I stopped at the end of my drive and caught something moving out of the corner of my eye. On the ground not twenty feet away a red tailed hawk flapped his wings as he struggled to get a better grip on breakfast. He fanned out his mahogany colored tail just like the pictures in the bird books. A thought occurred to me that I’ve often wondered. Why are so many things in nature given a name that seems exaggerated from reality? Why is this bird of prey called a “red tailed” hawk when even in this favorable early morning sunlight you might call it ruddy, or a warm brown? What were early astronomers drinking when they looked up at a clump of bright stars and called it a chariot or a great bear?
Then it happened.
All the cosmic forces in the universe lined up for just a split second. The hawk leaped into the air and momentarily swooped. The sun caught his tail feathers perfectly and flashed a brilliant red. Not mahogany red or copper, but a burst of hot pepper three alarm fire engine red. No, it was more than that, it was 1600 degree hot steel bar coming out of the blacksmith’s forge red. I was dazzled. I stood there watching it fly into the blue sky and a feeling of thankfulness came over me. God, I’m ready to die now. I know why it’s called a red tailed hawk. My words are pitiful. No one can convey what it’s like to feel a cutthroat trout dancing on the end of your fly line on a spring morning. Or the moment when you finally connect your bat with a fastball, catching the sweet spot, and feeling the leather leap off the end of your bat. I live for those moments. I remember studying a Newport table built by Al Breed and uncovering a set of proportions that unfolded like music before my eyes. Sometimes it happens when my handplane unveils some magic locked inside the heart of a tree. My wife calls these God winks. I call them a brush with something deeply true or a nature wink.
That brings me to the classic orders. For centuries great designers held up the orders as the key to understanding design. How can something as simple as a column with fancy moldings captivate so many great minds? Crack any furniture design book from the 18th century and you find repeated emphasis on learning the classic orders. I want to begin writing about them and I know this will take some time. And I know that I won’t do them justice, no one can. They are part of our landscape, so much so that they blend into the background without our notice. Open up your wallet right now and look at your paper money. Look at the buildings on the currency, all of them with the classic orders on display. Drive to any downtown district and you will no doubt see civic buildings and banks with the familiar columns. Robert Adam writes “An understanding of the orders and their proportions is an entry into an ancestral code appreciated by everyone but never really understood by anyone.” Here’s the fun part of this. Especially in furniture design, seldom do the columns themselves actually appear. Even when columns are on display in period work they are almost never copied straight from the orders themselves. Instead, the orders contain the DNA of design, ways of working with and understanding proportions that have you saying shazaam! I’ll give you a little example. Embodied in the orders is the concept that a design should have a beginning, middle, and ending. The orders themselves display this with a pedestal (beginning), column (middle), and entablature (ending). They also repeat this over and over in the smaller sub parts within the order, sometimes down to the way a molding is configured. Fillets flanking an Ovolo can give it a beginning, middle and ending. We see this expressed in furniture by giving a table leg some sort of beginning.
Maybe it’s a full blown ball and claw carving or maybe it’s just a thin strip of banding to cuff the foot but it accomplishes the same thing. I’m creating a classic orders category on this blog and I’ll be adding to it over the coming weeks. I may be writing about it for years as it continues to provide those moments of illumination when I have the fortune to capture a wink from nature.
George R. Walker