Horse study by Leonardo
Beauty is a hard thing to put a finger on. We know it instinctively when we see it, but struggle to put into words. One of the attributes the ancients saw in beauty was ontological. That’s a fancy term for the horse-ness of a horse, the canoe-ness of a canoe, the wine-ness of a wine. Something inside that embodies the essence of the true thing or being. Yet, even the idea of the essence of a thing is not black and white. This essence isn’t confined to a style, culture, or genre. The dog-ness of a dog can come through the brushstrokes of a painting more clearly than the kitschy canine celebrities at a dog show.
‘Grouse’ by Thomas Eakins
So how does this apply to furniture design? This ontological attribute applies to the built world also. An architectural writer Denis McNamara opined, people like their churches to be recognizable as a church, not to be confused with a pizza hut. Although our ideas about this true essence may evolve, our desire to connect with something genuine does not.
Windsor Chair by Richard Grell, photo by author
What is that essence I look for in a furniture design? To me it has to speak of home and all that entails. Pulling off cold boots in front of the hearth and warming numb feet, eating a slice of blackberry pie fresh from the oven and the sounds of laughter echoing from the kitchen. It also has to speak of the forest and the craft of woodworking. That’s as far as I’ll venture without trampling all over it.
What’s your idea of the essence of a chair or table or chest design? Can you put it to words?
Contrary to what you learned in 7th grade geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points. A flowing curve pulls your eye along sweetly, whereas a straight line often halts the eye.
I just finished proofing an article on curvature for the February issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, and another article for the annual SAPFM journal on how to lay out a Swan Neck Pediment. Both articles share some simple and quick layout methods that will help you visualize curves. This weekend, stop by the SAPFM booth at the Midwest WIA where I’ll be demonstrating how to lay out a Swan’s neck or Scrolled pediment. Even if you have absolutely no interest in this traditional form, it’s a marvelous exercise to help improve your vision and boost your confidence working with curves. Prepare to get dazzled! I’ll be about all day Saturday, so if you miss the demo or have a design question, don’t hesitate to pull me aside. I’d love to see what you are up to.
George R. Walker
is for Baluster. A small column or post that supports a handrail. They come in a wide variety of forms and can be cylindrical or square in cross section. This form above, illustrated from James Gibbs “Rules for Drawing” is for a baluster fashioned from stone. Furniture builders frequently borrowed these simple forms and adapted them to their own use like this post for a tilt top table (You can follow the build on this table at Musings From Big Pink). Note that in architectural work, balusters fashioned from wood and used in stairways are typically much lighter and slender. These more slender adaptations of baluster forms cross pollinated with furniture forms also, especially turned legs. Take note of architectural balusters as they may be a future inspiration for a furniture design. If you have an example of an interesting baluster adapted for use in a furniture project or an architectural setting, send me a picture at email@example.com
I’ll add examples to this post so we can flesh out some design adaptations for B is for Baluster.
Note, you may want to revisit this in a few days to see some of the examples added to this post. Had some interesting additions to our A for Attic base post.
George R. Walker
Chris Bame contributed this picture of a baluster inspired support for a trestle table. Thanks Chris!
William Duffield who shared the link to Monticello in the comment below also shared this picture of his tilt top table. Note that the baluster form repeats in the small turnings of the birdcage. Thanks William!
Starting this month I’ll be posting a little feature I call the Designer’s Alphabet. A collection of design related trivia with bits of architecture, tools, wood, designers, and obscure facts about furniture design you can wow your spouse with. I hope to toss a new letter out every other week and think I can get through the design alphabet three or four times, hope you enjoy. I borrowed the idea from Greg Shue from Shue Design Associates. I hope he approves.
Attic Base, Drawing by author.
is for Attic base. A moulding sequence used at the base of a column. It mimics the form a tree trunk takes as it spreads to support the mass above it. It’s made up of two convex torus mouldings, separated by a concave scotia moulding profile. Together they combine to give a play of light and shadow that gives the column shaft a distinct beginning. In this case, attic refers to the region of Attica or Athens. Like all classical forms it can appear in many variations. In the case of this architectural example, it adds a smaller torus in the center.
If you have a picture of an attic base profile used in a furniture project, or woodworking architectural project, send it to me and I’ll paste it in this entry.
George R. Walker
Here are some contributions from the designer community -
Devon shared this - The tapered column is veneered with curly walnut. It’s a historically-accurate taper, by the way… the profile is a gentle curve, not a straight line. Makes for an interesting veneer job.
There are also two proportionately smaller versions on either side of the fireplace. Here are the two sizes, with a panel between them:
Jack Ervin shared this photo from the interior of the Texas State Capital, this illustrates some of the variety incorporated into the form while still retaining the function of supporting the structure.
I hear this question a lot. “What book could I recommend to dive deeper into design? “ My brain freezes at that point. Reason is, the path I’ve taken is filled with blind rabbit holes, quick sand, and endlessly verbose historical design books. 18th century design guides with titles two paragraphs long and contain words like parsimoniousness.Confession time here, much of what I continue to read is in that vein. I’m always searching for nuggets that a woodworker can use and apply. That said, I know there are those who want to pull back the curtain and understand the theory. If that’s you, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of “The Architecture of the Classical Interior” by Steven W. Semes.
