Proportions, do they matter?

Langley window  cornice

Molding profile Langley, Chipstone text collection

With winter quickly approaching my wife and I will be frantically getting the yard and gardens buttoned up and leaves raked before the cold months ahead. I look forward to more time in the shop and more reading. I read a lot of historical design literature from the renaissance and period American and English works about design. Much of it is centered on architecture which historically was at the top of the design food chain. One thing that strikes me is the total emphasis and homage paid to proportions. We have a much more “functional” mindset today and the degree that our forebears depended on proportions we might question. In the past designers depended on proportions to bring a unity in a design and tied their designs together with proportions from the overall shapes that make up a form to the tiniest fillet on the smallest molding. Before we dismiss this fixation with proportions as something quaint or outdated, I’d like to share some observations about proportions and how we respond to them. Think about how you respond to a large open room like a cathedral or a great concert hall. Usually the ceiling is quite high and if the designer has done his or her job, you will respond by looking up. You take your mind off the daily labors and worries and for a few moments enjoy a performance or inspiring speaker. Here in America we put basements under churches. This is an example of the opposite effect. Here you have a room with a large footprint, often as big as the sanctuary above yet the ceiling is very low compared to the size of the room, very cave-like. We use these basement spaces for coffee klatches, scout meetings, and potluck dinners. If you are unfortunate enough to sit at a back table and a speaker is addressing a sea of tables from the other end of the room. It’s very distracting, sort of like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Now I’m using proportions in space to illustrate how we react, but there is a definite link with how we respond visually to proportions. Look at this doorway in the bottom center of  this structure on a recently built condominium.

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Building facade, Identity withheld to protect the innocent

Compare that to this doorway on the Hamilton house in South Berwick Maine.

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Hamilton House, South Berwick ME

Which doorway says welcome? Are they both functional? Do they both have the same appeal to your eye or your sense of proportion? You often see very large entry ways as a focal point on important civic buildings. Do you think they designed the doors large, to accommodate the occasional giant or do you think designers were trying to unify the entry with the building and perhaps emphasize its purpose?  

George Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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16 Responses to Proportions, do they matter?

  1. Derek L says:

    “Here in America we put basements under churches.”

    Apples and oranges George. The churches themselves often have the qualities cited in the first half of the article. (Not to mention classical churches have basements under them too.)

    • Nathan Beal says:

      Derek,
      While older cathedrals often have basements, the purpose is often for burial of the deceased, or storage of important objects and artifacts, not church luncheons and meetings. All the gatherings occur in the sanctuary, rather than the dark cave underneath. My church just started renting from a congregation that meets directly after our service, so we move down to the basement for coffee and pastries, the footprint of the room we move to is actually larger than the sanctuary, but with the much lower ceiling it feels much tinier.

      • Derek L says:

        For some uses, like socializing after services, feeling tiny isn’t necessarily a defect. The fault isn’t always in the design of the space, sometimes it lies in how the space is (mis)used.

  2. 1200 baud says:

    They absolutely matter.

    I am a custom furniture maker, and spend a ton of time looking at shapes and proportions to achieve balance.

    Most pieces start with 2×4 lumber and cardboard, making 1/2 or 1/4 scale models. Its quick and effective. The transition from paper sketch to solid object instantly tells you if a leg is to thin or a rail is too fat.

    Best regards.

  3. Jeff says:

    Yes proportion matters. I often see a bookcases that have thin face frames (or no face frame at all – imagine a decent sized bookcase with sides made of 1x material). In homes, I see columns that are too thin or fat, doors that are off-center, homes that sit right on the ground. Proportion is very important. I am about to start a new project and as 1200 said, I start with simple shapes and make sure nothing looks odd.

  4. Jim Tolpin says:

    Doorways…now there’s a topic worthy of its own blog! They say so much about the building…or should I say, what the owner/resident of the building wants to say to those coming to seek entry. Frank L. Wright, taking a subconscious hint from the primitive/picturesque cottage of the old country(s), liked to hide the entry–make them hard to find–but once found, very inviting. The classicists, taking their hint from the cathedral builders, placed them front and center…and rather imposing in size and grandeur (though well proportioned and in good relation to the rest of the building elements). What does each say to those approaching the building? In the case of the cathedral (and banks, federal buildings and many McMansions), it says, you are entering the house of God–or at least the house of Someone-definitely bigger–more powerful–or-at-least-wealthier–than you! In the case of the simple hovel, it says: you will feel welcome and safe inside this door.

    • walkerg says:

      Jim,

      As always you offer great insight. Your take on the FLW approach of making the entry a little hard to find, do you think that subtlty actually makes that element more powerful once it comes into view? I ask that because I am always impressed how great design is able to use restraint to actualy emphasize. Sometimes a small amount of carving that’s not seen at first blush becomes a pleasant surprise, an additional layer that adds more to a design. I may be posting a few more times about doorways as they played quite a role in the traditional design vocabulary and there is quite a lot we can learn from them.

      George

  5. Jim Tolpin says:

    I find that one of the most common marks of mastery in most any piece of craftsmanship is that of subtlety of detail along with fineness of execution. Seems the more the mastery, the more subtle the features…so that the form tends to speak for itself–and not so much speaking about its creator. Now that’s yet another blog…a discussion about the “Unknown Craftsman”!

  6. David Gendron says:

    Realy interesting blog, I realy like the idea of good proportions… Have you ever tought of writting a book? I know you made a DVD’s but I think books are way nicer in terms of references mediums!
    Thank you for a great blog!
    David

    • walkerg says:

      David,

      Thanks for the encouragement. There is a book out there in the future. I agree DVD’s are a great medium as they are so visual, but they also greatly restrict how much ground you can cover. A lot of material gets sidestepped to fit into a 60 minute format. Actually this blog is part of the process for putting a book together. Gives me a unique chance to find out what woodworkers find helpful. Also the comments often give me pause and help me to question and rethink.

      George

  7. jacob says:

    Interesting to compare the two buildings.
    The old one has a large area of windows/doors looking out onto the world as well as welcoming in.
    A friendly face.
    The new one is the opposite; closed, tight and claustrophobic – quite the opposite of the face, more like the other end of the anatomy!

  8. Chuck Nickerson says:

    George – over time, will you be sharing the name of some of your favorite historical design literature? My library is itching to expand…

    Thanks for a great DVD, blog, and the book-to-be.
    Chuck

    • walkerg says:

      Chuck,

      I’ll mostly be distilling information related to furniture design from historic architectural works and occasionally sharing about significant reads. A lot of this information about proportions was gleaned from “Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism” by Rudolf Wittkower. I believe its still in print, published by WW Norton. Warning on this one, it will make your head hurt first couple of times you read it. Wittkower explores the historical links between music and design and focusses largely on the great designers from the renaisance.

      George

  9. J.C. Collier says:

    Please tell me that the pic of the condos is the back side? I hate to conjure that puppy any other way. If it is indeed the front then it behooves a gentle populace to take up pitchforks and er… uh… you know. Maybe tar and feathers? Harsh? Not as harsh as that being the FRONT of the building.

    J.C.

    • walkerg says:

      J.C.

      In interest of full disclosure this view of a condo is what is seen from the street and what you see as you pull into the drive. It’s actaully a side view of the building but it gets my vote as one of the truly great “bad curb appeal” buildings. In contrast the Hamilton house I used for comparison has doors on all four sides. All of them look wonderful. I think I even recall one of those old slanted celler trap doors on one side that looks better than the condo. I agree, about the tar and feathers.

      George

  10. J.C. Collier says:

    Even so, proportion is paramount to decent design.

    always,
    J.C.

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