Furniture Design

In this article I hope to introduce to you some of the aspects of modern furniture design. There is much involved in furniture design and some say it is the most important step in the crafting of a piece of furniture. With the high cost today of wood resources... it has become more important to get the design correct rather than wasting valuable resources on a project that may or may not look right. Custom furniture design is a combination of many factors which are listed below..

- The period from which the design originates
- The style of the furniture, typically derived from the period
- The ergonomics of the furniture
- The construction and joinery techniques used
- The material (wood and non-wood) characteristics
- Which type of finish is to be applied

all the factors above are combined to guide you in the design and crafting of custom, unique furniture.

The initial steps in furniture design are comprised of the following considerations...

- Determining the size and complexity of the project. Are you familiar with many of the design considerations and the type of construction involved ( joinery, details, curves, finish, etc.)        

- Defining and applying furniture standards perhaps you want to base your design on an existing furniture design, there are fairly standardized proportions for furniture design available i.e. desk height - 27 in., chair height- 17 in., ergonomic standards)

- Creating ideas on paper including sketches and drawings become comfortable with basic sketching and line drawing

- Creating mock-ups or scale representations of the furniture mock-ups can consist of cardboard, small sticks, or any available material which can be used to provide an visual idea of the proportions and design)

- Examine the mechanics of the design, component shapes, sizes ( proportions) and materials to be used. Mechanics of construction typically describe the joinery and the engineering of the design.


Developing your Design

Assess the demands of the recipient of the furniture, be it yourself or a client. Both form and function should be incorporated into the design, the design should be customized specifically for the intended use and also for the recipients' wishes.

Design Considerations

You will need to create a form that fulfills all the functional expectations of the piece. Both form and function need to be considered in a furniture design. The furniture design needs to work (function) but also be aesthetically pleasing (form).

 -  Begin to visualize your design ideas
- You can work with ideas that have been created before
- You can also work with your own or others ideas
- You can create in your own style or a pre-existing style 

A design is initially developed in both your mind and subsequently transferred to preliminary sketches. This is a back and forth process, form an idea then sketch, form next idea from sketch, etc.

- Define the type of furniture you are designing ( cabinet, table, dresser)
- What size do you want to make the furniture (proportions)
- Where will the piece of furniture be located  (style or period of furniture )


 Design Objectives

- How will this furniture be used ( function )
- What size will you make it ( proportion)
- Who will use it ( customize)
- Where will it be placed ( location)

- What should it look like ( style)
- What visual impact should it have ( to complement or contrast the surrounding furniture)
- Is it to be a focal piece or to blend in with surroundings
- Should it enclose (hide) or showcase its contents

Design Proportions


Consider both function and form in your design

- Begin with known, proven design standards ( Golden rule or mean)

- Familiarize yourself with both positive and negative shapes and areas (both solid and empty areas in a design each form a shape) i.e. area between table legs, negative space around curves

- Are the components of the design to be large... or small and fine

- Design furniture to complement other furniture in the room or alternatively, to contrast with surrounding furniture

- Base your furniture design on a previous style or period (Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Federal, Shaker, Art Nouveau)

- Use design elements from previous styles (tapered legs, ornate, large components, small or fine components) 

Most of the different periods and styles in the history of furniture are noted below.

Golden Age of Furniture ( 1700-1799) 

Late Jacobean 1160 -1680
Queene Anne  1702 - 1714

Georgian  1714 -1745

Chippendale  1749 - 1774 ( Queene Anne cabriole legs, complex , ornate carving)
Hepplewhite   1750 - 1790 ( tapered legs, clean lines, fine construction, curved pieces)
Sheraton       1790 - 1810

Classic Revival

Shaker   1784 - 1850
Federal   1790- 1825

Victorian  1800 - 1850

Biedermeier  1800 - 1850
Regency       1811 - 1820

Art Nouveau   1875

Arts & Crafts   1876 - 1916  

Modern    1900 - Present

Bauhaus    1919 - 1933
Art Deco    1920 - 1930



A few modern , well-known furniture makers

Sam Maloof     contemporary furniture maker  (California)

James Krenov     contemporary furniture maker (Scandinavian influence)

Wendell Castle    contemporary furniture maker

Jere Osgood     contemporary furniture maker


Each of the styles above have been influenced by many factors including the reigning monarchy of the time, renaissance or revivalist style (Greek, Roman architecture influences), the repudiation of the previous style, etc. Sometimes style periods contrasted the previous style, much like fashion today ( the design pendulum swung from ornate back to simplicity and back to ornate). 

