Classic Orders, link to a design heritage

 Growing up, Beech Creek divided two very different worlds. On one side, a post war (WWII) housing allotment. Ramrod straight rows of identical boxes each with a driveway attached to the street like teeth on a zipper. The Holloway family owned the adjoining bottomland where the creek meandered and a cluster of farm buildings up on the high bank on the far side. That was another world. Their 19th century brick farmhouse had high ceilings, old wide plank floors that squeaked under your feet, smelled of wood smoke, and the aroma of Southern cooking in the kitchen. It was there I learned about literature, art, old shotguns, hunting dogs, horses, and a culture with deep roots. I learned that our history is not something dead and old to be tossed aside, but something we are a part of.

 Maybe that’s why it wasn’t such a difficult leap for me to set out on a study to understand the classic orders. I see my heritage as a source of richness. As an artisan, my idea of creative achievement is not to run away from my history and culture but to add something to extend this great chain stretching back into our past.

 The Classic orders have played a central role in western design for over 2600 years. Over that time they have evolved from a primitive architectural form to a sophisticated proportional approach to organize a design. A little background on how this came about may be helpful. At its simplest the classic orders arose out of 6th century B.C. Greek culture as a stylized form of post and beam construction. The origins go back far beyond the Greeks but they are credited with elevating the forms into what we recognize today. To the Greeks the orders “were” the building. They were the primary means to support a roof over a temple. Remove them and the whole structure tumbles into a pile of rubble. The Romans adopted Greek architecture but began using concrete and brick in their buildings making solid walls the primary load bearers. Yet the Romans were not ready to dispense with graceful columns to organize their designs visually. Instead they began to use the orders not from a structural function but as an esthetic visual function. Half columns were carved into walls and flat pilasters representing columns began appearing yet having no structural role. So the columns dropped their structural function but still played an important proportional role. In fact designers found they could use the proportions from the orders to organize a design without using columns or classical elements at all. This is an important point as it means that proportions governing the classic orders can be used to solve design problems on a wide range of work including furniture and related decorative arts. A good example is the way the major parts of an order are divided.

The major parts of this Doric classic order are found by making two simple division of five.

The Pedestal marks the beginning of the form and is often sized by dividing the overall height by five parts with the bottom fifth defining it. The entablature above the column terminates the form and is usually one fifth or one sixth of the remaining space above the pedestal. This little simple self contained dividing into fifths and sixths creates this beginning middle and ending sequence that permeates much traditional work.

Proportions used on a classic order are used to organize a table design.

You can imagine how this could be readily applied to something like a table using the entablature on a classic order to size a table apron supporting a top. Period artisans were masters at applying the proportional lessons from the orders to their work in many varied and sophisticated ways. Much of it is hidden from the casual observer unless you are familiar with the orders and their underlying proportions.

 George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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2 Responses to Classic Orders, link to a design heritage

  1. bpassaro says:

    I am enjoying these entries on the classical “orders.” Interesting and useful, I think.

    Still, there seems something so arbitrary about this. Surely, for a designer, it is comforting. Faced with infinite variations, this kinds of “system” simplifies the design process (as you point out in an earlier post in which you suggest the Golden Ratio is an unnecessarily complicated approach, and question its “magic”).

    But as with any proportioning system, the whole-number-ratio approach strikes me as so coldly mathematical. There’s certainly nothing magic about it either.

    I mean, consider how a table or a building is typically viewed: Neither the classical column nor the table you illustrate here will ever be viewed in the real world the way they appear in these illustrations (except maybe, in the table’s case by a 22-inch-tall 2-year-old. We will look down at the table. We will look up at the Greek temple. So the entablature on the temple will appear smaller than it actually is. The pedestal of the table will appear smaller than it actually is. So, just slapping this same ratio system doesn’t seem to make sense. I think this is less about what is most visually appealing and more about the comfort of being able to apply a simple formula.

    Not that these formulas wouldn’t produce a pleasing temple or table. But shop drawings and cold ratios will only get you so far, I think. That’s why models and mock-ups can help in design — much more so than blueprint-type shop drawings.

    On the other hand, I’m really intrigued by these posts, so keep them up! I do think there is much of value here. I just also think a furniture designer has to feel free to hedge things sometimes, to move that rail up just a bit when it doesn’t quite look right — even if that means violating the “orders.” I’m guessing you’re not so orthodox that you’d disagree.

    • walkerg says:


      I do agree that much of the time having a knoweledge of the proportions in the orders may just be starting point to begin fleshing in a design. Period artisans who were steeped in this tradition frequently made judgements by eye and adjusted proportions to suit (it is surprising though how often they left the proportions from the orders intact). I’m aware that to some, any “system” feels like it threatens creativity. I like to think just the opposite. Structure creates a framework which increases possibilities. I’ll badly paraphrase something by C.S. Lewis here. He talked about how the game of chess is infinitely more challenging and stimulating precisely because it has boundries and structure. I will comment that at first it might seem a bit mechanical, but it’s really no different than learning the color wheel or some of the fundamentals in music. What starts out as a rote exercize can be a doorway into a burst of creativity as our brain is able to make connections and combinations otherwise impossible. As a woodworker I find the biggest thing the orders has to offer is to help me really think proportionally. I can see each part as it relates to other parts and to the whole. I have to say I actually feel much more confident in making judgments by eye now as direct result of becoming familiar with the orders.


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