Designing and Building the Lounge Chair No. 3
For the woodworker, hobbyist or professional, designing and making something new is both a thrilling and daunting prospect. The hobbyist asks: will my design look right? Will it be durable and useful? Will it be well received? The professional must ask the same. One difference I can attest to, having been first a hobbyist and now a professional: a lot more is at stake for the professional. Sometimes our reputations rest on a new design. Often we must take time out of our regular orders to create new things, for rarely do the kind of customers come along who can finance an unrestricted creative effort.
Come with me on a recent journey to the heart of design and making that I had the pleasure of taking. I hope it will help you to find a way through the challenges and ensure the best possible outcome on your next flight of design.
I began designing Lounge Chair No. 3 about 10 months before it was finished. Simpler designs will require less time, but the process is, in many ways, the same.
Making a Mold
In order to create the basic shape so it could be tested for comfort, Otter created a mold from sheets of rigid insulation and shaped them. Once the final shape was created, he added automotive body filler to smooth out the surface and ready it for the carbon fiber.
Automotive modeling clay was the perfect material for Otter to refine the shape of the arms and legs, though it was no easy task. Plywood helped give the clay much-needed rigidity.
Otter felt much more at home gluing and shaping solid wood. With the full-scale model nearby, he carefully rough shaped the arms and leg assemblies.
Hand tools allowed Otter to remove all the machine-made knife marks and fine-tune the shape of the arm assemblies.
The Perfect Fit
Fitting and securing the carbon fiber seat structure wasn’t easy, but it was a critical step in the process.
The germ of a new piece is often first inscribed on my chalkboard in my studio, then reborn through countless versions of its shape and details on scraps of paper that I keep in a safe place for later reference. It is sometimes not possible to have as much time as we need at this stage, but the more time we have to think about the shape, materials and methods, the better chance we have to achieve a pleasing outcome. For Lounge Chair No. 3 I sketched off and on during stolen moments from my work for about three months. During this time I chose the materials I wanted to use and began researching how to produce the desired piece. In this case, the wood of choice was black walnut, accented with faux ivory and Italian leather. The seat shell would be made from carbon fibre. Much of my research surrounded the carbon fibre, since I had never used it before. I also enlisted the help of experts. Competition Composites in Arnprior, Ontario were generous with their time and expertise.
Since I did not have a customer who was ordering this chair, I had to find the resources to at least help with the funding. I applied to the Canada Council for a prototype grant. The jury kindly granted the amount I requested. As it turned out, my estimations of the costs were well under the actual costs, but once started I found a way to finish. Designing very often takes this form. As Carlos Fuentes said, “without risk there is no art”. If you are on the brink of starting a new design, count the cost to the best of your ability.
Feeling satisfied with my design, I progressed to drawing it at life size. This enabled me to stand back and get a feeling for the scale of the chair. These drawings were hung in my studio for a number of weeks while I worked on other projects. Periodically, I could stop and look at the design with fresh eyes. This led me to adjust curves and dimensions slightly a few times. Making incremental changes leads to a more predictable – and likely a more successful – design.
Having a new design in two dimensions is a galloping start, but there will almost certainly be issues that we don’t anticipate. In the past, I have relied on my ability to see the object in my mind in three dimensions. No doubt some can do this quite easily, but I needed total concentration to accomplish it. How strange I must look, sitting at my bench with my eyes closed while I spin the object 360° in my mind. My methods had brought me this far, but I knew this chair would require a more thorough approach. Without a single straight line on the piece, my brain struggled to visualize it properly, no matter how hard I closed my eyes. I needed a way to create a full-scale model.
My first task was to make a mold that could be tested by various people for comfort and seat height. With the seating position determined, the rest of the chair would follow. I used rigid insulation sheets that I cut in the rough outline of the seat shape, then glued together and sculpted with a grinder and carving tool. It was a slow task, removing a bit of stock, then trying it for comfort, easing up to the point where people of various sizes could sit in the form and find it very comfortable. This was an important consideration, since I purposed to upholster the seat with very little padding, thus lending a sleek minimalist look to the chair. After I was satisfied with the shape, I covered the form in automotive body filler, gradually filling all the undulations and making a smooth form on which I could lay up the carbon fiber shell.
From there I turned my attention to the arm and leg outlines. Using my full-sized drawings, I cut out patterns in thick paper and taped them to the side of the rigid insulation form so I could visualize the overall effect. A few more tweaks, then I transferred the patterns to plywood and cut them out with a jigsaw. I had never used automotive modeling clay to create a three-dimensional model, but for this project I determined it would be the best medium. Automotive clay has very little structural strength, hence the plywood patterns. I applied the clay over the plywood to bring the shape of the arms and legs to life.
