I Built a Set of Gerritt Rietveld Crate Chairs and So Can You

Dutch avant-garde architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) was a hands-on furniture designer and builder. He invented Ikea before Ikea did.

His proto-Ikea crate wood set (1934) was sold finished, as a kit and as plans—truly democratic furniture that even a kid could build with a modest amount of tools and dimensional lumber from the big box store.

I made a set of Rietveld’s crate chairs and a crate table for our backyard. The crate chair is a nod to the Morris chair. It’s low slung, kind of like a beach chair (there’s also a taller version). While simple, the chair’s design shows an architect’s appreciation of how planes intersect and how to make those connections visually interesting. I’ve built reproductions of furniture designed both by architects and furniture makers. While I was building the chair I could tell that it was the product of someone who appreciated both good design and the practical details of furniture construction. It’s also more comfortable than it looks and the original had cushions which I might also make.

Associated with the DeStil movement, Rietveld’s furniture work ranges from the practical to the sculptural. He’s probably best known for the red/black chair.

Some of Rietveld’s furniture work is meant to be seen more than used. This chair was originally part of a Jeweler’s shop in The Hague but might also make an eye catching hallway chair.

If you’d like to make your own crate chairs or any of Rietveld’s other furniture, there’s a terrific bilingual Dutch/English how to book, How to Construct Rietveld Furniture/Rietveld Meubels om zelf te maken with complete plans for most of his furniture designs. The crate furniture, consisting of chairs, tables, desks and a bookshelf, can be made with a few hand tools. The rest of the projects in this book would require a table saw and varying levels of skill. The book contains measured drawings for all the projects and tips on how Rietveld did the joinery as well as colors and finishes. If I had a modernist house or office I’d go crazy and make everything in this book.

Pro tip: learn even a modest amount of carpentry skills and you can have furniture by famous designers in your house for the price of the materials.

A Grand Rapids End Table

Every woodworking project I tackle seems to come along with a lesson learned through making a mistake. A previous project taught me that I should take more time deciding what to make. As a woodworker, since you can make whatever you want, you might as well make something interesting and custom sized for a particular spot in your house.

With this end table I took my time looking for the perfect piece to reproduce. While the Arts and Crafts thing is way out of style, I don’t care. For whatever reason I just happen to like this period.

In the early analysis paralysis phase of the project, I made up an end table Pinterest board and set about searching for end tables made between the years 1900 and 1910. I picked this one because of that unusual door. Auction catalogs are handy since they often include measurements and multiple views.

This small table was made by a large factory operation, the Grand Rapids Furniture Company in 1910. I was unable to find any information about it. A lot of furniture designers and makers at that time were German immigrants living in the Upper Midwest. The region had a lot of German language newspapers that featured art and design trends from the Continent. To my eyes this table looks like a mishmash of a Continental European Art Nouveau and an American Mission style. But this is just a guess.

To turn a photo off the internet into plans I use the free version of Sketchup. Sketchup has a handy photo tracing feature that adjusts for perspective. I used this tool to get a rough idea of the dimensions of all the parts of the project. From this tracing, I took some guesses and came up with a full set of plans.

I used those plans to make full sized template pieces to cut and shape the curved parts. These templates, cut from scrap pieces of plywood, are stuck to the white oak I used for the nightstand with double sided tape and run against a pattern bit in a router table to shape the final pieces. I’m holding on to the templates in case I want to make another one of these tables.

While I’m not great at drawing (I’ve worked on and off on this skill) being able to compare proportions between a photo and a drawing helped immensely. Tiny adjustments to a curve, in particular, make a big difference as to whether something looks right or looks bad. Those adjustments are made to the templates rather than the (expensive) hardwood.

If there was one lesson from this project it’s that if you have a choice between doing a particular task with a hand tool or a power tool you should probably choose the hand tool. Hand tools are safer, more accurate and, in the case of this project less likely to cause a mistake that’s hard to correct. I won’t bore you with the details but from now on I’m going to use a plane instead of a router when I can. Though, in a funny paradox, one of the tasks that I wanted to do with a hand tool had to be done with a router because of the order in which I glued the project together. While I made a mistake with a router (my least favorite power tool), in the end, a router saved the day. The original was probably made mostly with power tools, incidentally.

And I’m not entirely happy with the clear finish. The piece will darken with age, but I think it might look better in a tinted and darker finish. Finishing is an art unto itself and you could devote a lifetime to it.

