Architecture… doorway into furniture design

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Carved table legs, Pownalborough Courthouse, Dresden Maine

Thirty four years ago I started an apprenticeship to become a machinist. The first day they paired me up with a veteran journeyman. Tony was, proud, barrel-chested, with big forearms and fists like Popeye. As a young man he had a promising career as a boxer, even won his division as fleet champion in the navy during  the war. His boxing ended abruptly when a bumbling trainer incorrectly taped his hands and Tony broke both his fists on an opponents face. Everyone in the shop respected Tony and when he spoke I knew enough to listen closely. I can remember him cutting a fresh red onion with a pocket knife and handing me a slice. “Kid, I’m going to learn you how to sharpen tools”. I spent weeks under his tutelage sharpening drills, turning tools and all sorts of cutters. It was mostly grueling repetition but a skill set I still value. A few years later I took up woodworking as a hobby and was quick to realize that sharpening is a doorway skill that opens up a myriad of possibilities. I was able to make hand planes and chisels sing as sharpening was second nature by that time.           

 I searched around for that “doorway” on design for many years. I always had a keen interest in design and strong opinions about what I liked and disliked, but somehow it eluded me. I stumbled on an article in Fine Woodworking (Issue #43) by Mack Headley Master Cabinetmaker at Colonial Williamsburg. Mack wrote about how period artisans used something called the classic orders, a proportional system used in architecture to guide their designs. That sparked in me what became a long journey exploring architecture as a doorway to understanding furniture design. There were many “aha” moments early on. I was quick to realize that pre-industrial furniture is just packed with architectural ornament. Look at the legs on this gate leg table above and compare it to the columns in this altar from the St Peter’s Basilica.

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Bernini’s Baldacchino, inside St Peters Basilica, Vatican City. Source Ricardo Andre Frantz, 2005

Even more fascinating than the ornament on the exterior, was learning there was a huge pool of design knowledge beneath that ornament. Thousands of designers over many centuries experimenting, refining and re-imagining how to create designs that delight and that we respond to. They left an incredible body of knowledge about proportions that applies equally to the craft of furniture building. If that wasn’t enough, I also came to appreciate how this design approach always somehow traced its roots back to nature. This approach provides a structure to begin with and a limitless and timeless supply of inspiration to pull from and apply to my next project. Those tender shoots poking through the frozen ground in spring can be the seed for a new inlay or carving for a bedside table.           

 Architecture, it’s not just a small back door to an interesting room; it’s the main entryway to a large and wonderful world of design.

George Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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3 Responses to Architecture… doorway into furniture design

  1. Jeff says:

    Good article and I agree completely. My home is the typical spec house. Except for some crown molding in the dining room, my home had no personality when we bought it. I have used furniture to add architectural interest to my home (see here. The sides of the top of this entertainment center are meant to replicate the look of columns.

  2. Funny you should mention the Mack Headly article from Fine Woodworking. I stumbled on that article several years ago and still to this day go back and reference it from time to time (I have the .PDF downloaded from Fine Woodworking). It was one of the first articles I ever read on the design aspect of the craft and one I still use today when I try to design a new piece. It was that article that prompted me to go out and get a copy of Chippendale’s Director and start studying the column orders. It’s fascinating to me to be able to take the proportions of the columns use them to answer so many furniture design questions that are so often faced when we build a piece. Not so much the general proportions of a piece, though I use the orders for that as well, but for the small nuances that usually go overlooked until you get to them and then realize you don’t know how big to make it or how much to offset it. Things like how much a table top overhangs the aprons or if a waist molding should be 3/4″ or 7/8″ tall. Of course how it looks should ultimately be the deciding factor, however, I like having a tool like the proportioned column orders to help get in the ballpark. The way my mind works, I can’t just wing it. I need to have some kind of order and the columns help provide me with that. I don’t have the artist gene I suppose that allows one to just eye it up.

    • walkerg says:

      Bob,
      Nice to hear you’ve explored some similar ground and found it helpful in your work. Actually, the classic orders were key for much of this coming together for me. This was years ago, but after much time reading the old design books and seeing the admonitions to study the orders, I finally sat down with compass and pencil and started drawing them. I’m still trying to figure out what happened but a light switched on for me. Part of me thinks that the exercise forced me to “think” proportionally. Robert Adam, a modern author writing about the orders said “An understanding of the orders and their proportions is an entry into an ancestral code appreciated by everyone by never fully understood by anyone.”
      Regardless of what happened, my view of design was transformed and I’m now much more aware of what is going on in a design from a proportional point of veiw. Even though I have a background with more traditional furniture it’s deepened my admiration for well executed modern work as well.

      George

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