May 29, 2023


Digital Art Community

First Critique, Then Build
A pile of my early designs from the 1990s that were vetted by my fellow editors.

If you want a good critique to help you grow as a designer (or a writer) here’s something to consider: Ask for the criticism before you touch the tools (or crank up the printing press).

Because of my odd path through life, almost all of my early furniture designs were vetted, savaged and usually improved by a group of experienced woodworkers before I started the construction process. For 15 years, all of the editors at Popular Woodworking would gather occasionally around a table to plan out future issues of the magazine. We would review proposals from outside authors and we would present our own designs for review.

The short critiques sounded like this: “That rail is too heavy. You don’t have enough meat in that joint. That overhang looks clunky. You might consider adding a sympathetic curve here. It needs a cup holder. If you tapered the legs it would look a lot lighter.”

Everyone had to go through the process, even the boss who went to a fancy furniture school.

This sort of pre-construction critique is so helpful, that I seek it out even now. Before I build a new chair or cabinet design I like to show my drawings to someone who knows their stuff and isn’t afraid to speak up.

I don’t act on every piece of criticism, but it always makes me think. And sometimes it pushes me down a new path.

On the other hand, criticism that comes after a piece is built is a different animal. With pointy fangs.

I’ve spoken to woodworking clubs all over the country. Many times they invite me to critique pieces made by their members. The first time I was asked to do this, I thought: “What a brave bunch of woodworkers.”

Then the club’s president took me aside and said: “Please be nice about it. One speaker was so mean that a couple of the guys ended up in tears.”

I empathize with this approach. Most of the members of a club are there to have a good time, learn about woodworking and help their community. They aren’t looking for a withering critique that will thicken their skin and question their choices as a designer. And so when I critique a finished piece I focus on what they did right and (I hope) encourage them to keep building.

One of the pieces from a recent “Chair Chat.” I loved this chair so much I made this drawing of it.

Another Way to Do It

What if you don’t have any friends who are experienced designers? One thing you might try is to get a few friends together and have something like our “Chair Chats” (we have two more publishing real soon). During each chat, Rudy Everts, Klaus Skrudland and I dissect the design of a few chairs. Because these are historical pieces, we are free to be as honest as possible.

What has been amazing to me is to see these pieces through the eyes of someone else I respect. We all pick up on different aspects of a piece. And by the time we completely take apart a chair verbally, I find that I understand the piece much better than I did before. 

We do it via a texting program (Whatsapp) so that everyone’s opinions are heard. No one can talk over the others and dominate the discussion. It doesn’t take a lot of time, either. We spend about 30 to 40 minutes on a chair. And at the end of each critique I feel oddly refreshed, energized and full of ideas.

And that’s the best feeling ever for a designer.

— Christopher Schwarz