Design Critique 05/21/2010

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin 1880 (Cleveland Museum of Art)

How about a little twist on a design critique? It’s been a pleasure for me and I hope for you the last few weeks sharing thoughts and comments on previous design critiques. I thought it might be fun to occasionally toss up some images from the work of a past master and generate some discussion. Obviously this is a bit different than commenting on your peers. It might be a good exercise to look closely at a masterwork and tell us what you see. What do you think the designer was thinking? Is there something new you failed to notice before? Is there something you might want to file away and in your design library? With that in mind, here’s the first masterwork I’d like to present for your comments, a cabinet by Greene and Greene.

Try to disregard the moron reflected in the window, just trying to get a shot of the facade. Cabinet measures 82" H X 54" W X 24" D.

            A little background and my initial comment. This impressive cabinet is currently on display in the Cleveland Museum of Art and is described as a secretary designed by Charles Sumner Greene and built by Peter Hall in 1911. The primary wood is mahogany which in itself was a bit surprising to me. One thing that struck me as exceedingly well executed is the subtle use of ornament to emphasize the form. Note the small patches of inlay at each corner of the upper and lower case. It re-enforced the idea to me that ornament (carving, inlay, marquetry, gilding) is at its best when it plays a supporting role and highlights the underlying form. Sorry about the photo quality, museum setting photos can be difficult.

 I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this impressive work.

George R. Walker

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Woodworker and writer
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10 Responses to Design Critique 05/21/2010

  1. vincent says:

    From reading the blog consistently over the past months I have learned a lot and appreciated more and more the genius of well applied proportion in design. Somehow I don’t get that feeling from looking at this cabinet.

    The inlays look a little out of place and almost lost in comparison to the large drawer pulls. The design on the glass seems unnecessary and distracting. The rigid rectangular composition leaves me feeling uncomfortable. I am sure this is a well executed cabinet, but the design doesn’t do it for me.

    I agree that inlays are at their best in a supporting role. I am not a big fan of the Dutch, French and Italian cabinets and desks that are fully covered in marquetry. But the subtle way in which inlays are used on federal period side tables or sideboards for example feels much superior to the inlays on the cabinet here described.

    It remains an odd thing this design stuff. Difficult to explain but somehow this piece doesn’t impress me.

  2. Doug F. says:

    I find this piece to be amazingly harmonious. My eye is drawn to three things in this order: 1) The large section in the middle of the cabinet with the large pull and the GOURGEOUS grain, 2) The upper cabinet section with the glass, and 3) the base. The pyramid made by the drawer pulls of the base and the large pull in the middle section is aesthetically pleasing as well. The counterpoint to that made by the shelves in the upper case is a nice touch, but that might have been arranged that way by the museum people.

    I agree that the ornamentation accentuates the piece, but I also think it pulls it together, too, by connecting the upper sections and the base in a harmonious way. Like a lot of Greene and Greene/Hall and Hall work, it seems to have a lightness about it that has probably deceived a lot of people into back injuries.

    The one thing I’m not sure about are the door pulls on the base. Having two of them side by side then having the odd man out seems mildly jarring.

    Overall, I think it is a design success, but I’m not an expert.

  3. aaron says:

    This piece doesn’t do it for me either. I dont think it’s a matter of proportions so much: while the proportions seem slightly odd, it might work very well in the room it was designed for.

    I think it’s just the boxy quality of the whole thing. The gentle curves of Steve Millican’s hutch posted a few days ago would save this piece – of course since it’s G&G it would need to be cloud lifts (arching ones though). *something* along the top is needed, too. Even it’s just a 1/2″ overhang. The way it just ends emphasizes the boxiness.

    Those drawer pulls are way too fat, too.

  4. Tico Vogt says:

    The first comment I have to make is that, taken out of the house environment that it was designed for, it looks like a fish out of water with the blond wood floor beneath it, the colored walls behind it, and the type of lighting in that room (the guy in the mirror actually improves the picture.) It’s hard to appreciate its soul in that particular setting, but what are you going to do?
    Look how beautifully centered the figure is on that flat board below the windows is. The Greene style draws from Chinese antique furniture and that appeals to me. The handles do look a little oversize in the picture but I would suspend judgment until actually in the presence of the cabinet and using them. No doubt all the little details are wonderfully wrought. They were master designers.
    George, have you been busy working out the proportioning thought behind it?

    • walkerg says:

      I would totally agree that it needs to be seen in the context of the interior it was designed for. This is a peice that struck me very much in person and my poor pictures don’t convey the whole flavor(aren’t all really good things like that? have we ever seen a picture of a sunset that compared to reality?). Actually I popped into the museum after being away for some time. They just completed an expansion and to my delight had many more furniture peices on display. Since this is a somewhat modern peice I don’t expect to find the obvious proportional fingerprints that show up on much period work. I do plan on poking around the image with dividers to see if there is a shadow of something to unearth.


  5. Will Smithee says:

    Here is a link to another picture of the secretary as well as some dimensional info etc:


    (Note this is shortened link provided by It is safe, but if you prefer the longer link here it is:

  6. Tico Vogt says:

    Here are a couple thoughts on possible proportioning.

    The center panel’s width equals the height of the doors above. Applying the Golden Section would have the combined width of the narrow doors to the left and right of the panel multiplied by 1.618 equal the width of the center panel. I’m not sure the panel itself is a Golden Section proportion.

  7. Carlos Dominguez says:

    After looking at the photo from the link you provided I have a different opinion. When looking at the your photo the piece looks clunky, boxy and the proportions nonsensical. The photo from the link shows the beautiful book matched panels, the overall color and beautiful workmanship. However, it’s not a design that I would want to build or emulate

  8. Jim Wichern says:

    George, this is an interesting piece. According to Will Smithee’s link to the Cleveland Museum of Art it was made for the Cordelia Culbertson house, and a photo can be found in the G&G Virtual Archives showing it in what I suppose to be the original setting. Just b/w photographs, but fairly high definition and the lighting is way better.
    My first impression was: handles are too big. But they show actually more detail and structure than I first thought and are not just beveled wooden bars.
    Regarding its function as a desk or secretary: I cannot help but think that there is hardly enough knee space to sit and work comfortably at it when the central panel is lowered. It might have served me better as a bar I think.

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