Material, Function & Form

You may be familiar with the principle that form follows function, originally associated with modernist architecture and industrial design in the 20th century.  The idea is that the intended function or purpose of a building (or object) should determine its design and shape.

In view of our experience with building our own furniture for our converted shipping container home I want to suggest a green design principle that says: the recycled material at your disposal should determine the function and form of the end product

In 2016 we inherited an old timber staircase.  Together with the old wooden fascia boards from our own house our tally totaled 8.86m² old fascias (in various lengths and widths), 18 steps from the staircase (840mm x 220mm x 30mm), 11 square poles (70mm x 70mm in varying lengths), 4 lengthy planks (4 048mm x 100mm x 20mm), 9 shorter planks (1 570mm x 100mm x 35mm), 2 large side pieces from the staircase (4 020mm x 220mm x 50mm), 1 very big and heavy square beam (3 000mm x 90mm x 90mm) and 2 smaller beams (1 635mm x 110mm x 75mm).

Looking at that stack of reclaimed timber, I knew intuitively that it held the potential to be turned into furniture.  But I had no idea how to do it.

My frustration came to an end when, during my brother’s (an accomplished woodworker) visit, he confirmed that the wood had the potential to meet some of our furniture needs.  During the subsequent three weeks we worked as his sidekicks, building a kitchen island and queen-size bed using only rudimentary tools: a cheap and nasty circular saw; a borrowed jigsaw, clamps and drill; a hired sander; cold glue; and an assortment of hammers, nails, screws etc.  The entire project took place in our garage, rather than his well-equipped Man Den back home.

The kitchen island

The kitchen island

At the end of his visit we were still left with a lot of timber and the desire to continue building more furniture.  Realistically the odds were stacked against us: our chief woodworker departed; our highest carpentry qualification was standard six wood work; and our tools remained woefully inadequate.  But – we loved the time in the garage working on the kitchen island and bed, and we desperately wanted to continue playing with the available timber.  We had the zeal of the converted, having had a three-week physical – mental – spiritual fix of sawing, drilling, hammering “glue-ups” and clamping!  So we decided to continue, reassuring ourselves that the expertise of our chief woodworker was only a Skype call away.

How did we do it?

Enter the previously-mentioned green design principle, stage left – the recycled material at your disposal should determine the function and form of the end product.

As logical, systematic people we started the project by packing out the timber to see what was available. This served the same function as the scale model of the shipping container house that we built previously: we could look at the wood, visualizing what was possible in terms of furniture.

Some of the old fascia boards

Some of the old fascia boards

We made a list of the furniture we needed, guided by two overall design principles:

  • keep it simple (but also functional and aesthetically pleasing), and
  • what is the minimum that we need to be comfortable? Our less is more adage.

Apart from the kitchen island that will function as the hub around which cooking and mealtimes with friends will take place, as well as the bed, we listed: a bathroom cabinet for the basin, kitchen shelving  and a counter for the double sink,  and a coffee table for the lounge.

We made design sketches of the furniture based on ideal proportions, taking into account the available wood, our inadequate tools and rudimentary skills.

The design sketch for the coffee table

The design sketch for the coffee table

Then we started with gusto, modifying and improving as we went along.  We had endless conversations; we developed the habit of not going anywhere without “the B’bos book”, our holiest of holies, the notebook capturing the entire building-a-shipping-container-house project.

We acknowledged our limitations. For example: early on we decided not to use the circular saw since we were unfamiliar with it and lacked the confidence to learn to use it in the absence of our chief woodworker (it is a singularly scary piece of equipment).  I can now tell you with some authority that you can successfully make a whole lot of furniture using only a jigsaw and old fashioned handsaw!

The end result

The easiest part was using the 18 steps of the old staircase that will make perfect shelves for the kitchen.

Steps from the staircase

Steps from the staircase

Six additional steps, together with wood from the old staircase, were used as part of the bathroom cabinet.

Bathroom basin counter

Bathroom basin counter

The old fascia boards were perfect as the main ingredients for the kitchen counter with the double sink.  Gluing three planks together lengthwise made a textbook 600mm wide counter and timber from the old staircase made great legs for the counter.  We could allow for more than enough storage space at the bottom of the kitchen island and the kitchen counter.

Kitchen zink counter

Kitchen sink counter

Various pieces of wood from the old staircase made a unique coffee table for the lounge.

Building the coffee table

Building the coffee table

Our growing confidence and skills resulted in two unplanned pieces: a small bench for the bathroom to put stuff on and two outdoor benches that we made from up-cycled pallet wood and tar poles.

Building the outside benches

Building the outside benches

What did we learn from the process?

  • Look at material as “potential”, not rubbish.
  • You don’t always need to go out and buy stuff in order to have stuff – this assumption is a product of our socialization.
  • You don’t need lots of tools in order to build something. You can hire very good tools at a fraction of the cost of buying them.
  • You don’t need to be a master carpenter to construct an aesthetically pleasing and useful piece of furniture.
  • Don’t underestimate your ability to learn to work with your hands. If I can learn how to glue wood and use clamps, at the age of 49, so can you!
  • Throw yourself into the process, not money. You may just end up having enormous fun!

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