A good beginning

Carved foot detail by Brooke Smith, Photo by George Walker

 I used to work with a guy who’s nickname was the Wizard. He was one of those characters who had to top any story you came up with. Your car wreck was just a mere scratch compared to the giant pileup the Wiz survived back in 68. I think he got the nickname because over time his ability to lie became legendary. TheWizard got excited when he told a story because he didn’t know how it was going to end either. He could start with any innocent beginning, like kids having fun in the backyard celebrating the fourth of July with a few firecrackers, and end with Wiz on some secret assignment with the special forces testing nuclear hand grenades. Note, according to Wiz you have to run really fast after pulling the pin on an atomic weapon.

One concept that is deeply ingrained in traditional design is that a composition should have a beginning, middle, and ending. The classic orders display this plainly and lessons learned can be applied to a furniture design. At it’s simplest a classic order is an architectural form used in antiquity by the Greeks and Romans in the construction of temples. The form is tripartite made up of a Pedestal (beginning), Column (middle), and Entablature (ending).

Corinthian classic order, pedastal at the bottom acts as a beginning.

Technically, a classic order does not always have a pedestal, but it almost always is elevated on some sort of base or beginning. The Romans were fond of setting the column on a pedestal but a column could also sit on a square block called a plinth, or it might sit atop several stone stairs. Regardless, a column shaft never just shoots out of the earth like a telephone pole but rests on some sort of beginning. If you look closely at a pedestal it repeats this beginning, middle, and ending theme with the base molding (beginning), dado (middle section), and capped by a small cornice. The column repeats it again with a base, shaft, and capital. You can even see it in the way many molding combinations are put together. Just as proportions bring unity in a design by repeating themselves in different elements, this beginning, middle, and ending is often nested multiple times within a design. Proportionally establishing a beginning is different. Instead of one part playing off or enhancing another like 1:2, 3:5 etc, we use something called punctuation where one part dominates another. To punctuate, ratios like 1:5 or 1:6 are often used. In practice, the pedestal on any classic order is one fifth the entire height. That doesn’t mean we go around applying that proportion in every situation but it is good information to know. Understanding how a beginning can be applied to a design and some of the simple proportions used to achieve it can be very helpful. The base molding that gives the pedestal a beginning is often 2/9 the entire height of the pedestal. Sometimes a heavier molding is used that is 1/3 the height of the pedestal.

The base molding on this pedastal punctuates form above it. In this case it's 2/9 of the height of the entire pedastal.

 Sometimes the height of one of these beginning elements is based on the diameter of the column. The height of a base on a column is usually equal to one half the column diameter. A plinth that may sometimes substitute for a pedestal is typically a square, and is equal to 1&1/3 the column diameter. I would caution against applying these like some paint by number formula but understanding these proportional relationships and how they come across visually is helpful. Knowing this can help you understand more of what you see when observing masterful work, and can gives you a starting point when roughing in a design. It’s also good to remember that this beginning can be cleverly built into your design. That end table you are designing may require a small lower shelf to toss newspapers and magazines. Try positioning it 1/5 up from the floor to establish a beginning.

George R. Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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