Design Sourcebook

I hear this question a lot. “What book could I recommend to dive deeper into design? “ My brain freezes at that point. Reason is, the path I’ve taken is filled with blind rabbit holes, quick sand, and endlessly verbose historical design books. 18th century design guides with titles two paragraphs long and contain words like parsimoniousness.Confession time here, much of what I continue to read is in that vein. I’m always searching for nuggets that a woodworker can use and apply. That said, I know there are those who want to pull back the curtain and understand the theory. If that’s you, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of “The Architecture of the Classical Interior” by Steven W. Semes.

 Don’t be put off by a title that doesn’t include the words furniture or woodworker. This is one of those rare books to read again and again and each time gain insight into our rich design heritage. Semes lays down a foundation of traditional design in bite sized chunks. Even though its perspective is architecture, the principles have universal appeal. If you enjoy period work it will deepen your understanding. If you lean towards the contemporary, you may be surprised how much overlap there is between good traditional and good contemporary work. Styles change, fundamentals don’t.

Plenty of practical information about proportions

Divided into three parts – Principles, Elements, and Planning. By far I find the chapters on principles most valuable. Semes covers the following principles as they apply to designing an interior (and by extension designing furniture). 1. Classical Architecture 2. Space 3. Structure 4. The Orders 5. Elements 6. Composition 7. Proportion 8. Ornament 9. Decoration 10. Light and Color 11. Character 12. Taste and Style 13. The Classical Tradition

Here’s the fun part. It may open your eyes even further to the rich architectural models all around you. Even that boarded up old hulk of a building swathed in ill conceived fire escapes may just yield some gems hidden in plain sight.

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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6 Responses to Design Sourcebook

  1. Looks like a good read George. It’s amazing how many designs at all levels come done to simple ratios and principles. I’ll keep an eye out for the book.

  2. Jason says:

    Thanks for the book tip! I agree that design is design. Old or new. I’ll definitely pick this one up!

  3. Greg says:

    I attended all your informative sessions at WIA. Your presentations at WIA and this post reminded me of a book I had bought about a year ago but put aside. It’s “Get Your House Right” by Marianne Cusato and Ben Pentreath. I’m only 30 pages in but it covers a lot of the design issues you discussed with many helpful illustrations. It deals mainly with structural architecture, but as you say the design concepts apply to everything. I’ll also be looking to pick up the Semes book. Thanks for the post.

  4. jlsmith says:

    Given your interests in proportion in architecture, are you familiar with Colin Rowe’s 1947 essay: The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa ( )? The essay compares Palladio’s Villa Foscari, (the Malcontenta) c. 1550-60 and Le Corbusier’s 1927 house for Mr. and Mrs. Michael Stein at Garches. The essay reveals the direct connection between the mathematics (proportions) of the two designs, thus destroying the myth that somehow modern architecture was a complete break with history. The essay is compelling evidence in support of the idea that proportions are a fundamental aspect of design which is independent of ‘style’.

    • walkerg says:

      I am not familiar with this essay. I will download it and take a look. Actually Semes has written another book ” The Future of the Past” which I haven’t read yet, but I understand it deals with the Modern vs Traditional approach. It’s on my must read list this winter.


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