As part of a celebration of Jacob Burckhardt’s 200th birthday, we were honored to interpret a digital version of the desk upon which he carried out part of his life’s work. In 1850, Burckhardt commissioned an austere Biedermeier desk with two drawers, oil-cloth top, and fifteen compartments. In 2018, we developed an Open Source Tisch Burckhardt, a downloadable, entirely CNC cut version.
A Swiss historian of art and culture, Jacob Burckhardt is best known for writing The Civilization of the Renaissance published in 1860. Burckhardt profoundly influenced historiography, by showing how to consider a topic in context. He insisted that to understand Renaissance painting, one must also study the music, sculpture, architecture and daily life of the period. The Swiss honor him as the father of cultural history and feature him on the Swiss thousand franc banknote.
Technically, our version of an Open Source Tisch Burckhardt gave us an opportunity to consider furniture construction assemblies and sliding joinery. In the largest sense, it provided a chance to reflect on Jacob Burckhardt’s multi-disciplinary approach. Throughout our body of work, we design our projects within a larger context. That might be the means of production, the environment, or society and culture. For Tisch Burckhardt, we considered how our tools shape our thinking, and explored a way of engaging history both digitally and virtually.
Despite it’s simplicity, translating the 1850’s hand-crafted Tisch Burckhardt into a digital version posed some challenges. Chief among them was achieving the same structural stability of the original, solid hand-fabricated wood parts with digitally-fabricated flat parts cut from sheet material. The original desk has delicate, elegantly tapered square legs that appear to effortlessly hold up a top-heavy desk and compartments. The full extension of the desk drawers compounds this top-heaviness. The original design’s ability to resist this structural moment is not insignificant. How do we translate the elegance into a contemporary version made with entirely new tools and material?
We tested three different leg-assembly versions before arriving at the best solution. First, we explored a slotted connection, resulting in a tapering cruciform leg to match the original. This tapered cruciform, however, proved unstable. While we could reduce the taper enough to stabilize the desk, the result would yield a heavy, squat profile that had none of the original elegance. We then moved onto a second version that placed a joint at the outer edge of each leg. This adjustment yielded a stable base. However, its vertical profile along the outside of the leg made for a heavy stance.
In designing the third version, we reversed the vertical and tapered edges. We put the vertical profile to the inside of each leg, while featuring the tapered profile along the outside. This shift made the outside taper more prominent. It also yielded the lightness, by ever-so-slightly diminishing the profile of the table from top to floor. These differences illuminate how the most subtle details yield great impact. To add more stability, we developed an assembly that connects both parts of each leg with the front and side parts of the desk. On each corner of the desk, all four parts nest into each other, forming a ‘hole’ in the desktop. This assembly of joinery marks the distance and closeness of the CNC milled version to the original.