For some time now I’ve been exploring the links from a design standpoint between architecture and furniture. When I first began this study it amazed me how often elements from architecture spilled over into furniture. Inlaid bellflowers that federal Cabinetmakers liked to dress up the legs of card tables were pulled right from the decorations on classical buildings. All the molding profiles and combinations were borrowed from the building trades and adapted to furniture. Here’s another example, can you see any similarity between this small federal writing desk and this drawing for a Palladian (formerly this was called a Venetian) window?
What I find really exciting though is that there is a hidden layer beyond the obvious things we all trip over that pre-industrial artisans applied to their designs. Hidden beneath the surface is a wellspring of knowledge about proportions, space, structure, composition, and character. What’s most exciting to me about this is the fact that these underlying elements have a universal application regardless of what style you choose to work in. Take this example with the window and the desk. Obviously the arrangement of the three bays in the window is reflected in the desk design, that’s what immediately jumps to the eye. But these are arranged in a way that illustrates an important principle in design – hierarchy. Traditional design leans heavily on using major and minor elements together, never in competition but one complimenting another. In this case the central bay is the major and the flanking bays are the minor. One of the things this does is create something called inflection. Think of it how you inflect your voice when speaking or singing. We don’t enjoy listening to a mechanical electronic voice with no inflection. Something about it grates against our wiring. On the other hand we are attracted to a composition where the elements are arranged in a hierarchy with major and minor complimenting each other. When possible, try to avoid arranging major elements in a grid, the repetition drains the life from it. Instead of dividing the bays equally in width with a proportion of 1:1:1, you often see elements like this proportioned 2:3:2 or 3:5:3, etc. Anytime you have elements side by side, drawers, doors, even decorative ornament consider arranging them in a hierarchy and linking them together proportionally. As always, make a note to observe this in buildings and furniture.
Note, for an in depth treatment on this you might want to read “Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism” by Rudolf Wittkower, Norton. This is not for the faint of heart, but if you would like to glimpse into the thinking of some of the great renaissance designers (who largely inspired British and American artisans) you might enjoy it.