Last Spring I gave a keynote address at the WIA (Woodworking in America) design conference in Chicago. I was a little worried about the audio visual setup and had nightmares about standing in front of two hundred people doing shadow puppets. I also dreaded the question and answer period at the end of the talk. Shooting from the hip is not my strength. I always think of the best answers about 2:00 AM back in the hotel room. The presentation went smooth and the audio visuals flawless. Everyone enjoyed my story about the time I tripped and fell headfirst down a grand staircase in the Library of Congress. Then I spied Chris Schwarz, editor of Popular Woodworking magazine waving his hand.
“George, I was curious to know why you left out any references to the Golden Rectangle in your latest video on furniture design, was there a reason?”
I was outed. Felt like an atheist in a Baptist bible college. Armed with only a pair of dividers in case an angry mob rushed the stage I laid out my reasons for putting no stock in this mystical holy grail of proportions. I’ll give you the benefit of my answers that came to me at 2:00AM that night.
Like many woodworkers I started out firmly believing the many articles and books that sang the praises of the Golden Rectangle, also referred to as the Golden mean, Golden ratio, Fibonacci series, or Phi. It’s been used to explain the design for great buildings like the Parthenon, great works of art and masterful furniture designs from the 18th century. It has some unique mathematical properties and is often tied to patterns observed in nature like the graceful volute in a nautilus shell. In simple geometric terms it’s formed by dividing a square in half and using the diagonal from the half square extended out to form a rectangle with a ratio of 1:1.618….
My own doubts about this started creeping in when I began my own investigation of how period furniture was designed in the 18th century. I studied the standard texts like Thomas Chippendales Director and the writings of Sheraton, both English furniture designers who reflected the design approach from this important era. All arrows pointed back to architecture as the wellspring and stressed the importance of mastering the classic orders. The classic orders are an ancient architectural form consisting of a column and the support structure above it that were used in Greek and Roman temple construction.
Many of those historical design books started with a series of engravings detailing the proportions in the orders. I did something a bit odd for a 21st century woodworker. I took heed of the advice, sat down at the dining room table and began to draw and explore the classic orders. Over the ensuing weeks the sun came out, the fog lifted and my understanding of furniture design blossomed. First, the physical act of drawing the orders awakened my mind to see proportions in a new and sharp focus. Secondly, the excitement of discovery drove me deeper into period architectural literature which filled in many gaps and changed my entire way of seeing. It was exhilarating to discover a design language that is rational and allowed me to pull back the veil on the furniture I so greatly loved. Dividers became an extension of my hand as I explored the elegant and simple proportions in the engravings in design books and photo copies of furniture pieces. This approach focussed on simple whole number proportions like 2:3, 3:5 that can be easily played with and manipulated much like you can arrange musical notes on a scale. Those old engravings from the design books with odd symbols and hieroglyphics now made sense. But the more confident and excited I became about what I was learning, the more doubts began to creep in about the magical Golden Rectangle. I couldn’t find any references to it in any of the design books from the pre-industrial time period. That’s nothing short of amazing as there were over 200 architecture titles and 20 more on furniture design published in England in the 18th century. To top it off, many of these authors had an ego like Donald Trump. They vied with each other to display their knowledge like a peacock to attract the richest benefactors, yet no mention of the Golden mean. None, nada, zip. Then I started trying to reconcile using the golden ratio with the techniques I had learned using dividers to lay out a design with simple whole number ratios. I couldn’t make it work. It always felt like a train wreck or like drawing a blue print and mixing inch and metric dimensions on the same drawing. I was exploring a lot of photos with dividers so I began revisiting some of the articles where the Golden rectangle was overlaid over a form as an illustration. What I frequently saw was the rectangle applied in a way that would make no sense to a furniture builder. If you overlay the golden rectangle over any complicated piece of furniture you are bound to find something that will coincide. As a furniture maker I’m looking for proportions that align with major structural boundaries that have meaning. I always focus on the inner or outer boundaries of the cases, top of the pediment etc. I don’t care if a proportion lines up with some random drawer, that’s not how you build furniture and is meaningless.
In addition there are several whole number rectangles very close to the Golden rectangle as to be almost indistinguishable. On this graphic I laid out three proportional rectangles, can you tell which one is Golden? I’ll give you a hint. One was used in the design of the “Ark of the Covenant” the most holy piece of furniture in the ancient Jewish tabernacle circa 1400BC. It’s described in the book of Exodus chapter 25 verse 10. Note: if you have a little trouble with the dimensions spelled out in cubits, the ark is a wooden chest that is 27” high by 45” long, a rectangle with a simple ratio of 3:5.
The rectangle on top is 3:5, middle is the Golden rectangle or 1:1.618, and the bottom is 5:8. With all three it’s difficult to distinguish as they are so similar.
Here’s the bottom line for me. I’ll let you in on the “secret” of traditional design. Listen close. This is not rocket science. If you can count to ten on your fingers, you can learn to use simple proportions to guide your designs. Simple whole number proportions might not sound as sexy as the magical Golden rectangle, but they work without fuss to find elegant design solutions at the workbench.
George R. Walker