Dancing About Architecture… Part 1

The following is adapted from an article I published in issue 242 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, or so said Frank Zappa. And if this is true for music, does it also stand for furniture? I think maybe so.


A folding campaign bookcase. How would you describe this piece?

A tale of two clients

I was reminded of Frank’s words of wisdom early last year, when I was discussing guitar commissions with two prospective clients. These clients were very different. The first (who I shall call Mr X) is a keen amateur player. I know Mr X quite well, we have a number of favourite albums in common, and share a similar musical frame of reference. The other prospect (who from here on in shall be Mrs Y) is a professional musician and wrote one of my favourite albums of the past few years. I don’t know Mrs Y at all, and beyond her albums we don’t share any reference points. Unsurprisingly, agreeing a specification with Mr X did not take much time at all, because we were able to draw upon that shared frame of reference. In comparison, understanding what Mrs Y was looking for took a great deal more work.


Esmerelda has a “bright” and “jangly” tone, with plenty of volume. But how would other people describe the same sound?

This experience got me thinking about the different approaches and vocabulary that we as craftspeople use when we describe our work to clients, spouses, other makers, or interested laypeople. Because if the other side of the conversation does not share the technical vocabulary, or reference points, then it can all get a bit confusing. On the other hand, the right vocabulary and shared frame of reference can act as a short hand of sorts. Because if you both know what Greene and Greene style furniture is, or think that a ’59 Blackguard Telecaster is one of the finest electric guitars ever made, then you don’t have to go through the process of describing and explaining.

Divided by a common tongue

Conversations about what we build are a sort of information funnel, even if this process is normally subconscious. So for furniture building, you would typically identify the style of a piece (Arts and Crafts? Shaker? Federal?), before funnelling a number of different options to arrive at a clear description of a piece, including construction techniques (dovetails? Mortise and tenon? Staked furniture?) timber selection, hardware, finishing options. And if the other party to the conversation is not familiar with the styles or construction techniques you have just referred to, you can hit an early impasse. As an example, one of my favourite furniture forms is campaign furniture. This highly functional style of furniture is characterised by fully blind dovetails, the use of hardwoods, and extensive use of brass hardware including recessed drawer pulls and corner reinforcement. The result is a clean and rugged appearance However, despite being eminently practical campaign furniture has largely escaped popular attention. This has started to change amongst woodwork circles thanks to the publication of Campaign Furniture (Lost Art Press, 2014) and the excellent exhibitions held by Christopher Clarke Antiques (www.campaignfurniture.co.uk), but this has yet to filter into popular consciousness. As a result, a spirited conversation about campaign furniture can lead to confusion and blank faces.


A disassembled campaign secretary ready for transporting

Of course, this is complicated because the vocabulary of furniture making, or lutherie, is not just concerned with technical terms regarding construction techniques or styles, but also a level of subjectivity regarding aesthetic, and in the case of musical instruments tonal, qualities, and this introduces a lot of variables into a conversation. So into the information funnel also go subjective descriptions – is it vernacular or high style furniture, will the piece look delicate or stout, elegant or bold?


I think campaign furniture has a “clean” and “rugged” appearance, but do those descriptors match your impressions of this furniture style?

For lutherie, the question is one of interpreting the client’s (entirely subjective) descriptions of their ideal sound, and applying that to the mechanics of how the guitar itself operates. In particular, for acoustic guitars the layout of the soundboard braces, and the size of each of those braces, is fundamental to shaping the sound. So when I build acoustic guitars I spend a lot of time tuning the braces to achieve the right balance of resonance and structural integrity. But it is not enough to understand that lighter braces allow a soundboard to vibrate more, which in turn increases the bass elements of the tone, while heavier braces dampen the soundboard’s resonance and create a brighter sound with less sustain – I have to apply that to the subjective language used by the client.


The soundboard bracing on this parlour guitar will in large part determine the sound of the guitar.

A new way of communicating?

The need to communicate clearly should not be seen as a burden, but rather an opportunity to really understand the requirements of the end user. The tangle of subjectivity and technical language I have described above begs the question of whether we need a new way of talking about our crafts, and describing our work? And if so, how do we go about that? Or is it enough that we continue to “dance about architecture”? Unfortunately I have no answers, only questions. But the next time you set about describing a project to a co-worker or spouse, or discuss a commission with a client, take a moment to think about how you (and they) are trying to communicate ideas.


Mr X wanted the same specification as this Tele-type guitar I had previously built. I think the tone of this guitar is “twangy” and “bright” with some real “snarl” when turned up, but how would you interpret those descriptors?

For those who are wondering, Mr X ordered a ’59 Blackguard Telecaster type guitar with a swamp ash body, maple neck and fretboard, and classic butterscotch blonde finish. You can follow the build of Mr X’s guitar by clicking on the “mysterycaster” tag in the right hand panel of this blog.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to practice a mime routine describing my next furniture build.


7 thoughts on “Dancing About Architecture… Part 1

  1. Nice write up Kieran. How to define, explain and realise a project of any kind is not straightforward. I’d like to be in a position where all client relations are like your client “X”. It makes the process much easier. The odd “Y” can be good to broaden the horizon but to many of them makes for an exhausting process. The nice thing about client “X” is words are hardly needed, you both just know you’re on the same page.

    • Thanks for your comments Graham, and for stopping by the blog! I agree that a mix of “X” and “Y” clients can be beneficial, and while it is invariably easier to discuss a brief with “X”, I am very interested in the opportunities to learn a new way of talking about my work that dealing with a “Y” presents.

  2. Nice write up Kieran. How to define, explain and realise a project of any kind is not straightforward. I’d like to be in a position where all client relations are like your client “X”. It makes the process much easier. The odd “Y” can be good to broaden the horizon but to many of them makes for an exhausting process. The nice thing about client “X” is words are hardly needed, you both just know your on the same page.

  3. I’m not sure that non-technical language is the problem/solution. Although I’ve only dealt with about a dozen clients so far, most of my (in)ability to communicate with them seems to stem more from personality types than from furniture-style savy. In fact, my toughest client so far (Ms. Z) thinks she knows a lot about furniture. (And in fact she does, if by furniture we mean a near-encyclical memorization of the past 5 years of Crate and Barrel, CB2, West Elm, Pottery Barn, and Restoration Hardware catalogues.) She can talk style, texture, and color all day long. But she’s clueless as to whether a pocket-screw or a mortise-and-tenon is more traditional. Ditto for quality and durability. For her, its all about my capacity to match today’s aesthetics at below big-box prices. Thank golly she really likes me, elst I’m certain these three commissions would have long since gone to the CB2 Indonesian gum-wood plant.

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