“We need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.
If you are new to design, telling you to trust your eye sounds like some joke that everyone’s in on except you. How do you know what your eye is telling you?
First of all, those times when your eye feeds your imagination with rocket fuel is a rare event even for gifted artists. So much so that when that explosion of juice starts to flow, it’s wise to ride it irregardless of eating or sleeping. Magic should not be squandered.
But aside from those rare bursts of inspiration – every day our eye talks a lot. Mostly it’s like that beeper on a garbage truck when it’s backing up the alley. It tells us what it doesn’t like. A crude example of this is plumb and level. Even though we have accurate tools to measure level and plumb, most of us can do a fair job of gauging it just by eye. In fact, our inner eye is pricked when that picture frame on the wall looks tilted in spite of what a level tells us. Our eye is filled with judgments, mostly negative about proportions. We may not think all that negative feedback is that valuable. It may feel frustrating, like we hired a travel guide who tells us all the sights not to see. But if you realize that this is the eye’s way of guiding, you can learn to listen to it and best of all, learn to train it. I may get a burst of inspiration, a spark of an idea of what I want to design. But the actual design process is listening to a series of nos that gradually morph into yeses.
This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by Author
But training the eye? Traditionally this was done by studying masterful work. All the old design guides waxed glowingly about the classic orders. Truth is you may never incorporate a single element from a classic order in any of your furniture designs. Yet, drawing the classic orders gives your eye a reference library of no’s that are inescapable – pushing you, guiding you, until the nos start turning to yes. With a basic understanding of proportions, you can let your eye be tutored by great buildings, furniture, nature, and art.
George R. Walker
George R. Walker
Can you see the bones in this candlestick?
An artist and teacher I respect told me that anyone can draw.
He said, “You can pick up a pen and write letters on paper, that’s drawing – you did that in the first grade. Drawing isn’t the barrier people think it is, it’s learning to see.”
This idea of learning to see is at the heart of drawing and also at the heart of design. Look at these images from a 16th century Spanish treatise on drawing and proportions. Note how they show finished detail on the right side and the underlying simple shapes or bones on the left. From a candlestick, to a building, to the human form itself, simple shapes help the eye see beneath the surface. Can you imagine designing something contemporary with those same bones? Could you take the bones from that candlestick and put your own spin on it? If you would like a closer look at the original book, here’s a link.
George R. Walker
Incense burner from a liturgical setting.
This isn’t confined to built objects.
Even something as ornate as this column is made up of simple shapes.
Note how the simple rectangles in this building align with the diagonal.
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