Designing Modern vs. Traditional

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Blog entry by Dennis Zongker posted 05-16-2011 08:52 PM 2611 reads 0 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Have you ever wondered when you’re designing a piece of furniture or box or anything made of wood, how your mind comes up with the design? What makes you say, “WOW” how did they come up with that design?” I think it has a lot to do with what influences you. For me I have been studying furniture history and the influence from the old masters, which involves carving, marquetry and other traditional techniques.

What I don’t understand with my designs is that I love the new modern style but for some reason I cannot see it in my head. The best I can do is seeing an old world design in my mind. When I try and come up with a new design I always think to myself I am going to make this more modern… That just doesn’t work for me like I plan. It makes me wonder if it has to do with all the studying I have done for such a long time now, if that is why I can’t see any modern design styles in my mind.

Maybe I just don’t have it in me to see things in a different light. My thoughts are that through the history of furniture making, furniture became more simplified over each time period. Then it jumped and created a gap from complicated to simplified and I think I am stuck in that gap.

For me, I think the closest piece to modern style, was my chess table and chairs. I am looking for some of my fellow lumberjocks to share your design process and what has influenced you when you think of your designs?

-- Dennis Zongker

16 comments so far

View GregD's profile


788 posts in 4416 days

#1 posted 05-16-2011 09:37 PM

Modern is very different from the really cool stuff you’ve posted. Might be you’ll need quite a bit of practice before you develop a level of proficiency in this new style that can compete with the considerable proficiency you obviously have in your current style.

-- Greg D.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16292 posts in 5498 days

#2 posted 05-16-2011 09:39 PM

Good topic, Dennis.

I think we are all influenced, either consciously or subconsciously, by what we see and what appeals to our eye the most. I know when I’m thinking of a design, traditional is what I see first because it is what I like best. Don’t get me wrong… I like many modern designs as well, but traditional is my default mode of thinking.

When we create a new design, I think it is always a variation of, or affected heavily by, something we have already seen. So whatever stands out most in our own minds is going to have the greatest impact on that design.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View shipwright's profile


8760 posts in 4078 days

#3 posted 05-16-2011 10:03 PM

I think it runs very deep inside us. It may not be because you’ve studied the traditional methods and designs as much as it is involved in the reason you chose to study them. If I look at myself I see two versions of me. The boat builder is all traditional. I see no beauty in modern boat design but I have been as long as I can remember in love with the graceful lines of the traditional working boats and ships.
The furniture maker / hobbyist / woodworker side of me has no history to help or hinder it and pays little attention to modern design either. So I just design as I go and don’t feel that I need to follow any rules at all.

This is a great topic Dennis. I look forward to finding out how others feel about the roots of their creativity.

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View patron's profile


13722 posts in 4621 days

#4 posted 05-16-2011 11:22 PM

good question dennis
my own background came from being around (both parents) and friends studying art
(though they never actually did much) i tried but couldn’t get it to work for me
even after years of reading art and architecture and wooden boat building

my interest lay in all the masters too and in any ‘off or new’ changes
like gauddii (sp) and green and green anyone that went out further
even thru troubles in their time
old movies are a great place to find resources inlay-ed floors arches doors and furniture

i think that nothing is really new but we all subconsciously draw from things
we have seen and admired and add our own take to

in my own career as a designer/builder
having no formal training other than tools and building (stick)

when i had a job to do some remodel or work i would ask ‘what style would you like’
colonial victorian japanese modern etc. and given the room or building itself
and the time and money for my work would ‘lean’ in the desired direction
yet inventing ways to accomplish that goal within the time and cost
with helpers that may or may not know much more than framing and regular trim work

i don’t work with architects as i found that they don’t see all the details the way a builder does
what about the heater vent or that pipe sticking out from the wall
they just gloss over things and leave it up to me to fix somehow
so in remodeling i let the building design itself as it needs
forget the rules just work honestly and give a decent project
stay within budget and on time (and code)
nobody ever complained and i never built the same thing again

in the shop i start with the need (box door chair) and work from there
i wait till i understand what i am doing first so as not to waste time or wood
many times i have an idea that seems right
but might wake in the morning and do what came to me in a ‘vision’
i do have a good visual talent like the computers now that can show everything
in pieces or in any perspective i do know drafting and only draw for the clients sake
don’t know anything about sketch-up or cad so don’t even go there

as stated you may just be in a comfortable known place
maybe a walk on the wild side might be fun at times
with the talent that you have it would be a joy to see

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View Billp's profile


804 posts in 5480 days

#5 posted 05-17-2011 03:01 AM

Great subject Dennis,when I go into a museum I could spend all day looking at the masters and when I walk through the modern section its pretty quick. I think that says that all for me, I is what I is.

