09 June 2018

Table Forms and Wood

This essay was inspired when I looked over this table that seems to be a commissioned piece. I've been working in a new situation in the Qingpu district of Shanghai. I'm still growing into this work environment and adapting to the circumstances.
Wood and metal
This is certainly part of what the market demands and woodworkers can happily supply. I've written before about why I think there is an aesthetic by which consumers need reassurances that they possess 'real ' wood. (More on this to follow) This explains the use of slabs and wane, now marketed as 'live edges'. And that is what this table represents.  It's a hunk of solid wood mounted on four welded leg assemblies. While looking over this piece, I thought about how odd it was that the legs were screwed up into the slab, flush with the corners when the piece would have looked better if the legs had been tucked just under the surface, hiding the low quality welds from direct view. I was looking at this table as a westerner but this was a table in the Chinese style despite its modern aesthetics. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of Simianping, here is an example that I spotted on a sidewalk in Jinze.
Box with legs: Chinese table archetype
The table is a box in overall form. Another term for this is corner-leg construction and it is embedded into the Chinese psyche as to what a table ought to look like. And this mental model goes far to explain why the maker of the table above felt compelled to create the resultant form, which, despite being trendy and modern with its 'real' solid wood tabletop, maintains a very conservative Chinese root. As it happens, I came across another example of a table that displays a mixture of conservative and modern construction with its own results in compromise.
Just around the corner from the Chen Yonggang Woodcraft Studio is a cafeteria that is frequented by me and my coworkers, which is where I discovered tables that imitate simianping. Understandably the joinery is greatly simplified, in part to keep construction costs down, but simply because HongMu joinery requires dense tropical hardwoods to succeed.
Waisted, simplified, corner-leg construction
 As I have written before, one weakness of Simianping is the panel and frame tabletop assembly. This makes such a table difficult to clean since water unavoidably seeps into its gaps, compromising the joints and filling them with crud and schmutz, which is just the kind of situation that one might want to avoid in a busy restaurant when choosing tables to serve customers. Yet again the archetype of what makes for a 'good' table trumps the functionality of any specific tables.
Faux panel and frame construction
I just wonder what process was used to cut such a narrow groove along and across the grain.  Impressive even as it only adds difficulty to a busser's routine tasks.
A popular restaurant chain that happens to sell furniture
I think this points out a chicken or egg dilemma. If a laudable goal is to put better constructed furniture on the marketplace, is it better that consumers are educated about furniture construction, or is it more advantageous for manufacturers to build such furniture in anticipation of attracting consumers? In the long and short run, my opinions is that consumers primarily determine with their purchasing decisions what manufacturers respond to. Better informed consumers push standards higher (certainly in the absence of guilds, or selfimposed industry guidelines, or governmental regulations) It's, therefore, frustrating, in particular, when manufacturers mislead or exploit consumer's own confusion with their furniture designs.
Magical trees go into its manufacture
I first spotted this coffeetable at Ikea but I only single this business out because I spend so much time there. Deceptive design is not their exclusive domain. This is their Stockholm table, which the website refers to as made of Ash veneer. I apply veneers to many of my pieces, but this type of example is one that has given much of the general public a alse notion that veneer is a sign of low quality construction in furniture.  I've heard this stated with confident authority and it explains much of the 'big slab' furniture aesthetic, which unsurprisingly this Stockholm is trying to imitate even as it also is fooling most consumers.  I don't have any problem with the application of ash veneer and even though end grain veneers present their own challenges, visual and adhesive , they are not the thrust of my objection to this piece. I object to cheating the consumer into believing that this is made with staked construction which is associated with solid wood. The through tenon, again a weakness as explained above when it comes to routine cleaning, overtly misleads that the solid leg passes through a solid wood tabletop, which to a casual observer the veneers create a false impression that it is. What is the purpose of the choice of exposing through round tenons but merely to confuse a potential buyer (it certainly offers no structural advantage) even as it compromises the veneered surface from normal use. It's an example of a manufacturer exploiting ignorance and capitalizing on it in a race to the bottom. Caveat emptor et aut disce aut discede Ikea! And yet this is not the only example that I found during my visit to buy a needed coffeepress.

