does.
Taunton Press, 1989, 211 p.
This is the best book on furniture design I have found and is the book I wish I had had during the Basic Furniture Design class. It covers some of the same ground as Jim Stack’s Design Your Own Furniture, but omits the descriptions of the furniture types and their requirements, and adds a lot of information on design vocabulary and design concepts.
The first section of this book explains the design process, starting with a vague statement of a concept. An example concept from the book: “make a folding chair that had strong visual impact both when open and closed, and that when folded could be a wall sculpture.” The author then leads the reader through the process of researching what the concept means and then adding enough detail to the concept to begin a design based on it. He then briefly describes eight design steps to get from the concept to working drawings. The three most important are sketching, sketching, and sketching. He strongly encourages the reader to use quick sketches to explore as many different possibilities as possible before settling on a design approach to develop.
The middle section was for me the best part, because it was the area I had the least previous exposure to. Called A Visual Vocabulary, it explores the concepts of Form, Composition and Proportion, and then Color, Texture, and Ornamentation. Everything is illustrated with multiple examples – some of pieces that used the principles being explained and some that didn’t. He used the lesson vocabulary to explain why the latter pieces don’t work. I didn’t aalways agree with him, and you might not either. But you should be prepared to argue your case using the vocabulary he is teaching. This section is not about rules, it’s about learning a vocabulary of design concepts and using that vocabulary to talk about design and be able to discuss why one design looks elegant and another looks “off.” The author has the self- confidence to use some of his own work in both categories.
The book then gently slides into more advanced concepts in a section called Directing the Design. These cover unity, dominance, repetition, contrast, character, and style, and how to use them effectively. Again, like the more elementary concepts, everything is well illustrated with both positive and negative examples.
The last section is a set of nuts and bolts appendices – how to draft working drawings, using perspective, building models, and making mockups. The final appendix is the story of a wine decanting table taken from vague concept through sketches, drawings, mockups, and finally to construction and sale. He includes a bonus picture of a minor construction error and a short discussion of what he should have done to avoid it.
This is a book I plan to come back to many times in the future.
Fox Chapel Publishing Co., 2008, 367 p.
Illustrated Cabinetmaking falls right between the books on pure design like Seth Stem’s and a how-to woodworking book. This is the book you would go to after having done all your sketches and drawings. You know exactly what the piece is supposed to look like and are ready to make the working drawings you will use in the shop. How do you translate your great sketch into shop drawings you can build from?
The first section (called joints) explains the most common and useful joints in furniture construction. The second section (called subassemblies) explains how different local design problems can be solved. Examples include how to construct the back of a cabinet and how to attach a tabletop to a table. The third section (called furniture) reviews 104 different types of furniture and shows exploded drawings of how they are constructed, along with design variations you could use. It also gives references to where you can buy detailed plans for all the furniture presented.
If you know what your piece will look like, you should be able to find a piece of furniture in this book that has a similar basic layout and discover how it is put together and use those ideas in your piece. The exploded-view drawings that accompany every topic are extremely clear and easy to read.
This is not a how-to woodworking book. There is no instruction on how to build a mortise and tenon joint, but excellent advice on when to use one. Neither is there any mention of tools, technique, or jigs. But it is the best book I have found in that middle ground and it is one I will be revisiting many times.
Inspiration & Examples
There are many books published that survey furniture styles through history — too many to even list them, let alone review them.
Furniture – World Styles From Classical to Contemporary, by Judith Miller
DK Publishing, 2005. 549 p.
This one came highly recommended by Furniture Design teacher Matt Files. I paged through several more at the library and decided he was right - this is one of the best. If after reading it, you find a particular style that intrigues you, there are many good books that focus on only one particular style in depth, like Shaker or Queen Anne furniture.
In one sense, this is a very simple book – a collection of over 3,000 gorgeous color photographs of the very best designed furniture from 4000 BC to the beginning of the 21st century. If you have more than a causal commitment to furniture design and plan on designing a second piece after the class is over, you owe it to yourself to look at this book. One of the best ways of improving your eye for good design is to see lots of good design, and Ms. Miller has collected a lot of it together in one place for you. There is also a very high level summary of world history running along the bottom of most pages and the text ties the changes in furniture styles to events in world history. It also introduces each major style with a description of the design features characteristic of that style. The Klismos chair of ancient Greece is one of the most beautiful I have seen (see pp 22-23).
The book does not instruct the reader in how to design and the pieces pictured are almost all beyond the skill level of all but the most talented professional with a team of expert woodworkers behind him. But you will find features, curves, lines, drawer arrangements, shapes, knobs, and so forth that you will like and want to use in some piece you are thinking about designing. This is a great idea book and reference for a professional or serious amateur designer.
Furniture Design, by Jim Postel
John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, 320p.
This book was written as a textbook for an introductory course in furniture design, “as a comprehensive survey, as a resource to give the reader a deeper understanding and provide knowledge and inspiration for designing and making furniture.” The first three chapters survey furniture in general, providing several classifications based on functional use, social use, materials, and esthetics. This is followed by 24 case studies of furniture pieces from 700 BC to 2007 AD where each piece is described in the context of its time, as well as its influence on future styles. (This is the book that introduced me to the Klismos chair from ancient Greece – one of the most graceful side chairs ever built.) The second half of the book discusses aspects of the design process: Theory, Design, Materials, Fabrication, and Professional practice and Marketing. It finishes up with a very brief history of furniture styles, illustrated with low-resolution black and white photos.
This is a large, expensive book and I was expecting a lot more meat for my money. The topics are all covered superficially. (Too much effort was put into enlarging the vocabulary of the book instead of its concepts.) It should be noted that the book gives equal weight to all kinds of modern furniture – chrome pipe and leather, cardboard, molded plastic, as well as wood.
If you are looking for specific concrete design help with furniture you can make yourself, this is not the best book for you. However, it is a great opportunity to expand your thinking. Especially if you are taking the Furniture Design course in order to explore a possible career in the area, you should definitely read this book. It is a great overview of the kinds of things a professional furniture designer needs to know and to consider in making his design choices – from how the piece will be used, by whom, what kind of space it will be used in, what features it needs, what materials are appropriate for that niche, how those materials can be manipulated to fabricate furniture, to how it would be marketed and sold.