A word on embelishments

If you would have asked me, say a year ago,my thoughts on moulding and embelishments I would have entered the conversation with some skepticism. I probably would have said that it was appropriate in some circumstances (like the giant hideaway murphy bed I built to look like a wardrobe with ogees and crown moulding abounding) but that all in all it didn’t fit my design aesthetic.

I’ve always preferred simple, powerful and utilitarian designs like the clean lines of this craftsman magazine stand, believing that if a design could stand on its own it didn’t need to be “fancy.”

What I want to say in this post is that until recently I believe I fundamentally misunderstood the nature and function of nearly all embellishments in the woodworking world. My enlightenment began, as it often does, watching uncle Roy at work on the Woodwright’s Shop (The Venerable Bead) describing the purpose and execution of beading in woodworking designs.

My mind was opened to four things.

1) The absence of embellishment can be more distracting than it’s presence.

2) Moulding and embellishment can add to good design but they cannot cover up bad.

3) Such embellishment can be as simple or complex as the design calls for, but there is power in simplicity.

4) Moulding planes are nothing to be scared of.

Let me go back and unpack those a little, beginning with the seeming paradox that the absence of embellishment can be more distracting than it’s presence. Or, said another way, the absence or presence of such design elements have the power to do different things.

The reason I like craftsman / shaker furniture is that it seems powerfully understated, but those crisp corners can also be an Achilles heel when the years take their toll and bumps and nicks start to show. Or, (as Roy Underhill points out in the above episode) take for instance the lowly door frame. A nice crisp corner might look good for a day or two, but after that chair gets backed into it one too many times, or your kids accidentally whack it with baby carriages and butterfly nets, all of a sudden you’ve got a ratty looking mess. A simple 3/8″ to 5/8″ bead can be a game changer here by taking off the hard edge, adding durability, and creating a design that exudes grace and durability.

The second zen (or should I say sloyd) awakening I had was the idea that moulding isn’t just a way to cover up bad design, and in fact, it always fails at accomplishing this anyway. Walk around any big box furniture store to see this in action. This truth is also a key point made by, George Walker and Jim Tolpin and in By Hand and Eye. Less can be more, more can be less, YMMV and so on and so forth. Suffice it to say I was mistaken to believe that embellishment was the hallmark of bad design. I have learned to look more carefully beneath the ovolos and reeding.

Thirdly, I was wrong to believe that embellishment couldn’t be as powerful as plain straight lines. Taking a more careful look back at some shaker furniture it’s not hard to see that when good, clean design is embellished well, there is strength in that. Another tip of the hat to Roy Underhill here for highlighting that.

Moulding planes. Get some. You’ll end up with more. They multiply. On the current build I’m working on I have given my 3/16″ beading plane a workout in making the tongue and groove shelves that I’ll unveil in the next day or so.

So why go to all the trouble?

Here’s why: 

A tongue and groove on it’s own doesn’t look especially clean or strong or well designed. It looks utilitarian, but is that all we’re going for?

Ironically, as I mentioned above, it’s not even all that utilitarian. After a while this joint would begin to show undue signs of wear.

A little attention with the beading plane and a shoulder plane to clean it up and here’s what you can end up with.

Take that one step forward, add an astragal bead to the front and back of the shelf and voila. Beautiful, functional, and understated.

I hope by this point I’ve at least made a case for considering (or reconsidering) some simple embellishments in design. Not that I’m trying to be a moulding evangelist here, but I’ve been converted, and if you’ve been dead set against lambs tongues and corner beads maybe this will give you something to think about too.

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