Reflections on Design and Worldmaking

Process Notes on Painting: Part 1


During a recent book fair, I picked up Cees De Jong’s, “Piet Mondriaan, The Studios” which is an account of Neo-Plasticism applied to the design of the artist’s living and working spaces. This book, in addition to a 1958 graphic design journal review of Josef Albers’ activity in the United States, rekindled my interest in painting.

Mondriaan described the role of Neo-Plasticism in space as such:

In a room the empty space is determined by so-called furniture, and these items are connected to the layout of a room because one is created with the other. Positioning a cupboard is as important as its form and colour, and this together is as important as designing the space. Architect, sculptor, and painter, in their essence, bring everything about together, or are unified in one person.
— Piet Mondriaan

He adjusted his space to the plastic problems he solved through painting. He added a cupboard and an easel as a wall, but didn’t use it to paint, preferring to paint at a table under a window. He would divide walls by “reclining upright rectangles with white, grey, black, red, blue, and yellow in magical harmony...” He would push furniture up against walls so as to make the room look bigger, juxtaposing spaces for sleep, study, socialization, and work in tight quarters. He held space for the dialogue that led to De Stijl. Space was a “demonstration of his artistic and philosophical ideas.”

Painting is an act of synthesis. It is problem solving not different from any other kind of design problem, classic or contemporary. Paul Rand commented about his own painting work in Design, Form, and Chaos as having been made “…without benefit of smock or mahl stick. My perception was no different then from any other time I spent mulling over some typographic problem. This painting, with slight manipulation, could have been a poster, a mural, an illustration, or a book jacket.” The main difference is the problem itself, which is self-imposed, unlike those faced in industry that come with the constraints of time and cost. Painting is practice, like writing, reading, or photography.

In January of 2017, inspired by a small table built from apple crates spotted in De Jong’s book about Mondriaan, I began building a painter’s table whose design would scale to support the making activities of a family of four. Following an off-the-shelf principle for materials, I settled on a 24 inches x 24 inches format for each picture, easy to find as pre-cut masonite or plywood panels at local hardware stores. Each table’s height was inspired by our kitchen island, a workable 36 inches.


Horizontal slats gave way to a more practical vertical rationale, providing storage for masonite panels and works-in-progress, while adding a pleasing repetition to the design. The multiple legs also made the tall, condensed form taut and sturdy. Their mobility makes it easy to move them around so that I can position my hands, arms, and shoulders just right in order to get the view I need and the dexterity necessary to control the brush, pencil, knife, or tape during the act of painting. As I begin to work, I am quite conscious of how I’m using the space: the constraint of the table surface size, the proximity of the table to others, what I put on the other tables, the role of music in the space, what’s behind me, and the roughness that inspires tinkering.

Table making step-by-step

Purchase 2' x 2' pre-cut plywood pieces to serve as tops/surface, and six 36" x 2" x 2" legs or dowels (square);

  1. turn the table top over and apply wood glue to the tops of each leg
  2. attach each leg to the underside of the table top
  3. lay another table top on the legs for added pressure plus another heavy object such as a medicine ball, let dry for a couple of hours
  4. turn the table right-side up and screw four wood screws into the legs
  5. add wood filler to cover the screw heads
  6. paint the table using two shades of one color, or multiple colors

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