Designing a Chair

I often work with interior designers. Recently one that I’ve worked with for many years asked that I think about a design for a client that had  pretty specific requirements for a chair. The client recently having moved into a new condo had a walnut desk of Mid-Century vintage in her new bedroom that needed a chair. The new chair needed to have a look that would fit the design of the desk; it also had to fit the client so that she could sit comfortably at the desk, her stature being somewhat smaller than most chairs are designed for. The chair also had to slide in under the desk when not in use.

I visited the site and took this picture of the desk.

The interior designer remembered a chair that I had done for another client of her’s some time ago and thought that something similar might work in this case although the style would have to be changed to a Mid-Century Modern look.

This chair was designed to look like a Biedermeier chair for a bedroom set I had done in that style. I took this basic chair, changed the dimensions to the ones we had worked out with the client to get the seat height just right and created this first design.

You can see how I took the design detail of the pulls from the desk and put it in the back. Here is a drawing of the dimensions that I gave to the client along with several renderings like the one above.

The client didn’t think that this was what she was looking for so it was literally back to the drawing board for me. I realized that the client had the sense that the chair wasn’t sturdy enough and didn’t offer enough support. That led me to create this next design.

And below you can see the added lumbar support this design offered.

I also created this front view of the design…

…and a line drawing with dimensions.

The client said that this was perfect.

Here is the final product.

A word about the finish I used. Typically the walnut used in Mid Century Modern furniture made before the 1980’s had a lighter color than walnut available today. This is partly due to the interest in darker woods towards the end of the 20th century. It has also become much harder to find walnut logs of the size available before the 80’s with their wide expanses of heartwood. Consequently it became standard for sawyers to treat walnut with steam in the process of drying it. This darkened both the heartwood but also the lighter colored sapwood, giving them more sale-able wood.

I selected the wood for this chair by color and grain pattern. To achieve as light a finish as possible I devised a finish that used several coats of different shellacs top-coated with a mixture of linseed oil and spar varnish. The client said she was very pleased with the chair and finish.

The next table. part 4

The delivery date nears and I still want to apply a few more coats of finish so it looks like, once again, I won’t be able to take the time to properly photograph a piece before it leaves the shop.

I have been building up the polyurethane finish to a point which I can then sand it flat.



At this point the table is ready for the final coats.


Although these shots don’t really show it there is a subtle wood grain showing through.

Here’s the table with two more coats to go.


Part 3 is here.

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The Design Process: A Table, part 2

The dialog with my clients generated an interest in two of the sketched designs I had created, sketch #3 and sketch #4.

Table sketch #3 by Todd Fillingham Table sketch #4 by Todd Fillingham

Sketch #4 was derived from an earlier table I had made and shown in my portfolio. Jackie had wanted to be sure and have the table legs as far out towards the edge of the table top as possible to maximize leg room under the table. Both of these designs accomplish that as part of the design motif.

Since these designs were quick ideas drawn to look for a direction to move in to accomplish a final design I felt that they needed some refining. I discussed this with Jackie and Peter and got their impressions. From those discussions I created two designs, one of each table.

At this point I’ve started looking at the joinery as well as other technical considerations so that I don’t present a design that would be too expensive to accomplish. Here is design #3.

Dining table by Todd Fillingham

I had also modeled the site, the clients kitchen, in my 3D cad program and was able to place the table within that model to give my clients an idea of the scale of the table and how it would look in their space.


Dining table by Todd Fillingham

I did the same process for design #4.


Dining table by Todd Fillingham

I’ll show another view of the rendered model here. I provided Jackie and Peter with several views of each.


Dining table by Todd Fillingham


Dining table by Todd Fillingham


For both designs I also created line drawings with dimensions. Here is the line drawing for table #4. Click to get a larger view. Dining table by Todd Fillingham


Now it was up to Peter and Jackie to decide which of the two they liked the best or whether they would like to think about another approach. Their house had several elements that were of the Prairie/ Arts and Crafts genre. One of the elements of Arts and Crafts style is the use of exposed joinery and table #4 has more explicit exposed joinery. They eventually decided on #4.

