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Designing a bedroom set with period elements


Designing a bedroom set with period elements


In the 10 years that I’ve been designing and building furniture, I have consciously tried not to lock myself into particular design style. My goal has been to develop the ability and flexibility to design for a variety of tastes and decors. Nonetheless, a majority of my commissions have been for contemporary furniture with clean lines and a minimum of applied details or moldings. However, I was given the opportunity to work with a whole new set of design bedroom set consisting of a four-poster bed, a tall chest and a pair of night tables.

The furniture was for a new house overlooking Humboldt Bay, near Arcata, Cal.,built by friends of mine, Bill and Dottie Harken-Berry. The10-ft-high ceilings, spacious rooms, covered porches, scrolled corbels (rafter support brackets), detailed custom trim work and the grand Honduras mahogany staircare all combine to give the house an elegantly classic yet contemporary look: a style the owners call Southern Victorian. As avid antique collectors, the Haukenberrys had already decided on Queen Anne style furniture for the 24-ft. by 40-ft.master bedroom, but they weren’t ablt tot fond what they wanted commercially interpretation of the Queen Anne style to fit in with the modern amenities of the house.

To get a feel for Queen Anne Style, I visited furniture stores and checked out library books on antique furniture. Then I began sketching the pieces, accounting for the functional requirements for the case pieces and incorporating Queen Anne elements, like cabriole legs, scalloped aprons, broken scrolled pediments and flame-carved finials. Aside from practical and stylistic consideration, I also had to proportion the pieces so they wouldn’t be lost in the large, high-ceiling room. I call the resulting design contemporary Queen Anne; they are unmistakable Queen in appearance, but far from being reproductions.


Blending the period with the practical:

The sides of case pieces built the Queen Anne period were nearly always made from wide solid boards. I decided not to follow this style because I knew that these solid sides also nearly always spilt due to seasonal expansion and contraction. Instead I used cope-and-stick frames and raised-panel sides for the tall chest and the night tables. Another major break with tradition was using doors on the upper portion of the tall chest instead of running drawers all the way up. This was done for practicality because the top drawers become rather inaccessible; adjustable shelves behind the doors provide more efficient storage. In addition, the raised-panel doors are a unifying element among the pieces, relating to the frame-and panel sides on all three case pieces and to the two raised-panel doors on each night table.


Using stile and rails instead of the typical solid wood sides also allowed for full web-frame construction between drawers without restricting the side panels. The horizontal frame members in front are mortised and tenoned into the leg posts for strength and stability, and the web frame are dadoed into the raised-panel frame stiles on the sides, which in turn are splined to the legs. All drawers, except for the two large bottom drawers on the tall chest, are joined with traditional hand-cut half-blind dovetails and they slide on a maple center guide. The front of the two bottom drawers on the tall chest join directly to the sides with sliding devetails. The sides of these drawers are set in 1/2in. from each end of the drawers front to allow clearance for a touch of modern technology: a set of accuride 3037 drawer slides. The bottom web frame on the tall chest has the traditional dust panel to keep the interior clean.


The characteristically Queen Anne cyma curve gooseneck moldings and the flame-carved finials that cap both the tall chest and the bed visually tie the set together, and create the feel of the period. I eliminated the bonnet top behind the curved pediment on the chest, so it would fit nicely against a wall beneath a sloping ceiling. Since I don’t have a vast array of shaper cutters geared to the details of period moldings, many of my design decisions were based on the cutters I had. However, the gooseneck molding is such a unique and prominent feature that I hired friend and wood-turner Joe Cusimano to grind a set of knives to a pattern that I designed and them I ran them on a large shaper at a local millwork shop to form the moldings. I also had Cusimano turn the bed posts shop to form the moldings. I also had Cusimano turn the bed posts shop to form the moldings. I also had Cusimano turn the bed posts after I had mortised them for the headboard, footboard and side rails. When I assembled the king-size bed in my shop, it looked huge with its7-ft-tall posts, but it seemed perfectly proportioned against the long north wall of the Haukenberry’s high-ceiling room.


Probably the most recognizable element of Queen Anne furniture is the cabriole leg. I knew from the start that the set wouldn’t be complete without them. I opted for bracket feet number the tall chest, as opposed to raising it on slender cabriole legs, in order to get the most storage. Fortunately, the night tables were ideal candidates for the lowboy form: low cases raised on cabriole legs. The legs on the night tables are bandsawn from 4x4s and the upper square section extends all the way to the top of the case, which guarantees a solid base. I didn’t carve shell on the knees, which is typical of high-style Queen Anne furniture, because I wanted to preserve the clean, uncluttered look and the simplicity of Country style furniture. Scalloped aprons go with cabriole legs like fish and water, but when researching Queen Anne furniture I noticed many different apron designs. The height and curvature of the leg and knee block, along with the overall proportions of a piece, provide a unique set of criteria for defining the aprons’ patterns. I suspect that period cabinetmakers did just as I did and design the apron curves to provide the best visual effect.


I finished the pieces with three coats of satin varnish and rubbed out the last coat with 0000steel wool and flax soap. The brass hardware from Garrett Wade was reproduced from period patterns and complements the clean look of the unstained Eastern black cherry.


This commission presented me with whole new set of design, engineering and construction problems. The departure in style enabled me to expand the parameters of my design vocabulary, and increased my appreciation of period furniture. It was a challenge I’m glad I had the opportunity to accept.