Kelly’s New Desk

Kelly wanted something to look forward to after her surgery. Specifically, she requested a desk for her shed office from a design in Christopher Schwartz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book. I’ve linked to Schwartz’s blog in the past and can’t say enough good things about his books. In addition to being well written they are just plain beautiful books and the projects strike a perfect balance of good design and ease of construction.

Schwartz specializes in reviving what might be thought of as the furniture of common people, not the fancy and fussy stuff usually associated with middle aged woodworking hobbyists. He draws a lot of inspiration from simple and elegant 18th century and older designs that, paradoxically, seem clean and modern.

This desk uses a common staked leg design that you’ll see on a lot of tables and chairs in the past and to this day in many places in the world. As this was the first time I’ve ever built this type of table, mistakes were made but I’m pleased with the end result.

Schwartz emphasizes hand tools which means that this desk could be made with just a few tools in a small workshop (though it does kinda call for a drill press to cut the circular holes for the legs). In my tiny garage workshop I use a mix of power and hand tools: power tools for the rough milling and hand tools to shape, finish and finesse the joinery. In the stressful weeks leading up to Kelly’s surgery it was therapeutic to spend time in the workshop shaping the four legs of this table with an inexpensive, 100 year old Stanley plane that works as well as the day it was made.

I used readily available hard maple for this project. One of my house rules is that I only use domestic hardwood because I’m worried about forestry practices in foreign countries. It’s also cheaper to get the domestic stuff.

I finished the table with a product I’ve really come to like, General Finish Arm-R-Seal, a urethane resin that has proven durable on past projects around the house and is easy to apply with a rag. The satin finish doesn’t look plasticy like so many other finishes I’ve tried on earlier projects.

Up next in the workshop is this nightstand.

Sheltered

A page from Shelter.

Maker, builder, publisher and author Lloyd Kahn left a great comment on my rambling review of the documentary Spaceship Earth. Lloyd said (in reference to the title of Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth), “In 1973, in our book Shelter, I wrote “Calling Earth a spaceship is like stepping out into a clear night in New Mexico and saying, “Wow, it looks just like the planetarium.”

If you aren’t familiar with Lloyd’s work you should check out his blog and buy his books! I have a vintage copy of Shelter on my workshop bookshelf.

Kelly’s Office Furniture in Progress

I had a request for some work-in-progress photos of Kelly’s office furniture and, instead of feeding the Instagram beast I thought I’d put them on the blog.

Kelly requested a bookshelf, three cabinets and a desk for her shed office (we are lucky to have a 100 year old shed in the backyard that I have restored over the years we’ve lived here).

Lately, I’ve taken to hand drawing designs more than using Sketchup. I’m not against 3D modeling but I like the speed of pencil and paper.

I’m in that Venn diagram somewhere that combines a leftist outlook with extremely conservative design tastes. I find there’s a hard to express and paradoxical freedom that comes from working within historic design limitations. It certainly makes staring at the blank sheet of paper easier when you have some rules about proportions and standard practices to fall back on.

I’ve also been practicing my hand tool methods. I took a class last year on how to hand cut dovetails and have spent some of my quarantine time practicing this skill, which gets down to learning how to cut an angled line with a saw. It’s actually not that hard once you spend some hours practicing on scrap wood.

Kelly did not like how long it took for me to make the bookshelf (made out of inexpensive beech wood, by the way) and requested that I put the cabinets together faster. I used birch plywood which was more fun to work with than I expected and certainly saved a lot of time. Hardwood has to be milled, the edges jointed and small pieces glued together to make wider boards. It takes days of work. Plywood cabinets come together in hours not days.

The plywood cabinets for Kelly’s office ended up being a kind of ironic, post-modern commentary on the fuddy-duddy bookshelf. Rather than hide the edges of the plywood I decided to bring attention to them. I like the look of the edge of a decent birch plywood. Speaking of plywood, if you work with it you should get it from a local lumberyard not the big box stores. The plywood I got was a big step up in quality–fewer voids and a better surface and well worth the extra price.

I called a friend who restores vintage trailers for some advice on how to finish plywood (thank you Phil!). He suggested a light sanding with 220 grit sandpaper followed by either spray varnish or a poly finish. I went with a poly finish since it’s what I had on hand it ended up looking great. Wish I had the space to build a teardrop trailer out of ply.

The last project for the office will be a desk from a plan in Christopher Schwartz’s The Anarchist Design Book.