What is good design?

Peggy Tzu, my most experienced chair model, shows off my favorite design, the Roorkhee chair.

That’s the topic of consideration for the next meeting of The Lumber Support Group (aka Shop Stewards) of the Phinney Neighborhood Association Community Woodshop.  The Roorkhee chair pictured above is my idea of a good design, leaving the question of why is it good?

My views on design are largely the product of my woodworking (and life) apprenticeship with my father.  Pop was a mechanical engineer by training and for him good design was almost completely a matter of ‘form follows function’.  Therefore whichever form best fits (follows) the function of an item is a good design.  So if we kick this can down the road far enough, we come to the ultimate question,  what is the function?

Obviously the first function of a chair would to be a comfortable place to sit.  I submit that everyone whom I have invited to sit in this chair has found it very comfortable, both immediately and over time.  I consider the thigh strap across the front of the seat sling a key feature to that purpose.  Kris has sat in one comfortably for over four hours.

Another function of the chair would to be conveniently portable.  In this case, the chair is easily moved with one hand over a short distance, thanks to the hourglass like shape of the legs.  It also has the added feature of being quickly disassembled and packed in a bag for travel.

But perhaps the most unique feature of this chair is its ability to adjust to uneven ground (or floors).  This is because all the mortise and tenon joints are conical; they are held in place with straps and buckles.  The joints rotate to automatically adjust to whatever surface it’s placed upon and it neither tips nor teeters.  Although the chair performs these narrowly specified functions well, it is nevertheless not a good design for sitting at a table,  as it sits too low and reclines too far.

The one function not easily defined is the chair’s aesthetic value.  Given that ‘there is no accounting for taste’,  it may well be impossible to objectively assess.  My father would occasionally praise an elegant solution to a problem.  And while the skeptic might argue that ‘elegance’ is synonymous with ‘efficient’ to an engineer, I think he would have agreed that not all efficient designs are aesthetically pleasing.

Perhaps ‘good design’ is simply something that inspires consensus of opinion.  On the other hand maybe it inspires debate.  I guess it all depends upon its function.

*BTW- The modern renaissance of the Roorkhee chair is entirely due to the efforts of Chris Schwarz who has taught hundreds to make them (including myself), and has freely shared his design and expertise.



One thought on “What is good design?

  1. Love this
    Great chair design! The Roorkhee chair looks comfortable and portable, with the added bonus of adjusting to uneven ground. The article’s emphasis on form following function is refreshing.
    Eamon O’Keeffe
    Great DIY Ideas


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