I struggled to get the proper raking light necessary to highlight the travesty of this design feature on the Industriell line of table, bench, and side chairs. Whereas, the Stockholm is described as 'ash veneer', the Industriell table is vaguely described as 'light grey' both as to material and color.  Even though my VPN routed me to the UK Ikea website, I presume that 'light grey' is intentionally obtuse in all versions of English. And all because they don't want to state that the pieces are made from pine laminate. And to further mislead consumers, the surface is somehow treated to resemble a rough sawn surface as though it came directly from a sawmill as a slab! Is the greater sin miseducating the general consumer or exploiting his lack of consumer acumen? By the way, the underside of this tabletop is perfectly smooth, the kind of smoothness that one wants on a tabletop to help keep it clean. And yet this faux rough sawn surface is put proudly on top, the direct opposite that one would do in traditional construction. Are manufacturers really so exploitative of consumer ignorance or are designers so far removed from traditional woodcraft that they blithely turn a flaw that was once dutifully hidden in construction into an industrially fabricated feature to deceive consumers?
Can a sawyer ever do this?
And if you thought it could not get worse. My last criticism is for the the Hurdal linen cabinet. This piece first caught my eye on a showroom floor because lacking a plinth, it looked oddly squat. Its proximity to the floor is the least of its flaws.  I don't know whether the Hurdal is marketed in all countries with the tag below: 
a tree, a common source of wood, as imagined by a designer
It doesn't take very long to find example that contradict this assertion. Or is the goal, in fact, to redefine what solid wood is? As long as consumers fail to educate themselves, it only follows that salespeople and grifters will dazzle them with their marketing strategies regardless of the reductions of language and functionality that are the results.
definitionally unsolid wood for the drawer bottom
The piece is rickety and it's probably due to the manner in which 'solid wood' is used less as a structure element than as a meretricious feature. The piece uses solid wood gliders, which might be an improvement on the more common stamped steel glider. And yet for some confounding reason, the manufacturer undermines this refinement.
Profiled beech glider component
In order to simplify assembly, or perhaps manufacturing and packaging, both left and right sides of the drawer are identical. So while the drawer sides are made of solid wood, albeit, industrially laminated, which is potentially an improvement, they are needlessly milled with grooves that serve no function and render the drawer construction weaker.
Double milled in vain

Needlessly grooved, so ungroovy

I don't know whether Ikea has had to answer any criticism about this, officially from its headquarters or from its own salespeople. A real designer would never deign to respond to such a query I suspect that a spokesperson will emphasize that it's made from solid wood (!) and that it can be more easily assembled by those who don't know their left from their right hands. Solid wood doesn't mean any more what I thought it did.
Duanwu jie kuaile!


Benoit Van Noten said...

Have you seen Matthias Wandel table test?

Where is the bottom line?

Jonas Jensen said...

Hi Mitchell

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking post.
The rough top of the chair really amazes me. I try my best to make a smooth surface on most things I build, but I guess that people yearn for authenticity (which is sadly not given to them in this way).
It is probably the same trend as with hipsters trying to look like lumberjacks, with flannel shirts and huge beards.

Regarding the grooved drawer, I think that one of the reasons might be that chips are easily reused in production of pellets, so by removing extra material you save weight, and sell off the chips in form of pressed pellets at the same time.
I agree that it looks terrible, but most people will likely not care that the drawer looks weird and they won't mind that it will not last for 100 years.


Potomacker said...

I agree. Negative trends move forward because too many people don't know and/or just don't care. I hadn't thought that the needless grooves might save weight (I was just thinking about the simplicity of having one machine setup for both left and right hand sides.) but I'm certain that Ikea considers every shippable gram of their products.
Beards, by the way, are functional, too.