Add some rhythm…..

I often refer to sound when describing design. Sound is one of the primary ways we connect as humans, so it’s natural to think of design as a way to visually connect and engage. When I look at a furniture design, I always step back and look at the overall view from a distance. One of the first things to note is how the space is divided. Usually there is some overall shape, possibly a rectangle that defines the outer boundary. That’s broken up into smaller elements, drawers, doors, etc. The rectangle below is divided up into equal units.

grid 10302009

Divided equally

This might be a logical way to divide a space up but it lacks rhythm. Actually it has a rhythm but it’s a single mechanical beat…Dot…Dot…Dot…Dot…Dot…

Some describe this also as lacking inflection, the way we vary our voice when we talk or sing. Designs lacking rhythm tend not to hold our attention, or we may actually have a negative visceral reaction. Some examples that come to mind are a monotonous wall of post office boxes. On a more human level, think of the way people respond to working in a large office complex divided into a grid of cubicles. Don’t get me wrong, there are places where using a grid offers a solution to a design problem. It’s a great solution when the need is to warehouse. It works great for that shoe rack in the closet or figuring out how to squeeze the most containers on a ship. But when you want to design a sideboard that will become a fixture in your dining room, something that will add warmth to the annual Thanksgiving feast, that’s a different deal. One way to add rhythm is to break up that space, pairing up major and minor elements.

grid 2 10302009

Dividing a space into major and minor

Creating major and minor sets up a hierarchy but don’t think of it as bigger dominating smaller, instead the different sizes complement or harmonize. Here’s a drawing of a federal era sideboard to illustrate.


If you take notice you will find that furniture, buildings, paintings, etc you connect with, all contain some sort of rhythm or possibly many combinations of rhythms. There are many ways to achieve this, breaking a space into major and minor elements is one way to get there.   

George Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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2 Responses to Add some rhythm…..

  1. Mark Maleski says:


    You’ve mixed metaphors slightly – switching from rhythm to harmony. I’ll mix them even more by suggesting that melody could be added to the analogy. Any (good) snippet of melody should have a starting point and an end point – often the root note, and the other notes take you on a journey. The picture of the sideboard you’ve posted could be said to have an anchor (root) at each end, with the center of the piece adding the ‘journey’. Or perhaps that’s too far into the analogy…oh well, food for thought.


    • walkerg says:


      You are correct, I have mixed the metaphors. Comparing music and sound does not match up precisely but it is a good way to illustrate. There are lots of ways to introduce inflection or break up a static composition. When using different sized elements (major and minor) proportions come into play and with that the possibility of creating harmony. You also bring up a great point about a melody having a starting point and an ending. Often in traditional design this is a key element even if very subtle. Frequently on these federal pieces you may just see a small band of inlay at the bottom of the legs. That band marks the beginning. I appreciate your input and hope you set me straight if I wander into the weeds when it comes to music.


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