Dynamic Design by Norman Pirollo – How to adapt an existing design to new criteria and data

A quick message from Peter…

This article appears in issue 1 of Woodskills. Woodskills is a magazine that includes a small selection of fine articles on woodworking, and profiles of established woodworkers and furniture makers. I invite you to enjoy this article on Dynamic Design. It is written by Norman Pirollo, a woodworker and maker, author of “From Hi-Tech to Lo-Tech: A Woodworker’s Journey”, and guest on Stemiverse Podcast.

Feel free to get in contact with Norman via email (npirollo at storm.ca), and check out his books and courses on www.woodskills.com.

In recent years, I have added the new term dynamic design as part of my furniture design vocabulary. The term describes how a design can be modified to adapt to circumstances, for either technical considerations or for purely aesthetic reasons. Dynamic design is a term I coined to describe how design doesn’t necessarily need to be cast in stone. It can instead be modified as a project progresses. The changes referred to can be either subtle changes or large scale changes. One of the meanings for the word dynamic from the American Heritage Dictionary.

“dynamic”: Characterized by continuous change, activity, or progress.

As my studio furniture is being created, the design originally envisioned can be improved at different stages. Alternatively, the original design can remain as is. Having this flexibility provides a continuous excitement for a studio furniture maker. It provides the advantage of enhancing the original design after seeing the furniture at various intermediary stages. An excellent example is a console table design I worked on a few years ago. I ultimately chose to invert the base of the table for aesthetic and technical reasons. This is not to say the original design of the maquette would not have worked. Inverting it solved a design dilemma and introduced a new aesthetic to the piece. After creating the maquette, I realized the need for a stable, strong sub-base to be able to support the V-shaped arch.


The console table base appeared small for the dimensions of the table top. Instead, inverting the base utilized the points of the arches as legs. Often, we become fixated on a particular design and do not seek out alternatives that often stare us right in the face. Case in point, I have been creating a new design for a smaller piece of furniture, and as part of my philosophy I strive to use as many materials in my possession as possible without continuously sourcing new material for the components. Working with material at hand sometimes limits what I can do, but on the other hand it challenges me to work within certain constraints. This is an instance of what I like to call dynamic design. Often the beauty of a design is in its simplicity. Simplicity is one of the tenets of the minimalism philosophy. I have to admit that I am an ardent fan of minimalism, and have read at least one book on the subject. You develop a different perspective on design after being exposed to the philosophy of minimalism.

I use maquettes as part of the design process. These reduced scale models of a furniture design help me better visualize the design in three dimensions. The maquette allows me to determine if both the proportions and aesthetic of a piece are fine as is or need improvement. It was while toying with the maquette for the hall table base that I discovered a different orientation for the base. Simply inverting the maquette provided a completely different perspective of the design. With this in mind, it became necessary to create a structure to firmly hold the table top, since the base is arched and the narrow top had minimal latitude to fasten a table top.

The new base design opened up the new possibility of creating a wishbone styled arch referred to earlier. The arched base could simply be an arch, but why not create an image of something else while maintaining the arch structure and shape? I looked at a few wishbone details and redesigned the arch to better reflect the shape of a wishbone. In the process, I also developed the semicircular support for the table top which was in harmony with the curves in the wishbone. The curved support would soon be a component of the curved table top.


This semicircular support actually evolved from the original maquette orientation as seen in the photo at left. It was also necessary to consider the harmony of the table. Do all the elements blend together well? I wanted a semicircular table top support to blend in with the table top. I created it using the same wood species as the top, in this case bloodwood. Bloodwood also nicely contrasted with the table base. Metal rods were used to attach the components. The cocobolo feet on each of the legs was a small touch included to draw some of the color down to the bottom of the wishbone shaped base and to create balance. Another criteria for the hall table was a narrow profile. This was included as a requirement in the design. The hall table was created with a narrow profile but maintained its stability. When this hall table was designed, I used predefined measurements for typical hall table designs. A curved top was incorporated into the design with its widest part at the peak of the wishbone arch. I hope to have enlightened you to the positive aspects of dynamic design through the use of maquettes as part of the design process.

Designing a chair has its challenges. Unlike static pieces of furniture, the chair is moved around and is subject to stresses which test the type of joinery selected in its construction. In the lounge chair design shown on these pages, the design evolved from cardboard maquettes as seen below, to more advance prototypes seen on the following page. As can be seen, different configurations evolved from an original paper sketch. At one point, CAD renderings were introduced to provide a better 3-D perspective of the design. Unlike static pieces of furniture that remain in one place and are not subject to shear type stresses, certain criteria need to be addressed in a successful chair design. The criteria includes comfort, strength, rigidity, weight, stability and of course the aesthetic of the chair. Dynamic design was applied to this design as seen in the different structural components. The design began with an open frame with triangle cutouts. The cutouts provide lightening while maintaining strength in the lounge chair design. Another version had lightening applied in the shape of differently sized lightening holes. The holes were created in groups of three in successively smaller sizes to follow the taper of each leg.

As the design evolved, other changes were implemented. The rake of the back, the width and length of the seat, were all modified as the design evolved. The changes were made to accommodate different sized people. Although there exist industry seating charts which specify optimal seat height, back size and height, and the rake of the back and chair, every chair is different. Since the most important criteria in a chair design is comfort, this single attribute had overwhelming priority in this design. As the design process evolved, the dynamic design principle was embraced in the design changes. Dynamic design allows a designer to factor new technical or aesthetic data into a design.

It is often only after a design has evolved into a full-scale prototype that a characteristic or element is noticed to be amiss. This could be the proportions of the design or it could involve the stability of the design as noted in the previously described console table design. Other design modifications that followed included the height of the seat back, the rake of the seat back and the depth of the seat itself. Although chair design conventions were followed, it was only after actual people sat in the full-scale prototypes that these measurements could be fine-tuned. In light of this, dynamic design was a large part of this chair design.

Chair design is probably at the extreme end of furniture design in that several unique criteria need to be considered. Every chair design is different. This lounge chair design had to have a particular rake to distinguish it from a dining chair. The rake of the seat and seat back were configured for a more relaxed seating experience. It is only after several prototypes were developed and created that the optimal seat size and angle were arrived at. In the design, the thickness of seat and seat back also factored into the seating experience. The seat thickness included thick foam padding with a leather covering. Together, the thickness of the seat and seat back reduced the available depth to sit on. It was necessary to include this important criteria in the final dimensions. Again, dynamic design was instrumental to the final outcome, since the thickness of the seat and back could only be factored in once the seat and back were part of the chair. The takeaway of this article is that design is hardly ever hard and fast. Often, it is only when a large scale mock-up of a furniture design is created that the eye notices a proportion is out of scale with other components of the design. The design itself can be found to be unstable where the depth or width of the piece is insufficient when measured against the height. Stability of a furniture piece becomes critical, especially in today’s litigious environment.

This article was published in issue 1 of Woodskills.