Growing up, Beech Creek divided two very different worlds. On one side, a post war (WWII) housing allotment. Ramrod straight rows of identical boxes each with a driveway attached to the street like teeth on a zipper. The Holloway family owned the adjoining bottomland where the creek meandered and a cluster of farm buildings up on the high bank on the far side. That was another world. Their 19th century brick farmhouse had high ceilings, old wide plank floors that squeaked under your feet, smelled of wood smoke, and the aroma of Southern cooking in the kitchen. It was there I learned about literature, art, old shotguns, hunting dogs, horses, and a culture with deep roots. I learned that our history is not something dead and old to be tossed aside, but something we are a part of.
Maybe that’s why it wasn’t such a difficult leap for me to set out on a study to understand the classic orders. I see my heritage as a source of richness. As an artisan, my idea of creative achievement is not to run away from my history and culture but to add something to extend this great chain stretching back into our past.
The Classic orders have played a central role in western design for over 2600 years. Over that time they have evolved from a primitive architectural form to a sophisticated proportional approach to organize a design. A little background on how this came about may be helpful. At its simplest the classic orders arose out of 6th century B.C. Greek culture as a stylized form of post and beam construction. The origins go back far beyond the Greeks but they are credited with elevating the forms into what we recognize today. To the Greeks the orders “were” the building. They were the primary means to support a roof over a temple. Remove them and the whole structure tumbles into a pile of rubble. The Romans adopted Greek architecture but began using concrete and brick in their buildings making solid walls the primary load bearers. Yet the Romans were not ready to dispense with graceful columns to organize their designs visually. Instead they began to use the orders not from a structural function but as an esthetic visual function. Half columns were carved into walls and flat pilasters representing columns began appearing yet having no structural role. So the columns dropped their structural function but still played an important proportional role. In fact designers found they could use the proportions from the orders to organize a design without using columns or classical elements at all. This is an important point as it means that proportions governing the classic orders can be used to solve design problems on a wide range of work including furniture and related decorative arts. A good example is the way the major parts of an order are divided.
The Pedestal marks the beginning of the form and is often sized by dividing the overall height by five parts with the bottom fifth defining it. The entablature above the column terminates the form and is usually one fifth or one sixth of the remaining space above the pedestal. This little simple self contained dividing into fifths and sixths creates this beginning middle and ending sequence that permeates much traditional work.
You can imagine how this could be readily applied to something like a table using the entablature on a classic order to size a table apron supporting a top. Period artisans were masters at applying the proportional lessons from the orders to their work in many varied and sophisticated ways. Much of it is hidden from the casual observer unless you are familiar with the orders and their underlying proportions.
George R. Walker