Understanding simple shapes that make up a form

Corinthian capital, Drawing by G. Walker

I’m having fun putting together another installment for my Design Matters column for Popular Woodworking Magazine. One question I hear quite often is how do you train your eye so you can begin to understand a furniture piece that you find appealing? A big part of this begins with the ability to discern the shapes that make up a form. A form is combination of simple shapes that together make up a composition. This Corinthian capital is a form. Underneath all those leaves and volutes is a simple vase shape, or you might imagine it as an inverted bell. Can you visualize that simple shape underneath all those leaves? It’s believed the form was inspired by a basket that a mourner left at a grave side. An Acanthus plant grew up and around the basket and inspired this ornate form.

“The Roman author Vitruvius, probably repeating an earlier Greek legend, tells a story of the origin of the order. The famous Athenian sculptor Callimachus is said to have passed by a basket of possessions placed on the grave of a Corinthian girl who died on reaching marriageable age. This basket had a roof tile over it and had been placed over the root of an acanthus plant which had then grown up and around the basket. Callimachus, attracted by this, used it as the basis for a design for a new type of column capital*. “

From a furniture design standpoint much traditional work is built around a skeleton of a simple square or rectangle that becomes a form when it’s divided up into useful or decorative parts, doors, drawers, open spaces, legs, etc. Now you can start with a square and from there produce an infinite number of possible rectangles both vertically and horizontally but traditional artisans favored simple rectangles with whole number ratios. The graphic below shows the most common shapes.

Simple rectangles based on whole number ratios

In the center is a square and they march outward in whole number ratio increments. A square is 1:1, flanking on both sides of the square is a 4:5 rectangle moving out to the extreme ends where we have a 2:1 rectangle. I covered this in some detail in my DVD and touched on this in previous posts. These rectangles, because they are built around whole number ratios were held up as superior. Thought to be linked to the ideal human form and music, additionally they also are very easy to manipulate with simple tools like dividers. Best of all they are easy to visualize in your mind. A 1:2 rectangle is two squares; a rectangle with a ratio of 2:3 is a square and a half square. I’ve even read some period design literature where they referred to space in this way i.e. this room is a square and a half or this doorway opening is two squares and a sixth high. Many tall chests, bookcases, and highboys are built around a 1:2 vertical ratio and at the other end of the spectrum pieces like sideboards were often built around a 1:2 horizontal rectangle. In between you find desks, chests, dressers, tables. This does not mean that all this work is confined to rigid straight shapes. Overtop this skeleton you have many possibilities just like the Corinthian capital. That simple bell shape can be the basis for a powerful creative form. Legs that support a sideboard can be turned, carved, straight, or curved. The fronts and sides of casework can be curved in an infinite variety of ways.  Another possibility they offer is a quick way to adjust a furniture piece to your needs. Back to that sideboard. Many of the original pieces are quite massive and built around a long 2:1 rectangle. You may not have that much acreage to spare in your dining room. Just retain the height but step it down to a rectangle that’s 2:3 or 3:5 and have a good starting point to begin laying in the doors, drawers etc.

*Robert Adam, Classical Architecture, 1990, page 90.

George Walker

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6 Responses to Understanding simple shapes that make up a form

  1. jlsmith says:


    I think your use of a Corinthian capital as a visualization tool works quite well, however, if your going to talk about the history of architecture you should be a little more inclusive. You really have to broaden your sources beyond Vitruvius, he simply is not always reliable. The story Vitruvius tells regarding the origins of the Corinthian column is generally believe to be a myth. A Google search will lead you to documents like
    “The Mysteries of the Corinthian Order in Late Greek Architecture”
    Which says in part:
    The architect Callimachus happened to pass by the monument days later, when acanthus sprouts began to grow around it. He had an aesthetic vision when he saw the basket, and jotted down some sketches in order to create a new type of column. Vitruvius’ story accounts for the origin of the Corinthian capital, but the trivial anecdote seems too much of a Roman myth to be the actual inception. What’s interesting is that Vitruvius’ stories for how the Doric and Ionic orders came about differ from his account for the Corinthian order, since this account takes place not in the ‘days of the heroes’, but in his recent history. Other scholars, such as Stratton, have dug a little deeper into the Corinthian origin mystery, and have concluded that “the Corinthian Order is derived from the pre-classical civilizations of Egypt and Assyria where many bell capitals of the same family as the Corinthian have been discovered”. Stratton has to admit, however, that there is no record of developmental stages in the Corinthian capital, whereas the Doric and Ionic orders go through minor tweaks and changes before their “perfect” stages are reached. This oddity, paired with the oddity of the Vitruvian mythical story, makes determining the origin of the Corinthian capital extremely difficult, and perhaps its true origin will always remain a mystery.

    the link to the article is http://alan.sitelydevelopment.com/greekroman_final.pdf

    Now I realize you can’t include this much detail however repeating a myth and claiming ‘it’s believed’ just isn’t right.

    Also, why go through the effort of making your own drawings of the various orders and then draw the entablature as having a bevel? Aren’t you concerned that someone who doesn’t know any better might actually think that is what a Corinthian entablature is suppose to look like?

    • walkerg says:


      Thanks for providing some deeper insight on this. I debate how far into the minutia of architecture I should dive when in reality my focus is on furniture design. Sometimes I think of it as a high road and low road. The practicing furniture designers from the 18th century made use of classical design knowledge that a modern scholar may look upon as low road. They often depended on pocket guides by authors like Langley who even in his day was not considered great by his peers, but he did lay out information in a practical way. I’m certain that’s why he was embraced by the common carpenter and cabinetmaker. I referance Vitruvius, Paladio, Langley often because they were the major voices from the golden age of American furniture. I’m not trying to push period furniture either except that I believe it’s a treasure trove of practical design knowledge.

      The drawing was something I did some time ago to help understand the proportions in an entablature so I purposely left off some of the detail to make it clear. I’m still trying to find a balance with an emphasis on practical information that can be applied.


      • jlsmith says:


        I would struggle with the ‘minutia’ problem (just look at the length of my replies), however, this isn’t minutia, it is a point of fact. I am not aware of anyone who is currently subscribes the Vitruvius story as factual. You could have in a few words described it as a disputed story and have no need to go any deeper. I would point out, however, that with the use of links to other sources you could give those who are curious an easy opportunity to learn more.

        Couple of other questions regarding the main focus of the post:

        Are you planning to discuss non-integer ratios (such as the sq root of 2) as well?

        Has your research ever exposed you to the early modernists such as Le Corbusier (an architect and furniture maker, among other things) and how his seemly unconnected to history designs can be connected directly to Paladio and therefore Vitruvius (He is also big into the Fibonacci series)?

  2. Bob says:

    I too would be interested in some discussion of ratios other than whole numbers. I read a furniture design book once (checked out from the library, so the title is escaping me — all I can remember is that the author’s name was Seth something — I think)

    Anyway, he discussed the square-root ratios, the golden section and something I think he called a “harmonic” progression that he suggested served well in gradually increasing the depth of drawers in a chest, say.

    The idea of whole number ratios, while very orderly and logical, sometimes strikes me as a bit arbitrary. A very rational way to make sense of something that is rather mysterious: i.e., what makes pleasing proportions.

    A while ago I wrote this: http://rhpwood.wordpress.com/2008/06/21/on-proportions/

    I’m certainly no expert. Just some thoughts.

    • walkerg says:


      Read your post and admire your work. I will be discussing in the future several proportional approaches including geometric, and complex proportions such as the golden mean.


  3. bpassaro says:

    Did a little more digging: That book I refered to in my earlier comment is: “Designing Furniture: From Concept to Shop Drawing : A Practical Guide” by Seth Stern.

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