True I.D. Stories
Editor: You're an up-and-coming designer getting ready to show your stuff at a big furniture show. You've got a great design and know exactly how it should be made--so what could go wrong? Here an anonymous furniture designer shares one of his early-career tales.
This article was originally published in the C77 Design Daily, Vol. 1, Issues 1 & 2.
With the big furniture show coming up, I had spent the past few months designing this large dining table that was going to be produced for the show by a new-to-me fabricator. I'd never worked with these guys before, but they were billed as fabrication experts and had a good rep, so I felt I was in good hands.
This dining table was made entirely out of a heavy type of wood (which I am not going to name, for reasons of anonymity). The base was the most complex part, with a fairly complicated structure involving a lot of joinery. This is the part I was sweating because of how difficult it was to manufacture: They had to get all of these different pieces to meet up very precisely, while still leaving enough play to compensate for wood movement. There were complicated radii and angles, and if the parts were joined incorrectly, the top wouldn't register with the legs.
Well, these guys nailed it! Totally got every single part exactly correct, it was just perfect. Up next was fabricating the top, but I wasn't sweating that—the top was just a plain rectangle that needed to be glued up from narrower pieces to create a thick, hefty slab. In total it would be eight feet long by 42 inches wide. This was expensive stuff and I didn't have the money—or the time, with the show looming—to do this twice.
Now I had specified that the glue-up had to happen with the individual pieces laid with alternating grains, to compensate for each piece's tendency to cup. By flipping every other piece before the glue-up you can get the cupping to largely cancel out and I can then flatten the table out with a sander.
Well, instead, these guys glued the thing up with all of the endgrain MATCHING. Meaning all of the cupping would happen in the same direction. So when they took the clamps off and the slab adjusted to the ambient humidity, the whole goddamn thing just taco'ed.
Now I had this huge, severely warped slab of material that wouldn't lay flat, never mind register with the legs. And I was running out of time. So the only solution was to permanently attach the top to the legs, flattening it out using a brutish connection method I never would have signed off on if I had options. But I didn't. This was supposed to be a removable tabletop, so that you could transport the base and the top separately, but now I've got this gigantic permanently-joined, huge piece—and it must've weighed close to a thousand pounds.
My next objective was to put this hot patina onto it. I got a bunch of guys to help me muscle this beast back to my studio, which is inside a large shared facility. Now I had to sand this entire thing, which is another issue because now I could not take the tabletop off. I would normally be able to flip all of these parts over, for access, and just go at it with a palm sander, but now it's all one goddamn piece. And the clock is ticking down.
Me and a bunch of guys in the studio building were able to rig the table up with some webbing straps to a hoist, and flip it and finagle it onto dollies and stuff while I went at it with a palm sander. It was ridiculous and took me at least twice as long as it should've.
I sanded this thing for probably two full days, and finally got the desired patina onto it. Onto every single surface. I was pretty happy when it was done, because it looked great.
This was the day before the truck was due to show up to bring it several states away to the exhibition. Where my studio is located happened to be the central staging area for this group show, where all of the designers involved in the show were going to meet up the next day to prepare for the truck to pick everything up.
So lastly we put this lacquer coat on, this hardcoat finish on it, and the table looks beautiful. I left the studio around 2am and I was like, phew, I got it done by the skin of my teeth.
I get up at 7am the next morning—and see there's a string of text messages on my phone. Getting a bad feeling as I open the messages. They say that some of the other guys in that studio building, as a courtesy to me, this figured they would hook me up and put just one more coat of the superhard lacquer on the top of the table just to finish it off.
Well, they used the wrong goddamn lacquer. So shortly after they applied that final coat, the entire top just bubbled off.
I raced over there, got there at 7:30am. The tabletop is ruined—it looks like fucking alligator skin. And the truck was going to be there to pick us all up at 9am, and the table is just shit, complete shit. It was worthless. Those two days of sanding in the right patina were just down the drain.
Hopelessly, I grab some palm sanders and start going at the thing. Meanwhile all of the other designers in the group are showing up and loading up the truck with their stuff. We hired a pro trucker to drive our stuff several states away to the show, and those guys don't really like waiting around. So I've got two palm sanders, one in each hand, and I'm frantically doing wax-on, wax-off like the Karate Kid.
I manage to get the alligator skin off, but now I've got to bribe the driver $100 to stick around while I clearcoat the thing. I couldn't get as many coats on it as I wanted, because we still had a deadline that the truck had to leave by in order to make it to the venue and time—the loading dock times are very strict. So I eventually got the table to an acceptable point, and then me and the guys loaded it up and threw it into the back of the truck, wet.
Fortunately everything after that went more or less as planned, but that was one of the more stressful moments in the early days of my career as a designer.