Don’t be put off by a title that doesn’t include the words furniture or woodworker. This is one of those rare books to read again and again and each time gain insight into our rich design heritage. Semes lays down a foundation of traditional design in bite sized chunks. Even though its perspective is architecture, the principles have universal appeal. If you enjoy period work it will deepen your understanding. If you lean towards the contemporary, you may be surprised how much overlap there is between good traditional and good contemporary work. Styles change, fundamentals don’t.
Plenty of practical information about proportions
Divided into three parts – Principles, Elements, and Planning. By far I find the chapters on principles most valuable. Semes covers the following principles as they apply to designing an interior (and by extension designing furniture). 1. Classical Architecture 2. Space 3. Structure 4. The Orders 5. Elements 6. Composition 7. Proportion 8. Ornament 9. Decoration 10. Light and Color 11. Character 12. Taste and Style 13. The Classical Tradition
Here’s the fun part. It may open your eyes even further to the rich architectural models all around you. Even that boarded up old hulk of a building swathed in ill conceived fire escapes may just yield some gems hidden in plain sight.
George R. Walker
Tapered Wedge is a structural element left in plain sight
It never fails to amaze me that many of the debates we thrash about with furniture design have been the subject of much thought for centuries, even millennia. Ornament in its many forms seems to draw fire and always seems to go through a process where we explore it, master it, then overdo it, and finally tire of the excess and come to the conclusion to wipe the slate clean and banish it. Many styles we revere today were actually a reaction to an older fashion that morphed into something a far cry from its origins. The sleek clean geometry of federal furniture was a reaction to Chippendale Rococo and it’s over the top carving. Somewhat related to ornament is structure and the views on how it should be handled in a design.
I’m not speaking about structure in the engineering sense where we make decisions about how to size a tenon, but whether we choose to make the joinery a visible part of the design composition. Designers in antiquity often took liberties in including structural elements in a building even when those elements did nothing more than stylize an ancient form. The familiar dental molding on a classical building is actually a stylized representation (often in stone) of the more ancient timber roof structure that inspired it. Often columns are sunk into a wall or depicted as flat pilasters but have no load bearing function. The building load is carried by walls of brick but the columns give the form a sense of structure. Furniture design, taking its cue from architecture has run the gamut on the treatment of structure. At times structure is left in plain view giving the idea of good honest workmanship. Other times just the opposite with elaborate measures taken to hide any hint of structure. Veneer was often plastered over all joints (sometimes with disastrous results) and sometimes extreme measures like employing full blind dovetails to hide all traces of joinery. On many modern designs, structural elements or details that hint at structure can often be highlighted and made part of the overall scheme. Drawbore pins fashioned in ebony and carved with facets to contrast slightly with the surrounding wood. In this way these structural elements take on a more decorative ornamental role. My thoughts on structure are still forming but here is what guides me in general. All the different approaches have their place. Joinery can be hidden, in plain sight, or emphasized, there is no right or wrong. Whatever route is chosen, carry it through the entire design. If you openly display joinery in one place look for opportunities to mirror it in others. If you choose to hide, then carry that theme throughout. Another aspect is scale. The joinery should be scaled in proportion to the overall piece. My own rule of thought is to scale it close to what it requires to actually perform its function and avoid the temptation to put it on steroids. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about how you approach structure or displaying joinery from an esthetic view.
George R. Walker
It’s full blown spring here in Northern Ohio. Barbie’s Hostas are coloring the brown garden beds with pure hues of green. The leaves are perfect and clean and create a miniature forest for migrating birds. Wood thrushes, Towhees, and white throated sparrows flip over bits of leaves in the soft ground searching for a meal. New songs break through the rainy morning air. We keep binoculars handy in case a Kentucky warbler or some other winged jewel pauses at our rest stop. You can’t help feeling a connection with nature when spring flips the switch and everything goes from bleached out February gray to May Technicolor.
I think about connections a lot. Essentially that’s what successful design is all about. There’s a three legged stool that makes up a design: function, sturdiness, and beauty. The first two fall into the realm of engineering. That last leg – beauty is about connections. It’s a slippery thing. The photos we take are never as good as the moment of being there and breathing it. Those ancient petro glyphs on the cave wall never capture the actual excitement of the hunt. But they do possess some magic. They hold the power to jog the mind and connect back to that moment when a hundred thousand buffalo blackened the prairie like a sea.