Once I had worked out the most pleasing curves I could conceive of using the clay, I wetted out a few test pieces of carbon fiber and fiberglass cloth with epoxy resin. I sandwiched the fiberglass cloth between two outer layers of carbon fiber. I wanted a chance to work with the composites for the first time, getting a feel for the setup times of the epoxy resin, and I wanted to have a test seat shell that I could fit to the chair arms without using all the carbon fiber fabric I had ordered. Using a vacuum bag and pump, I let the epoxy set up for 24 hours before carefully removing it from the form then trimming it to size.
With this test seat done, I could move on to a medium I was more familiar with – the black walnut arms and legs. Using the clay form, I worked out where the glue lines would be, as well as the angles of the leg mortises. It cannot be overstated: without a full-sized prototype it would have been near impossible to accurately work out these important design details on a project of this complexity. The work you undertake may not require it, but for difficult designs, clay on plywood is hard to beat; it is relatively inexpensive and easy to adjust, as it stays soft and pliable indefinitely. It can even be reused for later models.
With the particulars worked out, I set out cutting and arranging the pieces for making the arms. Starting with two rare planks of black walnut, 4″ thick and 15″ wide, I carefully cut, milled and glued pieces that were the mirror image of each other for left and right arms. Care was taken to keep the pieces in order for a pleasing grain match. The glue-up was done in stages since the various pieces were staggered to accommodate the flowing curves of the arms.
From there, I began shaping the wood intuitively by eye. I used a grinder and Arbortech attachment for the rough gouging. Holding a live 5″ grinder for hours, slowly working my way closer to the finished shape, is physically and mentally exhausting, made more so by the constantly lurking possibility that the grinder will catch and ruin the rare wood, or worse, catch and ruin me. In the words of Pye, this is ‘manufacture of risk’ in its raw form, and for many of us it is intoxicating. But it must only be done with full safety equipment and a fair level of fitness.
From there, I used hand tools, rasps, gouges, scrapers and spokeshaves to fair the curves, constantly checking with calipers and fingers for the comparative thickness of each component. Perfect symmetry in a handmade object is an elusive thing. I strive hard for it but also revel in the unseen differences. The fact that no two of these chairs are exactly alike is a factor in their rarity and therefore, value. As I reached the 400-hourmark, shaping and polishing the gorgeous wood, I decided that I had achieved the refinement I pursued.
Having made the final carbon fiber seat shell from six layers of carbon fiber, I cut it to fit the chair and attached threaded lugs with epoxy so it could be bolted in place. It seemed something of a shame to cover the beautiful gleaming carbon fiber weave of the seat, and perhaps a later version will showcase this aspect of the chair, but for this one, I could hardly do better than have it upholstered in Italian leather matching the casein ivory feet.
With the chair finished, I arranged for professional photography then immediately uploaded it to my website, Twitter and Instagram. Then I shipped it to a gallery for a showing. I also entered it in a juried international design competition, where it won a prize. Design competitions can be a valuable source of marketing and recognition.
In summary, the more preparation we can muster for a new design, the more likely the satisfactory outcome. Enlist the help of experts for unfamiliar aspects. Do full-scale drawings and modeling. Embrace the risk, both financial and creative, of trying something new and daring. And then show your new work to the world.
A Word About Curves
For years, I made furniture that had few curves in it. I was taken by the simplicity and honesty of Shaker as well as Arts and Crafts style furniture. But as my design sensibilities grew, I gradually came to realize that the greatest beauty is revealed in organic curves. Can the pleasing nature of a well-formed human body be denied? What of the infinite variety of gorgeous shapes in trees and other marvels of creation? I had been fooled slightly by the fact that the raw material for my work arrives in my studio in long, straight planks. But it didn’t grow that way.
I began designing this chair in earnest while I was in Italy on business. As I sat at a table in our sun-drenched apartment on Lake Como, I thought deeply about the mantra I had subscribed to for the past 12 years – less is more. It dawned on me quite suddenly that I had been misled slightly by that as well. As I sketched the sensuous curves of Lounge Chair No. 3, a new ideology took root and made its way onto my sketchbook page – No, only more is more.
Breaking the mindset of creating in straight lines is not easy. Most of our power and hand tools are designed to mill that way. The joinery we use must employ tight-fitting flat planes if it is to last. But designing furniture in pleasing curves can be done. I encourage every woodworker to experiment. True, production will slow to a crawl. If I were to live to a ripe old age and make nothing else, the number of these chairs I could make in my lifetime is well under a hundred. But the added satisfaction of pushing our limits and making something extraordinary is hard to quantify.