I once read there are two ways to learn a foreign language, a “High Road” and a “Low Road”. The high road is a path that includes mastering grammar, diagramming sentences, and conjugating verbs. The low road involves learning the alphabet to the point you can fumble through a dictionary, then getting you’re keister down to the fish market to buy some supper. I make no bones about it; most of my writing about furniture design is low road. I’m trying to share small chunks of practical design information that you can use immediately at your workbench and try to avoid getting hung up on a dangling participle. For the folks out there traveling the high road, I apologize ahead of time.
We use proportions to rough in the overall form or bones of a piece. Casework pieces are often built around a simple rectangle with the height and width in a proportional relationship i.e. a 3:5 rectangle. Proportions can also be used to unify a design when we integrate smaller shapes that have similar proportions. Often inside the overall rectangle that defines the form is a series of smaller rectangles nested together. Sometimes they are separate, sometimes they are spaced apart, and sometimes they overlap. For the April issue of my Design Matters column In Popular Woodworking Magazine I discuss forms and specifically adjusting a form to accommodate different room sizes. My wife is after me to build a sideboard but wants a smaller version for our modest dining room. I’ve been working up some ideas based on a nice example from Rhode Island. The overall form is a square. The upper third defines the cabinet space and bottom 2/3 is the open space below. If you divide the upper third in half you end up with three smaller rectangles within the square and all of them have a ratio of 2 parts to 3 parts. My guess is that most people who look at this form would not say “I see a square that is divided up into three smaller 2:3 rectangles.” That’s one of the beautiful things about proportions, often it’s this simplicity that makes this into a true and wonderful thing.
Sideboards a fun form to study. Typically they are a maze of these simple rectangles in countless versions and combinations. Best of all, even though they appear rectilinear from the front, many employ dramatic curvature and a wide variety of leg treatments. They are a great example of how this traditional approach can be used to create designs in a wide range of tastes. Note the sideboard above by Gerald Currey. He’s a furniture builder and instructor at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship up in Warren Maine. He is a master of taking a traditional form yet expressing it in a new and wonderful way.
George R. Walker