For much of our western design history the classic orders were used by designers to organize a design. You may notice that often designs are laid out differently on the vertical axis than on the horizontal. Horizontally we may use symmetry (mirror image) to lead the eye to a focal point or satisfy our internal need for order. A door on one side of a fireplace unconsciously begs for a door on the other. We also may employ asymmetry to lead the eye to a garden view. But vertically we often do something different. Here we often establish a beginning, middle, and ending. That beginning, middle, and ending is an echo going back deeply in the way we connect with nature and our place in it. The columns that are at the heart of each order with their base, shaft, and capital were held to be based on the proportions of the human form. The Doric reflects a powerful masculine form while the Ionic and Corinthian are more slender and shadow an idealized feminine image. That base,shaft, and capital or beginning, middle, and ending shadow the feet, body, and head of an idealized human form.
Fireplace employs the classic orders
When we step into a room, the first thing we comprehend is the space itself. The ancients actually thought of space as an entity that effected how we respond to our surroundings. Next we take in the way the room is organized with walls, windows, doors, fireplace, furniture, even pictures and art. In a traditional or classical setting these component parts would employ the proportions in the classic orders. In effect the walls themselves, windows, and furniture would echo the human form. In a strange way the room could be filled with idealized human figures. At its core, that’s the connection we have with the classic orders. It’s not that Greek Temple image we have in our pigeon-holed mind, but the humble figure of our kind surrounding and reaching out to us.
George R. Walker
This molding arangement on the top of a fall front desk is inspired from architecture. The structure above the molding is the attic.
Last summer while filming Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings, our little crew from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks had a unique opportunity to explore the attic in a historic building. Curator Jay Robbins took us up to the fourth floor attic of the Pownalborough Courthouse for a look around. Like many historic museums the attic was chock full of cool stuff. Saddles, ox yokes, paintings, chairs, large things covered with sheets, and a late 18th century fireplace mantle that we actually used in the video to illustrate the classic orders. It didn’t seem at all creepy, more like an adventure.
Yesterday I braved the snowy roads in Northern Ohio to visit the historic community of Zoar. It’s the site of a German separatist community that spanned most of the 19th century. The village has a number of restored buildings and a large collection of furniture made on site. Again I had the unique opportunity to explore the attic in the Number 1 house, the nerve center of the once thriving settlement. Timber framers eat your heart out, the structure itself was amazing.
Triumphal arch Memorial, Newport News, Note section above cornice, this is the attic story.
Huge beams fitted together with German precision and attention to detail. Again it was chock full of furniture in various states of repair. Old primitive German plank chairs, workbenches, baskets for picking grapes, spinning wheels, and wooden implements for turning the fruits of the soil into garments and food. The furniture in Zoar spans a range. An early primitive period, followed by a flourish of prosperity and creativity in the mid 19th
Fall front desk Zoar Ohio
This fall front desk posed a mystery to me. It stands in contrast to the much of the primitive country furniture that is associated with the output of the Zoar cabinet shops. Lavish book matched walnut veneers cover the entire façade and this curious molding treatment crowning the top. Actually this is inspired by architecture. The space above the molding would be called an attic story if it was on a building. I went away with more questions than answers, but thankful I had the opportunity to explore another treasure filled attic.
George R. Walker
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.
Facial angle takes into account the vantage point of the veiwer
In my youth I barely survived a period now referred to as the “Running down the down escalator of life. “ My judgment was severely impaired by high levels of testosterone poisoning. One night I lost control of a motorcycle trying to cheat the laws of physics on a sharp bend in the highway. Amazing how different the landscape looks when you are grinding off bits of your backside on a tar and gravel road. It took only seconds but I can still remember vividly the bike bouncing in front of me with sparks flying and the headlight beam shooting skyward. It felt like an eternity before I landed face up in a culvert and the bike came to rest in a cornfield with the handlebars plowed into the dirt. Luckily I came through with just a good case of road rash but the vantage point as seen from the bottom of a ditch got my attention.
Sometimes it’s helpful when designing to think about the vantage point which a piece of furniture will be viewed. Facial angle is a term used to describe orienting moldings so they can be viewed with greatest effect. The gist of it is that depending on the height in relation to the viewer, the molding should be tilted so that the detail can be readily seen. In this little pencil sketch, moldings above the eye are tilted in at the top towards the viewer. Moldings at eye level are more vertical, and moldings below eye level are tilted in at the bottom. Imagine a molding above your eye that has the top tilted away from you. It would essentially disappear from view. This has several implications beyond moldings. Note how on Windsor chair seats, the underside of the thick plank is relieved with a gentle radius. Because it’s viewed from above, the thick seat appears delicate as the facial angle hides the true heft from your line of sight.
Facial angle is used to mask the true heft of a chair seat
The same goes for so called “floating” shelves or floating ceilings. The concept is to hide the actual supporting structure from view making the element appear to float. This is done with a floating ceiling by designing a recess where the wall intersects the ceiling. It’s been employed for centuries in domed structures and gives the impression to your eye that the dome is hovering over the building. Occasionally I see designs where the facial angle is not taken into account and the desired effect disappears because detail meant to be seen plunges from sight once you stand up and view it from a higher vantage point. Facial angle can have a pronounced effect on how a molding comes across visually. If you see some moldings that really grab your eye, take note of how they are oriented to your line of sight. It may lead you to understand one of those subtle details that make the design work.