-- Billp

View lightweightladylefty's profile


3665 posts in 4993 days

#6 posted 05-17-2011 06:12 AM


Did you ever consider that as King Solomon (the world’s wisest man, 1 Kings 4:29-34) stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9—”. . . and there is no new thing under the sun.”

I often think the reason we call it “modern” is merely because it has not withstood the test of time. Did men-of-old create pieces very similar to our “modern” pieces today, but no one collected them to preserve them? The classic, traditional designs that we see from ages past were preserved because they are worthy to be collected.

When you look at today’s designs, they are quite often impractical and just trendy. Some may be well crafted, but will they stand the test of time in terms of creative beauty and usefulness? You don’t see many people collecting (or keeping for that matter) the blonde modern furniture which was trendy fifty years ago even though it was often well crafted and more functional than some of today’s modern designs.

Just my thoughts on the subject.


-- Voltaire: “Those Who Can Make You Believe Absurdities, Can Make You Commit Atrocities” There are 112 genders (not including male and female)

View devann's profile


2260 posts in 3973 days

#7 posted 05-17-2011 08:21 AM

Not being very experienced in furniture making for me I believe that function is the first thing to influence me when I began to design a piece of furniture. The second thing that influences me are the patterns or shapes that I’ll be working with and the skills and means that I can achieve to connect all of the necessary parts together to make a whole piece.

For me designing furniture is like painting a picture. In art classes I was there to create, not study art history and learn about some painters life 300 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I love to go see what they painted at the museums and I have some artist that I like more than others. And I am sure that on a subconscious level that they do influence my style of painting even though not the subject matter.

With furniture design I think I am influenced most by my own skill level. While most of my furniture has been tables I have made a couple chairs but I find chair building quite humbling. A tip of my hat to you guys that build chairs for a living, I’d starve I’m so slow. I have also found that I can design a piece of woodworking that I think is one of my better works and even win awards with it and have another similar piece that I think is not so good, and the general public likes the not so good one better. I have proof of that with some projects I have here on LJs.

Speaking of designs and LJs, I have a porch swing that I’ll be posting in the next couple days that will be an example of my own design. Not that I consider a porch swing furniture, but it is my newest woodworking project and I did make some design changes from previous versions that I built.

Thanks for the topic Dennis, I’m interested in what other comments you get here.

-- Darrell, making more sawdust than I know what to do with

View amateur's profile


91 posts in 3938 days

#8 posted 05-17-2011 11:47 AM

Great topic.
A musician friend was frustrated with the huge appeal of pop music and concluded that the masses are asses and will listen to whatever is spoon fed to them. However, upon dismantling some and trying to see how it worked, he discovered that there was science to it and became intrigued. Though not a top 40-type of song writer, some of that “science” has found its way into his writing and creative flow.

View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9239 posts in 4200 days

#9 posted 05-17-2011 02:07 PM

As a pattern designer, I find that I must always keep in mind the customer and how difficult it will be for them to recreate one of my patterns. Although simplicity and primitive types of designs are extremely popular, I find myself leaning toward traditional fretwork designs in my work. Somehow, in my development as a designer, I have it in my head that the more intricate the detail, the better (even if that isn’t what the masses are looking for.) I have made simpler patterns, but when I do, no matter how popular they are, I feel as if I somehow cheated people because I feel in my heart I could do so much better and more intricate.

One of my favorite types of design is Egyptian. When I see the amazing detail and think about how they accomplished what they did with limited tools it is truly fascinating to me. The same with Victorian work. Most of the fretwork from that era was done by hand-carving and the workmanship on Victorian pieces may be a bit busy, but nonetheless it is amazing.

I like the clean look of modern design. One wouldn’t think so because of my love for detail. However, when designing, I honestly feel that I am short changing my customers if I don’t put enough detail into the pieces. It almost seems too easy.

Perhaps that is where you are Dennis. You are so used to putting in a large amount of intricate detail that anything less doesn’t somehow feel as if you finished your design.

In any case, I agree with all the above answers. This is a great topic to explore.


-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

View miles125's profile


2180 posts in 5286 days

#10 posted 05-17-2011 03:47 PM

I think you’ll find archetypes in the creativity of all artist. Meaning there are common reoccuring themes you can spot in their work. Where these themes come from seems to be embedded so deep within the subconcious psyche, that it may as well be defined as a total mystery to our conscious selves. We just don’t know where creativity comes from.

The best we’ve come up with through the ages is to simply describe creativity as Devine and other worldly. Which is a realm of existence our partial animal nature can poke around the edges of, but seemingly can’t really grasp for the same reasons a dog can’t understand trigonometry. It’s way over our heads.

But one thing is for sure. We all exist and create. So something wonderfully incredible is going on. :)

-- "The way to make a small fortune in woodworking- start with a large one"

View BritBoxmaker's profile


4611 posts in 4316 days

#11 posted 05-17-2011 06:39 PM

Very basically I think it goes like this.

