Which of the three scenarios should make your heart skip a beat while canoeing?
A. The river takes a sharp bend up ahead and you cannot see beyond the where the water turns a corner.
B. You spot rapids ahead with whitewater tumbling and roaring through a maze of boulders.
C. The water is calm in front of you except the river is interrupted by a horizontal line that stretches from shore to shore. You stand up in the canoe but mysteriously still cannot see the river beyond that horizon line.
If you answered C, you’d be frantically thrashing your canoe to the shoreline before tumbling over a waterfall. Maybe it goes back to our hard wiring associated with drowning, but we instinctively look for a shoreline bordering a river, a picture frame around a painting, or a margin around a page of text. Visually we balk at running over a cliff. Border elements can be an important part of a design. They provide a beginning and a clear ending. They also help us to recognize the different parts in a form and alow our eye to know where one part ends and another begins. Proportionally establishing a beginning, ending, or border is accomplished using punctuation. I’ve shared a good deal in previous posts about using proportions to create a hierarchy. Typically these proportions are simple whole number ratios such as 2:3, 1:2, 3:5 etc. They create a major and minor with one playing off of and complimenting the other. Punctuation is created when one part dominates another. We may divide a part into five or six equal parts and have the first or last unit act as punctuation. This is often expressed as 1:5 or 1:6.
On a classic order a pedestal is one fifth the overall height and thus punctuates the entire structure above it. Looking closer at the pedestal you can see a base molding at the bottom that punctuates the pedestal itself. This should help you realize that you may have layers of sub elements in a form which may benefit by having a clear beginning. When placing a border that runs around the perimeter of a rectangle like a drawer front or an inset panel, use the narrowest span to establish punctuation. In the case of a drawer, use the height of the opening, in the case of a tall panel, use the width.
Using a fifth or a sixth to establish a border or a beginning will create a fairly bold architectural look. You may want to back away from that and tone it down on a furniture design. I have to admit though, I often find bases and feet on period case pieces one fifth the height of the case they support. Knowing this it’s a good idea to begin to take mental notes of how border elements punctuate on designs you admire. Even on a classic order you may discover a variety of proportional schemes to establish a border. Understanding how they work and the effect they create can help guide your own designs.
George R. Walker