What IS simplicity in design? For me, simplicity in design is taking away from a preliminary design, until you can take away no more, and still have function. A common chicken egg, for example; You cannot take anything away from the egg – the shell, and yolk, the white – and still have an egg. Likewise, a human cell. If you take any part of the cell away – the Nucleus, the Cytoplasm, the Membrane – it cannot be a cell anymore; it ceases to function. Likewise, I feel great design reduces a form to just what is needed, an no more. That is not to say that there can be no embellishment, such as a corbel that may add a feeling of balance, or a chamfer that might make a top look lighter; however, adornments that are only there for the sake of themselves, should be avoided, in my opinion.
“Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” – Albert Einstein.
Why is simplicity important? People have an innate habit of adding to something to make it more desirable. A woman puts on jewelry; a woodworker puts dentil moulding on a shelf. The thought is, “more is better”. In my view, less is more. It’s easy to add adornment; it’s much harder to take away what is already there and achieve better form and function.
Is simplicity subjective? It can be. A motorcycle is not as simple as a bicycle, yet they are essentially the same form. Yet a bicycle with the bare minimum needed to move, stop, and provide comfort and safety, is simplicity. There are points when a form becomes as simple as it can be.
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann.
“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” Frank Lloyd
Is simplicity the best design goal? No, not always. Sometimes, people want ornate furniture; Federalist or french period furniture comes to mind ( the French were especially ostentatious). They may want to impress themselves or company. They may feel more really is more. However, even in these cases, “more” can be overdone. Can you put too much jewelry on a woman? How much inlay can you put into a piece before it’s too much? If the piece could produce a sound, would it sound like a world class philharmonic, or a 3rd grade jazz band? Even classical music can have too many instruments that don’t add to the experience. Likewise, furniture designs can have too much ornamentation that doesn’t move the piece forward (design-wise), and harmonizes with the function, but rather pulls it in different directions.
“You know you have achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Simplicity in the workshop. What type of shop do you have? Are you trying to make a living at woodworking, or do you just do it as a hobby? Somewhere in between? Simplicity in design can serve a craftsman very well in building the piece, as it keeps the number of requires parts to a minimum. The benefit of this alone is increased safety, due to number of machine operations; cutting down on environmental impact (from the amount of electricity used to the amount of wood and harsh chemicals like polyurethane and mineral spirits), wear and tear on machines, let alone the craftsman. Less pieces to make and assemble, less chance of making mistakes – all add up to more profit.
This is why I strive for simplicity in design, and feel it is the best way.