A good industrial designer needs to be a student of history. So much can be learned by examining products that are 50+ years old. Some read design theory books or visit museums. My preference is to get my hands dirty; to tangibly learn by examining and deconstructing antique furniture and products. Whenever time allows I frequent flea markets, yard sales, off the beaten path antique shops and take a fresh look at the items I’ve collected. Studying an old product’s design and construction can uncover lessons of design engineering wisdom. And sometimes an Achilles heel even in a renowned design is discovered. I’ve come to believe that time and use are the best critique of a design’s choice of materials and manufacturing methods.
One of several Mid Century modern furniture classics that I inherited from my late father is an original George Nakashima coffee table which exhibits a thick slab of solid American Walnut wood.
While the cantilevered top and natural edges of the table are elegant what lies almost hidden from plain sight is a brilliant, small, yet very significant engineering feature. George hand chiseled an inset solid walnut bowtie into the end grain of the slab. He strategically located it spanning across center of the slab most prone to checking. A check is a crack that develops in solid wood as it dries over time. George was a master at reading his material and engineering appropriately. If he hadn’t done this or a similar solution the table top would not survive today. 50 years of New England seasonal climate swings and this check has been stopped in its tracks by this little clever bowtie detail. Also significant is his design choice to hide the feature in the end grain instead of inlaying the joinery into the top surface. By doing this he preserved the natural beauty of the wood’s grain without calling attention to this engineering detail.
This very comfortable folding chair was designed by Hans Wegner in 1949. I’m lucky to own 2 of the originals, now more than 50 years old. The chair’s seat and back solid Teak frames extend into legs yielding an innovative minimal design.
This design pushed beyond the limits of solid wood as a material. Repeated tensioning of the cane seat coupled with the slot being milled too close to the end of the frame led to the checking seen in the image below.
Time has revealed a short grain Achilles heel seen in this design. Perhaps Hans became too dogmatic about this design and lost objectivity of material use. Of course when he designed this he didn’t have the perspective that we do today to look at the outcome of the design after decades of time has taken its toll. When confronted with a solid wood design that can’t avoid a short grain condition, one trick I learned is to use a blind ¼” diameter steel dowel pin running perpendicular to the potential check. In this case the pins could have been bored up from the bottom of the frame at the two weak points on either side of this handle. This would have given the short grain support across these stress points and would have been invisible to the user.
Roller bearing drawer slides were revolutionary to the development of modern office furniture file cabinets, but on a recent excursion to a junk shop I uncovered a Mid Century gem of steel and wood that still give bearings a run for their money. Akin to tank desks, this pair of 1950’s or 60’s steel dresser cabinets were stamped with their original GSA contract number and ‘Property of the U.S.’ Their top corners were formed with a nice radius, their paint was two tone: mauve and cream, and their brass pulls had decades of patina. As I pulled out the steel drawers I marveled at the solid maple hardwood slides! The rabbeted hardwood slid on formed steel hat channels on the cabinet’s interior.
Further examination of the assembly process revealed no use of glue, screws or bolts to hold in the hardwood slides, therefore nothing to fail or become loose over the decades. Each drawer had been engineered with a tapered sheet metal housing allowing the hardwood milled with the matching dove tail profile to slip in! Once installed the sheet metal housing flanges were then crimped into the wood on the ends preventing the assembly from coming loose. After 50 years of government service all of the drawers still work quite well.
Learning to read an antique product’s use of material, finish and construction inform us of what works well and what should be improved with new design.