After they made their decision I worked out a bid price for them and we signed a Commission Agreement detailing the design, materials, price, completion date and delivery details. I then created shop drawings, selected the lumber and built the table.

Here is a detail of the completed table showing the exposed joinery.

dsc00143.jpg The cherry will darken with age and exposure to light. The kitchen it went into had plenty of light exposure and that is why I rendered the models in dark cherry as the finished table would soon darken.

Jackie and Peter were quite happy with the table. As a matter of fact they wrote this testimonial for me:

Todd Fillingham is the best kept secret of a craftsperson in Milwaukee. He has a beautiful portfolio of lovely, creative and usable furniture. I have known Todd for 25 years but it was only when I heard his name sponsoring an NPR show did I think- “he is the one to design a perfect table for our newly remodeled kitchen.” And I was right. He looked at the site, he listened to my ideas, he did an array of drawings, he made a few alterations after discussions and he used both his sense of design and what I wanted with his skill and computer savvy to do a picture of a table that is exactly what he then produced in beautiful cherry wood. We thought the price was reasonable for this utilitarian piece of art.

Jackie Boynton



The Design Process: A Table, part 1

I’ve been meaning put up a post that describes the process I go through in designing a simple project such as dining table. This project was completed this fall.

The client contacted me about a dining table for a new kitchen they had recently added. The client, Jackie Boynton, and I discussed the general requirements and set an appointment or me to visit her house so that I could get a sense of the space and other furniture they had.

The table would need to regularly seat 3 and occasionally seat 4. Once I got to the site it appeared that an oval shape top would be appropriate. The new kitchen was contemporary enough, with large windows and clean woodwork for an oval to work, the space was somewhat small for a rectangle and we did not want to constrict the traffic flow of a busy kitchen, used for cooking, homework, family gathering and many other activities.

I eventually established a comfortable table size by taking measurements of the site, modeling the site in my 3D cad program and by using my “ergo man” model. This is a model I’ve created to allow me to assure enough room for table settings as well as many other ergonomic design concerns in many projects. Here’s a screen shot of this model:


Here’s an image I took while on site of the area the table would eventually occupy.p6050001.jpg

You can see the old table, obviously too small.

I manipulated this image in my photo editing application and added a rendering of an early sketch idea for a table to get a sense of the style direction I should be going towards.


This process of manipulating the image in a photo editing program is awkward and doesn’t allow me to measure the clearance around the table and to get a good idea of how the table will look so I modeled the space in the 3D cad program and was able to drop in various rough ideas for table designs.

To get a dialog going betwenn Jackie and myself about the table design I created a series of 3D sketches and quickly rendered them and was able to email them to her and her husband, Peter. They were able to discuss them and get back to me. Here’s a link to my Flickr set showing several of these sketches:


I think that these designs have a lot of potential and look forward to interesting another client into having me finish one or more of them.

In part 2 I’ll show the two finalists that Jackie and Peter chose, the eventual final choice and the completed table.

collage and chair design

Here’s a closer look at the collage I created for the “client pages” page I’ve been working on.

Chair design collageI created it to communicate a little about the typical process of designing a piece for a client. In this case the piece was to be a chair in the Biedermeier  style to accompany the desk, armoir, bed and two night stands I had already designed and built. I worked with an interior designer hired by the client whom I had been working with for some time and she gave me the basic criteria and some ideas about the design concerns.

I found several images from various sources and created some quick sketches based on these historical examples. We had a meeting, the interior designer and I with the client and I was able to narrow down what the client wanted. Based on this discussion I drew a set of scaled, hard line drawings and eventually a color rendering using colored pencils, ink and water colors.  The client was happy with this design and I was able to proceed to doing the final shop drawings and fabrication.

I’ve been using a computer 3D modeling program for some time, Rhinoceros, and  a rendering program called Flamingo to generate the rendered images, however at the time I designed this chair I was not familiar with the program enough to be  able to quickly sketch out the ideas I had from my research so I relied on my earlier skills with pencil and ink. The important thing is to communicate as clearly as possible to a client what you are thinking and to be able to listen very closely to their response. I feel that it is very important to put as much care and attention into this phase of a project as I try and do with the fabrication and finishing. I hope that this collage will help communicate this to prospective clients.