Classic order, entablatures

Cornice detail by William Evans, Photo by Lie-Niesen Toolworks

I don’t often look for direct correlation between the classic orders and a furniture design but if you understand the wellspring that feeds western design it can be very helpful. Part of it is actually learning the nomenclature which takes you into the language of this traditional world and allows you to occasionally go down to the fish market and at least stumble through a conversation to buy dinner. It also can give you some ideas about how to apply some simple proportions to tackle some common design problems.

The classic orders were developed when primitive construction was primarily trabeated. Trabeated construction is made up of posts or columns supporting horizontal beams or lintels. It’s thought that the stone construction we associate with Greek and Roman buildings is a stylized version of earlier wooden buildings.

Representaion of primitive wooden structure thought to be the basis for the classic orders.

 I mentioned earlier that a classic order has a pedestal (beginning), column (middle), and entablature (ending). The top part or the lintel supporting the roof is the entablature. Though each of the different orders has their own character with different entablatures, they all consist of three divisions or three horizontal bands. The bottom band that rests on the capitals is called the architrave. Think of this as the heavy beam that actually carries the load of the roof and transfers that load down to the columns. Above that is the frieze. This is a wide band directly above the architrave. On a Doric order you can see representations of the structure resting on the architrave, on the Ionic and Corinthian the frieze is a wide panel (which conceals the underlying structure) that is often decorated with painting or carving.

Major parts of an entablature on a Doric classic order, Drawing by author.

Finally crowning all and terminating the form is the cornice. It projects from the building to help shed rain and the elements from the building below. The final moulding at the top actually contains a rain gutter.

There are many variations on how these parts are proportioned in relation to each other but there are a few simple concepts that you may find helpful when designing furniture. First, furniture can often have some similar design requirements as a building. We may be using legs instead of columns and tabletops instead of roofs, but many furniture forms involve supporting some sort of lintel on top of some vertical structure. In period building artisans adapted designs directly from the orders such as this fireplace surround. You may not want to be so blatant or mechanical but if you do have a wide horizontal band let’s say at the top of a chest you may want to look at how an entablature is broken up. First note that the band (entablature) is broken in to three parts. Next, notice that the parts are not all equal. There is always this major and minor going on. Often the proportions are very simple. In the case of this Doric, divide the entire height by four, give the bottom fourth to the architrave, and divide the remainder in half for the frieze and cornice. The Ionic and Corinthian is often divided into five parts, give the top 2/5 to the cornice and divide the remainder in half for the frieze and architrave below. Sometimes the architrave is five parts, the frieze six parts, and the cornice seven parts.

Period fireplace suround, can you see the main parts of the entablature? Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.

If you look closely at period work you will see artisans were very playful in how they might have arranged them. In fact it’s helpfull to know that any wide band regardless of whether it’s horizontal can benefit by breaking it into three parts that play off one another. The key though is that we are breaking up the monotony by using simple proportions. Take the time when looking at buildings and furniture to see how this is applied.

George R. Walker


About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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2 Responses to Classic order, entablatures

  1. Dan Sayler says:

    I recently found myself correcting a subcontractor (in front of his minion) about this very topic. (as well as his spelling) He was telling his guy about how the “freeze blocks” protected the “attic” from the cold. It was just too much to keep quiet about. I’m sure his eyes are still rolling . . .

    It often astounds me how many people engaged in the building trades lack even a passing acquaintance with the classic orders and their nomenclature, despite working daily with the very words and concepts contained within.

    I once worked for a very high end finish contractor who insisted on calling the rosettes at the corners of door & window casing “plinth” blocks. I tried to convince him that he could call them “Fred” for all I cared but the one thing that he really shouldn’t call them was “plinth blocks” likening that akin to calling the space immediately beneath the roof and above everything else in the structure “Basement”.

    He never did believe me.

    • walkerg says:

      Can I quote you on the “freeze blocks” comment? Those rossettes you mentioned, I prefer to call them “Shemp”.


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