Something familiar….

Fiddlehead, spring 2008

I appreciate the thoughtful comments offered up on this “Design Matters” blog. Several stand out that have helped me fill in some blanks and see things in a fresh way.  Jim Tolpin made this comment a couple of weeks ago that got my gears turning –

So back to the question: What makes for a beautiful piece of furniture…or architecture? Is there a universal “something about it” going on here? Does this “something” cross cultures, periods, styles, materials? Well for me, yes there is…and I believe it’s profoundly fundamental: For a built form to look beautiful there must be something inherently familiar about it. But not familiar in the sense that one has previously seen that particular form and/or style (i.e. you grow up around colonial furniture so therefore if it looks colonialesque then it automatically looks beautiful..or at least “right”). Instead, the familiarity is in the gut…in our DNA. It looks right because it just feels right. If you were to invite 10 people at random out of the phone book to take a look, then 8 or 9 out of 10 would agree…

This rings so true. For starters it’s why including nature in our designs has such an appeal. We have this built-in familiarity with nature that we automatically connect with. I’m reminded of something Andrea Palladio wrote in The Four Books of Architecture –

” I say therefore, that architecture, as well as all other arts, being an imitatrix of nature, can suffer nothing that either alienates or deviates from that which is agreeable to nature”

This concept of making a design work by incorporating the familiar may have many layers but I am most aware of three that I’m always exploring and trying to understand.

One is how we shadow some of the ways that nature responds to the forces acting upon it, gravity, wind, or water. Palladio speaks about this when discussing how the moldings used at the base of columns bulge out just like tree trunks being compressed  by the weight and mass bearing down on them. Nature often has flowing transitions from one part to another and many times moldings can be used to mirror those familiar transitions. Working curvature into a design links back to those familiar sights from the natural world.

Moldings on base imitate nature

Another layer is to display nature openly by using carving or marquetry to render a  flower,  bird, fish, or leaf.  Additionally, they often can add to a design in a powerful way if aranged so that they reinforce the underlying form that’s already there. An inlayed vine with leaves and flowers is more effective if it emphasizes the curves already existing in the part that it’s flowing across.

You can also have a carving or inlay set off by itself as a sort of puntcuation.

The final layer, and the one I think could be explored for a lifetime is bringing about familiarity by uniting a design with proportions. For much of western history there was thought to be a link between proportions and nature as seen in music and the ideal human form. The term “commensurable” crops up a lot when studying traditional design. The dictionary defines as: Able to be measured from a common standard, Properly proportioned, fitting… Much classical architectural work uses a module such as the diameter of a column as the common standard with everything linked back to that one module or root note. Or in the case of much pre-industrial furniture designs, forms are built around simple whole number ratios, with all parts linked together with simple proportions ie, 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 3:5, 4:5. I’ve touched earlier on how easy these proportions are to manipulate with dividers. Also, with a little practice they are easy to imprint in your mind. That makes them easy to visualize. But, there’s something more to these simple ratios that the ancients saw and that my gut tells me is true. They do strike a note inside of us, something familiar that we cannot explain.

George Walker


About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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3 Responses to Something familiar….

  1. Seth Westbrook says:

    This series of books by Christopher Alexander touches on the subject of this blog post. I’ve only read the first book (of 4) but essentially he’s trying to get at what contributes to “life” in architecture and design. Basically trying to define the factors that contribute to the striking of that note inside of us that you’re talking about

    Might be of interest to you or other readers.

  2. Jim Tolpin says:

    I do think there is a fundamental link between our inherent appeal to the kind of proportions that define our bodies–these whole-number proportions that also define much of the growth of forms we see in the rest of nature. But then there is, of course, culture! What one culture does with these inherent properties of proportion and symmetry does tend to vary. For example, some cultures (or in certain phases of time in that culture) make far more use of flowing, less symmetrical forms (think Art Nouveau) while others elevate rigid symmetry (think Classic Grecian) in their forms. David Wade in “Symmetry–the Ordering Principle” makes the point that the highly symmetric, formal symmetry of our western culture during the “classic ages” designed government buildings, cathedrals and royal houses (and gardens!) in rigid, cubic-like symmetry to “symbolize qualities of endurance and stability…the perceived notion of order….(and ultimately) symbolism of legitimacy.” So there is that to chew on too!

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