Proportioning furniture for a room…

Side table and mirror, John Linnell circa 1770


This time of year takes me back to some memories of delivering newspapers as a kid.  For a ten-year, old dragging heavy loads of papers in snow and slush was a sort of purgatory.  There were few bright spots except the season brought out a bit of Christmas spirit in otherwise grumpy customers. Old Mrs. Delany would invite me in for a cookie and a tip while her german shepard growled and cursed me from behind the couch. My glasses fogged up in the warm air and I’d fumble around with layers of mittens, scarves and hats. Mr. Kleptak an old guy (at that age I thought anyone over thirty was old) would be tanked up on the hard stuff and invite me in to look at his tree. It was artificial, and sprayed with some plastic cottony mixture made to look like snow. Now the snow was gray like it had picked up dirty highway spray. His tiny living room was crowded with this creepy tree and some big furniture pieces too tall for the cramped ceiling.  There was a tall case clock and a large chest on chest that had a chop job so they could stand upright. Looked like they had flat-top hair cuts only he had to clip part of their sculls also to make them fit.  I didn’t know anything about furniture at the time but even I knew the old guy was half a bubble off. He did tip well when he had a few whiskies in him.    

 In traditional architecture when designing a room interior, careful thought is given to proportioning large elements like doors, windows, and fireplaces as important parts of the overall composition. Doors and windows normally fill up large areas that affect the way we relate to the space in a room. This led me to question whether the same thought might apply to proportioning furniture built for a specific room. It might explain the design thought behind some pre-industrial furniture pieces. Why did the Goddard’s and Townsends of Newport build the towering nine shell secretaries up to 113” tall in an era when the average man was 5’7”? Could it be that the large piece was scaled to compliment a grand room? 

I ran across a drawing that makes me think that this was a design consideration at times. This drawing above is by John Linnell, a British artisan who worked as a carver, cabinetmaker, and furniture designer in the last half of the 18th century. His drawings caught my eye because they actually include some background elements from the room setting the furniture was intended for. This is a rare thing to see in a drawing. Notice how the top of the mirror aligns with the door frames on either side. Note also that the tabletop lines up with the chair rail on the wall and the ornaments on the legs line up with the baseboard. It’s obvious this mirror and table were designed with this space in mind. 

I’m just tossing this out there as something to chew on. 

George Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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5 Responses to Proportioning furniture for a room…

  1. jlsmith says:

    I would suspect the reason for the inclusion of the architectural context is the project type (wall mounted mirror). While possible, the odds of this piece being moved around (or relocated in another house) is small. It is more of a built-in than a free standing piece of furniture and therefore, you see the tightly coordinated vertical dimensions. I agree that furniture designers did take into account the proportions of the surrounding architecture, however, since this is really a built-in I am not sure it is the best evidence to support the idea. If traceable, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the design was supervised by the architect of the building (not the client), thus making it more of an architectural feature than an example of free standing furniture.

  2. Jeff says:

    I often make my own furniture because what is available in department stores is out of scale or too big for the space I need it to occupy.

  3. akfurn says:

    What a great example in John Linell’s drawing. I have found that in the times I work with the client to design a piece to ‘live’ in a particular scape, the harmony between room and piece is quite evident. They flow together because one was designed for the other.

    It wasn’t an afterthought of purchase by the client, but rather a conscious decision to fill the space/need with something worthy.

    I have seen a need for this to return lately. I appreciate you opening the discussion through this article.

    • walkerg says:


      Thanks for the encouragement while I think out loud through some of these posts. Not sure how far this can be taken but I do think that if a designer can learn how to integrate with a larger composition, it can offer something unique that might set the work apart from others. Even if it’s just picking up and shadowing an existing architectural detail.


  4. This is something that often gets overlooked. People just buy the biggest and most exciting looking piece of furniture, only to find it looks ridiculous in their 2×3 room.

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