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.
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.
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.