Everything you sense (see, hear, touch etc) and therefore learn is filtered by your own personal taste (what you like out of all of it) to influence what you design.

You like what you like. I wouldn’t design the way you would and you probably wouldn’t design like me.The very clever, people like Mozart, can create in ‘the style of’. Something that is close to or recognisable as someone else’s work or a fashion. Most people, like me, can just do their own style.

Trying isn’t relevant for me. The harder I try to design something the less likely I am to succeed. Doodling, distraction techniques (daydreaming) and the period between waking and sleep all help the design process for me. The latter is the most productive but I tend to have less conscious control over what I design. The best I can do there is to push the boat out in a general direction and let the current of my subconscious take it where it will. Only when I know what I want to build can I do any conscious work. Usually trying to figure out how the heck I’m going to make something I’ve dreamed up.

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging.

View jockmike2's profile


10635 posts in 5527 days

#12 posted 05-17-2011 11:50 PM

I had to laugh when David (patron) talked about architects and how they overlook the things like venting, pipework, plumbing etc. I worked on a huge house once that had a 30ft. cathedral ceiling. In an upstairs bathroom the ceiling went from about 16ft down to 4ft. Where the ceiling was 4ft high is where the architect put a bathtub with shower. To solve this oversight, instead of moving the tub, he had us put in a skylight, so you could stand in the tub and shower. It was hilarious, while standing in the tub, depending on your height, you would be looking out onto the rooftop, and a beautiful view of the river and woodland, behind the house. All we could think of was his beautiful wife taking her shower with a bunch of onlookers with binoculars watching from the woods.
I agree, our tastes, artistic influence or whatever you will, comes from our own personal likes and dislikes, and we incorporate those things in our own work. Our own Art History, you might say.

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View treedigger's profile


35 posts in 4126 days

#13 posted 05-18-2011 02:32 AM

Dennis, after reading the posts, there seems to be a common theme driving us to design and create whatever it is we build.To me, it seems prior masterpieces and ability are strong influences in what fellow woodworkers are creating.I personaly have admired your incredible ability to create masterpieces, that which quite frankly not many can duplicate. With that said, do you think your ability steers you in the direction of ornate complicated pieces to build, rather than say the clean lines of a ultra modern or contemporary piece?

View larryw's profile


335 posts in 3942 days

#14 posted 05-18-2011 04:12 AM

Great topic Dennis. Although I’m no master furniture builder, I have to say that the type and style of furniture that appeals to me the most is also those of the “masters”. To me the appex of style came about during the queen anne, chippendale, and federal periods. The beauty and overall visual balance of the pieces built during these periods is unsurpassed. I like some of the modern stuff, but for me it’s a little too austere with no character.

-- "everything is beautiful, but not everyone sees it" ~confucius-551-449 b.c.~

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 4234 days

#15 posted 05-18-2011 03:08 PM

Good design is a topic we all benefit from studying. There are reasons (such as the golden mean or proportion) why some items of furniture, boxes, architecture, or whatever, are “beautiful”. The more we try to understand these, the better chance we have of creating something that will have value and stand the test of time. Gee, if it were simple, we’d all be making beautiful things our forebears would treasure.

There is a helpful article in Wikipedia under the topic of “aesthetics” that some might find helpful. Writer points out that “aesthetics” is the philosophical study of beauty, and that “taste” is a function of education and social class. Whether or not this assertion is true, it’s something provocative to think about. Probably above my pay grade, but I think about it anyway.

My personal preferences are for that period around 1800 which happens to be the “Golden Age” of a lot of things like Kentucky rifles, furniture, architecture, and more. I don’t like to directly copy another’s work, though I have nothing against nice reproductions, but rather to prefer to work in the school, or style of one of the masters of the time, and make something that “might have been made by” one of them. As a box maker, I’m very much a disciple of Andrew Crawford, and that certainly shows in my boxes. However, I don’t look to just copy his boxes, rather to merge what I have learned from him, and apply it to the period or school I find most appealing (around 1800).

Modernism does not appeal to me much, though some pieces can be really good. When Mies van der Rohe said “Less is more.” I think he was refining his sales pitch. Less is generally just less. My taste, for whatever reason, just does not go there. Modernism has a very strong intellectual element, and if you don’t buy into the intellectual part, it’s a lot harder to admire the items that follow from it.

Whatever one’s preferences may be, we all benefit from giving a lot of thought to the process and result of design. Craftsmanship is good, but a perfectly crafted, but poorly designed item, is still ugly. Design seems to overpower craftsmanship in the final balance. i.e. craftsmanship alone is not enough.

My brief take on the topic, for what it’s worth. I’m still trying to get it right like most everyone else.


-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

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