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A love letter
to furniture

Graduate Wilfred Cheung from our Adelaide studio talks about how designing and making furniture has shaped the way he approaches architecture.

Being young comes with its challenges. Even more so coming out of design school and into the real world.  One of the biggest mental barriers can be knowing what good design is – how it looks and feels –but struggling to reproduce it or even afford it. Well, at least that’s how I feel.

I felt this keenly when moving out of home for the first time – I’d be disappointed with the spaces we could afford. I wondered if we’d ever have access to the designs I’d see in books and magazines which I’d come to appreciate and want so badly.

Compound this with the commercial reality of being young in architecture, where the opportunity for design work doesn’t often come your way. It’s a lot to come to terms with.

On a positive note, I’m learning the ropes and building the experience to be able to make those spaces and am proud of the projects I work on. I’m glad Architectus can provide the environment for me to do so. It’s a waiting game, and it’s only a matter of time!

However, we’re all human and we have our ups and downs. On the days when you want to do something more, let me introduce…  furniture design! It’s helped my detailing game, given me an outlet for my creativity to leak out, and provided an opportunity to produce design that I can call my own.

It all started when my university offered a furniture unit and opened my eyes to the world of product designers and designer/makers. There’s a whole different subset of people out there like Tom Skeehan, Naoto Fukasawa and Khai Liew to name a few. I had no idea they existed when studying, but I feel like we should.

In the unit, I made this low table, with a through-tenon and wedges.

My first table, ‘Table Three’ – A Japanese-inspired low table

In doing so, I became really interested in timber joints, grain, and the processes involved to make furniture. I watched all kinds of YouTube furniture videos, and was inspired by makers such as Ishitani  – a Japanese woodworker, who is really good at showing all the steps he does to make cuts and joints.

From there, I would go on to make this matching table and chair, this bookshelf and this bedside table. From the chair, I learned about ergonomics. From the bookshelf bent plywood lamination, and the bedside table drawer runners, cabinet construction and grain/ waterfall miters.

Clockwise from top left: Floating table, floating chair, blackwood bedside, blackwood bedside, bent bookshelf

But how does this relate to work life? Well, from there, I found that conceptualising connections from material to material became a lot more tangible. Putting things together with my hands (in comparison to my digital everyday activity of snapping 2d lines to each other) left a far greater impression on my learning.

I became a lot more interested in the process and finer detail of things, whereas before I would have called myself a bit more of an ‘ideas guy’, where everything was left in broad strokes. I found I actually cared about the way things were detailed and expressed.

At work, I was able to come up with this detail for a structural canopy, which takes it cues from a double miter, or a Chinese sword-tip joint, to achieve a continuous line on both sides of the column.

On another project I’m able to talk shop with my boss about details like joints, finger pulls, grain direction, and ways of finishing timber.

I’ve become more sympathetic and understanding of builders and the processes they go through to make drawings reality. I think more about stock limitations, jointing methods, order of processes and so on.

Structural canopy detail

If you’re like me and have graduated already, consider joining your local makerspace or ‘men’s’ shed. I’ve found that whenever someone young shows interest in making things, people are very excited to help you out. Combined with your design prowess, the designs that come out of that shed are going to be amazing.

If you’re in university and there’s a furniture unit offered like there was at UWA, I would highly encourage getting involved. I knew it would be a lot of work, but in hindsight it is one of the most valuable units I took.

Of course, what works for me might be a completely different story for you. The moral of the story is that if you find a field of expression that interests you, I encourage you to dive right in. As many design skills are transferrable, I’m sure they’ll enrichen your work – and your life as a designer.