The use of Surface as a Design Element

Written by David Savage

Originally published as The use of Surface as a Design Element in Furniture and Cabinet Maker / 1998

Part 1 of a series of 2

dubai cabinet

“With all our talk about it the very meaning of the words “Decorative Art” remains confused and undecided. I want if possible to settle this question for you and to show you that the principals on which you must work are likely to be false in proportion as they are narrow. True only, as they are founded on a perception of the connection of all branches of art with each other.
Observe then first- the only essential distinction between Decorative and other Art is the being fitted for a fixed place, and in that place related either in subordination or in command to the effect of other pieces of Art. And all the greatest Art which the world has produced is thus fitted for a place and subordinated for a purpose”

John Ruskin       Selections from Ruskin- Leopold B Hill

As makers we are invariably concerned with how pieces of furniture are constructed. What goes on inside them, how the joints fit, how the drawers run, how it pulls together in a glue-up. We are concerned with what goes on inside the piece of furniture, how will the piece stand the test of time, its integrity, it wholeness. Yet someone looking at your piece for the first time will be concerned with none of these things. They will invariably be concerned with the surface. It is the surface of the piece of furniture by which we make initial judgements. The top few microns are paramount in creating an initial impression. Of course first impressions are not everything but we all want to make a good first impression. The surface is special and a high polish or shine makes it even more special. We view a polished surface either consciously or unconsciously as somehow more important more cherished and our feelings about the entire object are coloured by these associations. Associations that this surface has been hand rubbed, burnished, given unnecessary loving care. The shine glitters and catches the eye, displaying the forms and variations within that surface to advantage. Mouldings are highlighted by the shine. At once spinning along a bright edge creating a visual high note – you feel good about a shiny surface. It implies something out of the common, something of special significance, it’s not just dull and dark and dreary. But bright and glittery.

At once spinning along a bright edge creating a visual high note – you feel good about a shiny surface.

Yet a shiny surface polished to a mirror-like shine can confuse as much as it can inform. For a shine can reflect light and what we see is not the surface of the object but a reflection of the world around us. We are so used to assessing objects by way of surface that whenever the surface confuses us with a bright mirrored reflection we invariably feel a sense of unease for here the shine is really preventing us in engaging in the object and making those judgements about that object. For we can’t see inside the object we are reliant upon that surface to tell us what kind of surface it is. Is it warm, is it yielding, is it soft, is it hard and cold, does it indicate to us how heavy the object is, would it be difficult to move, would it be stable, would it support our weight? And if that surface is not allowing us to engage with the object, if it is throwing back mirrored illusions of the world around us, we cannot help but feel uneasy, which is why surface wear and slight abrasions on polished surfaces are so important. Nowadays it is a practice to slightly dull or burnish a lacquered surface with 0000 wire wool. What this does is slightly scratch the surface thereby creating a variance within that high shine surface and helping to prevent confusing reflections. The pits and surface graphics of unfilled grain can also provide a similar surface reference enabling the eye to truly latch on to this real surface of the timber rather than being confused by light bouncing off polish.

Our judgements and assumptions about the object are invariably visual judgements about the quality of surface that may or may not be confirmed by touching the surface. Certainly a jagged edge could be seen and set alarm bells ringing. We imagine our fingers running over that jagged edge, splinters diving under fingernails, flesh lacerated, blood dribbling over the surface, all in a nanosecond of perception. Equally we see a surface that we perceive to be smooth but we touch it to find unseen irregularities, little bumps and hollows, little scratchy surfaces. What we are hoping to find is a consistency, a surface that tells us what this piece is like and a piece that is exactly like the advance promotion work has suggested. Any equivocation, any thoughts or notes or any difference between perception and reality is worrying.

marquetryTouch is a paramount secondary quality of surface. What we touch helps to confirm what we see. Our fingers glide over the surface and make confirmatory judgements as to what we have seen. Does the smoothness feel good. This is sensual participation in the piece in the best possible way. Next comes smell. Does the smell of cedar coming from inside the drawers contribute to what you believe this piece was going to be or does the inside of that cabinet smell like a local car body repair shop.

Lets consider your material. Burrs and quality veneers can give an intense depth and surface complexity to the piece. Is it appropriate to the design, if you are for example creating a piece which incorporated a look and feel of massive solid wood surfaces then your inlaid burr panels would be working against your original intention. What I am driving at here is integrity. Your surface should in some way confirm what goes on underneath it. If it is a veneered piece then fine let’s have burrs and strung lines and contrasting frames. If it is solid wood lets finish it appropriately, with a simple oil polish and protective layer of wax.

David Savage
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