Great cathedral

Lichen colony on ancient oak

When I need to get away and sort things out I go to one of my favorite spots. It’s one of the world’s great cathedrals but you’ll not see it featured in any tour books. It’s called Huston-Brumbaugh Woods and consists of a small patch of the Ohio Valley forest that escaped the axe. Dominated by towering American Beech and Black Oak, the canopy looms 50 – 60 feet overhead supported by giant trunks many in excess of four feet in diameter. When the leaves are out one gets the sense that you are in a great room and the space has a solid feel, almost a presence to it. It never fails to give my eyes and soul a rest and help me to put life in perspective. There are a few things about this place that I take into my design approach. It has many layers to uncover and I think that’s one of the things that make it endlessly special. First there is the distant view, giant tree trunks shooting up 30 or forty feet to the first branch carrying your gaze up to the canopy high above. Then there is the some of the detail as you are drawn in and your eyes adjust to the new surroundings. Suddenly you notice large patches of wildflowers carpeting the forest floor and the shafts of sunlight breaking through to reveal color and contrast. Finally, almost anywhere you look there are small treasures on the end of every sprig and life sprouting from beneath every stray hunk of bark left on the forest floor. Flowers and salamanders, mushrooms and eggshells discarded from a bird nest high above.

I like to think a great furniture design will have several layers; each one with something distinct to offer that delights and attracts us. From a distance, it’s the form, the overall shape and some of the things like moldings that emphasize the form. From across the room it’s what delivers that first impression. Half way across the room another layer begins to emerge. This is where we begin to pick up contrast. If bold figure or contrasting veneers are in place they give us pause to enjoy and appreciate. It’s still too distant to make out carving but it may show up as a textured surface that contrasts with surrounding elements. Finally the close up view, a chance to revel in some fine detail. Here is where carving, inlay, even precision joinery can delight and give the piece an individual identity.

A couple of thoughts about this. Some designs tend to favor one view over another such as all the emphasis on form at the expense of the closer view. Ornament is sometimes looked down upon in some circles for fear it will compete with form. Actually it’s just the opposite. If ornament (carving, inlay, etc), is designed with care it will emphasize a form not compete with it. Also ornament is for the close up view where it can be fully appreciated and the form is best appreciated from a distance. A bridge span can only be viewed in its entirety if you are not on top of it.

I use the term zebra to refer to a design that has its hand up shouting “look at me! Look at me!” That gets old in a hurry. A design can become a zebra when elements meant for a close up view such as ornament are made so bold that they dominate the view from further away, or colors and contrast shout from a distance where only the form should be visible.

George Walker

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5 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Design Basics

5 responses to “Great cathedral

  1. I love the hidden beauty in discovery. I think that’s what great furniture comes down too: An experience of discoveries as each layer is explored by the observer.

    Beautiful journey here, George. Thanks for taking us along. I’m gonna have to play in the woods with you sometime.

    • Adam,
      Discovery is one of the most powerful aspects of the creative process. I often think of it as the ability to live in the moment. Something very powerful there, perhaps the key to training the eye. Maybe in the spring we could go hiking, for now it’s time to crank up the snow blower and dig out again.

      George

  2. One of my favourite places was an avenue of Yew trees leading to a small circular family graveyard, surrounded by more Yews, where I lived in Ireland. The effect was a corridor and room – the tumble-down wall, the wainscotting, and the overhanging Yews were the walls and ceiling. It was an exceptional, atmospheric place.

    Incidently, we had an Irish Yew in our garden that was purportedly over two thousand years old.

  3. Hi George.

    I heard something similar at a talk by Kevin Glenn-Drake at the 2008 Woodworking in American conference. He discussed Dr. Sato’s “rule of three” which placed a limit on the number of elements in any design. More specifically, these were the: dominant, sub-dominant, and the subordinate. To clarify, he gave the example of a chair. The dominant role of a chair is to support, its sub-dominant function is comfort, and the subordinate role is its appearance. He further stated that it is the designer’s task to create a piece where the dominant “does”, the sub-dominant does not dominate, and the subordinate is visible to those who care to examine.

    The fact that his rules derived from Asian influence, and that as I understand it, you approach design from a traditional western perspective is interesting. Did one influence the other, is this simply a case of simultaneous discovery, or is there something more to it?

    • John,

      I had a similar discussion with him at a tool show in Indy last fall. He discussed some of the similarities between the western aproach of major and minor elements and the Asian tack which uses earth, sun, and moon as guides for acheiving a similar effect. I find it fascinating that different cultures and different design languages expressed similar design ideas. I’m familiar with the western traditions but not the Asian so cannot really comment about which came first or if they arived independently. It is interesting that about the time that the greeks began to codify and explore their understanding of proportions, their arts, especially sculpture made a quantum leap forward.

      George