Design is hard

I’ve been tinkering with a design for a pair of candle holders based on the symbol for the Tao (or the “yin-yang” symbol). The two parts are of a light wood and a dark wood, with tea light candles occupying the smaller holes within each half. (By the way, while drawing this out I discovered that I could construct this with only a compass and straight-edge, a la Euclid — the symbol can be drawn entirely with circles and half-circles). There was a bit of a technical challenge in constructing a template for each half so that they mated perfectly in the middle, and having accomplished that, I made a prototype out of some sapwood cherry (light) and walnut (dark).

I showed the prototype to a friend and the verdict came back quickly:  kind of boring.  I should know better than to be attached to an initial design, so after my little flash of defensiveness, I concurred.  The wood itself was not very interesting (no pretty figure or pronounced grain), so what I essentially had was a bare-bones yin-yang.  From a minimalist design perspective it was fine – the plainness of the wood left only the form as an aesthetic quality. But I wasn’t satisfied.

Then the frustra fun began. I thought about sandwiching layers of contrasting veneer to the top (a light layer on top of a dark layer for the light piece) – when the edges were rounded over the dark layer would show through as a dark accent outline. Great idea in theory (and I’d used a similar technique on a guitar head stock a long time ago), but when I ran the prototype through the router it just didn’t look right – the stripe outline wasn’t that pronounced.  The top piece, for one, was too thick (I didn’t use actual veneer, but some left over material from my dining chair splats).  Plus, the color of the top layer didn’t match the main piece exactly – I could tell they came from two different sources.  It was time to put the work down and do something with a higher probability of success, so I turned a nice pen out of synthetic turquoise.

So now that I’m relaxing on the sofa, what do I think of this process?  For one, I’m remembering why group critique is helpful.  I can only have so many ideas, and having a group both criticize and suggest improvements can carry the process forward when I’m feeling frustrated.  There are web sites out there devoted to crowd-sourced critique of each other’s work, and maybe it’s time to bite the bullet and try one.

Another difficulty for me is that this is essentially an aesthetic design challenge, not a functional one. I’ve written in a previous post about how I can feel “aesthetically challenged” at times.  When I’m engaged in functional design (say, a piece of software or even a research paper), I have somewhat clear criteria for what makes it “work,”  even if I’m not always sure of how to get there.  Sometimes on the 3rd or the 9th draft of a paper it just clicks and comes together. If an illustration I’ve created doesn’t convey the right information, someone can tell me that and I’m usually pretty clear on what to do next.

How do I turn something from “boring” to “attractive?”

I thought of drilling a series of decreasing diameter holes trailing the curve of the shapes, perhaps filling them with a mineral inlay. Pyrography to decorate the surface. Those don’t work for me though – the yin-yang’s elegance is in its simplicity.  It’s actually an iconic representation of an idea.  Decorative frills totally detract from that representation.

Hmmm… staring at the image again, I see that the lighter half of the image still has a dark outline – it would have to on a white background, or one would lose the shape.  I don’t think I need to do that in wood… one possibility would be to cut both shapes in dark wood and just add a thin light veneer to the light half…

No, I think I’m going to stick with simplicity.  I’ll try this again using “prettier” woods.  I’ve got some Wenge that is both darker and more dramatic than the walnut I tried, and I think I have some left-over curly maple – it polishes up to a nice, wavy reflective surface. Then, swallow my pride and ask for more critique. How else am I going to learn?

I was totally fascinated recently by a furniture design instructor who told his students to design 3 chairs over the weekend. Not 3 variations on a theme, but 3 totally different designs.  “Why?” the students cried, “It’s hard enough to design one chair!”  The instructor noted that if they only worked on one design they’d become too wedded to it.  Like Golum’s jealous pursuit of the Ring, they’d be clinging to “my precioussss” and defending against criticism. Having 3 different designs allows a degree of detachment from them. Perhaps it’s time for me to move onto other ideas for candle holders.

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