I have a good friend who’s an artist and teacher. She was telling me about a promising young art student with marvelous drawing skills but was frustrated at her attempts at portraits. She took some time with her and explained the basic proportions that underlie a human face, basic rules of thumb artists have used for centuries. The budding student ran with it, enthused that she could make her portraits come alive.
I’m just putting final touches on the first installment of the “Design Matters” column for the February issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. One issue I tackle right up front is my approach to rules or design principles. It seems we are divided into two camps when it comes to rules or guidelines. One is the group that looks at a speed limit sign on the highway and sees it not as the upper limit but as a challenge. They either want to know the rules so they can break them or they have gone beyond that and think any sort of rules are useless. That’s been a common thread for creative minds going back to our knuckle dragging cave days. The other camp wants to know the rules in hopes that they can provide a step by step roadmap to achieve a result. You can use design rules in that manner but there always comes a point where your eye must start making calls and go beyond a clearly marked trail. I’d like to propose a third way to view design rules. I don’t see them as a collection of “Thou shalt nots” but more often as a guide to change the way we see things. Understanding some basics on proportion can help you to see the bones that lie beneath a great masterwork. It gives you the ability to see how great artisans were able to manipulate forms and can fill you with ideas about how to adapt and apply them in your designs. I look at and study a lot of pictures of furniture. Often I make photo copies and use a set of dividers to explore the form.
Warning, don’t pull a pair of dividers from your pocket in the library. That calm helpful librarian may come unglued, don’t ask me how I know this. On pre-industrial furniture it’s surprising how often there is a simple and elegant proportional scheme uniting the whole design.
I view rules as a way to help me see better, especially great furniture and great design. They also can help you to visualize how a design will look when it’s complete. This is not something that comes naturally to me even when I have a drawing in front of me. Somehow a drawing in two dimensions never fully connects with the part of my mind that’s trying to comprehend how it will finally look in three dimensions. Learning design principles has helped me bridge that. So much so that I often forego drawings because I have a much clearer picture in my mind where I’m going. Finally rules serve as a good starting point to begin roughing in a design. Often a furniture piece begins life as a rough square or rectangle to provide an envelope to expand my ideas. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.