Writing desk, circa 1820, drawing by author

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?

Venetian window by Langley

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. 

George Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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5 Responses to Hierarchy

  1. Torch02 says:

    Comparing the desk and the window reminds me of those optical illusions – is it a vase or two silhouettes? What you see depends on how you approach the shape. Are you looking at the space or how it is framed? What is there or what is missing?

  2. Adam King says:

    Once again George, a home run. I love the obvious link between architecture and furniture. Did the chicken or the egg come first in this case? Well, house before chair in the beginning, but at some point in the future, the furniture could easily inspire the form of the house too.

    The hierarchy principle you touched on is one that all can subconsciously acknowledge and yet not be fully aware of it. Kind of like saying, “I like that. I just am not sure why.”

    It’s when you gain an awareness of the major and minor elements and how to properly employ them, that the “why” becomes so integral in your design toolbox.

    I appreciate that you are bringing these “why’s” to the forefront and enabling a more intelligent path of design.

    • walkerg says:


      Hard to say which came first house or chair, but hands down the folks that first began seriously studying design were the architects. Their knowledge spilled over into all the arts.


    • walkerg says:


      Your comment somehow got hung up in my spam filter. I just cut it loose.


  3. jlsmith says:

    Although I understand how on point Wittkower is, he usually doesn’t show up on the undergraduate design studio reading list until 2nd or 3rd year, after a lot of foundational reading/studying. Recommending Wittkower is a bit of a plunge into the deep end of the pool. The results may be to scare away rather than recruit someone to your ’cause’ that ‘design matters’.

    The overt and underlining connection you draw between architecture and furniture is quite valid (I am amused at how amazed you seem to be that the connection exists. Since furniture resides inside architecture there is natural symbiotic relationship between furniture and architecture. Architecture is referred to as the ‘mother of all arts’ for a reason). If you want to further the (valid) notion of how these underlying design principles can be found every where you could also show how the ubiquitous ‘Palladian window’ form is derived directly (with very little transformation) from the plan of the Roman basilica (http://content.answers.com/main/content/img/McGrawHill/atchitecture/f0091-02.png) and if you really want to show how pervasive these ideas are take a look at The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays. By Colin Rowe. Rowe directly connects Le Corbusier (the hero of modernism) to Palladio and thus to the full history of architecture (which Le Corbusier claimed to be completely unshackled from).

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