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.
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.