- Elaborate ( Gothic, Barocque, Louis, Empire)
- Utilitarian ( Queene Anne, Georgian, Biedermeier)
- Contrarian ( Art Nouveau, Shaker, Craftsman)

 Modern style is a statement against opulence and complexity, a movement towards minimalist furniture. 

 Certain periods in history also embraced certain woods as follows: 

Walnut 1660 - 1720
Mahogany 1720 - 1765
Satinwood  1765 - 1806
Oak   1890 - 1925

Keep your furniture design straightforward

Use a minimum of parts, eliminate unnecessary frills. Design with strong but straightforward joinery. Create strong joints which are hidden within the facade of the furniture.

Design accents into furniture ( contrasting woods, subtle design elements, inlay, carvings, details).

Shaker furniture is a good example of a minimum of shapes and components assembled into a simple, straightforward design. 

Scandinavian furniture (Danish Modern) has simple lines 

- Develop the furniture design in its entirety
- Break the design down and incorporate detail into the individual components and groupings of components of the furniture


The complexity of the furniture design 

How much time will be consumed in creating this piece of furniture. Do you have the necessary skills and expertise to undertake the project. Are you sufficiently equipped to undertake the crafting of this furniture design. How large is the furniture, do you have sufficient space to be able to work in.

The furniture you are designing

Is the furniture design adapted from a previous style. You can apply elements from a previous style or period into your design. Resources you might use to derive a furniture design are woodworking publications, woodworking books, etc. 

It is perfectly fine to adapt a pre-existing style and design to meet your objectives. Standard styles have been in existence for many generations for good reason, they are both functional and have good form and aesthetics. 

The current furniture period has not yet been defined and can be considered a work in progress.

Furniture Proportions 

The assembly of all the individual components of your design, with aesthetics, proportion and symmetry all being considered. The height to width to depth ratio for your furniture design are factors which form the design proportions. You can use existing ratios to scale your furniture design proportions as follows:

Coffee Table - 1:3:2
Armoire - 3:2:1
Dining Table - 2:4:3
Curio Cabinet - 2:1:1
End Table - 1:2:1

Keep in mind the standard work surface heights from published ergonomic charts. The height of furniture is to be considered along with the depth of the furniture design.


Golden section (rectangle)

Pleasing ratios which have been used by master architects,  painters, and implemented in furniture design throughout the ages.

Golden number or mean is .618 or 5/8:3/8 = .625 
Width and Depth = .625 of Height or 1:1.6

The golden rectangle is a proportioning guideline for:

cabinet doors
front or sides of chest of drawers
anything rectangular

H= 1.625 therefore W = 1  or   H= 32 if W=20

For a Golden carcase maintain the balance of proportions

i.e. shell depth = shell height ( h= .625, w=1, d=.625) or (h=.625, w=1,d=.375)

You can also stack multiple golden carcasses together

Logical sequence of design

Create concept sketches ( use each successive sketch as a basis for a new idea or extract an element of the sketch to be added to design)

The next logical steps are as follows:

You can create a rough drawing of the design from the sketch with the major proportions, scale, and elements of the design described.

A three-view orthographic drawing ( front, side, top view) follows

The isometric projection ( improved 3-D view of piece) is one of the final steps in the design sequence, this includes key measurements.

You can go on to create a full scale drawing of the furniture design. This will enable you to have accurate drawings of the individual components of the design for milling of the furniture components.

The most important piece of advice 

Take your time, learn and enjoy the design process !!

Learn more about designing furniture with the WoodSkills  Woodworking Course DVD