Four years ago I sat in the back of a design workshop led by Jim Tolpin. He demonstrated how to design and build a piece of furniture using his hands as a ruler by walking us through a small step stool where every element was based on measurements derived from his hand span. I watched as Jim used both outstretched hands to determine the length, which also happens to coincide with his shoulder width and also happens to give just wide enough of a platform for stable footing. His deceptively simple approach was both liberating and intuitive. It seemed miles away from an “engineered” design process I was all too familiar with. Instead it echoed something in our past and on some level a deeply human approach to designing furniture.
I also knew he was re-assembling a big section of a marvelous puzzle I’d been working on myself. Neither of us had a clear idea of what the other was exploring but when we finally got together to talk, more light bulbs popped than when Roy Hobbs hit that homer in “The Natural”.
Ok, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but there were lots of light bulbs flashing.
We also knew if we combined what we were learning it could have profound impact on the craft. I was exploring the traditional design language artisans employed to visualize a design. It just so happened that they used proportions woven into the human body. Jim was using his body as a ruler to intuitively build. None of this is new, but this approach faded from use with the onset of industrialization and curiously the few puzzle pieces that remind us of it are hidden in plain sight in historic design literature.
Take a look at this architectural drawing by Palladio. Note the small human figure at the base of the column. This is not a knome. It’s a portable, waterproof, hairy, handy walking ruler that clearly communicates to any builder the actual scale of this design (which happens to be the front portico of the Pantheon in Rome).
Now in furniture design our scale is much smaller. Your hand span and the distance between your first and second knuckle on your index finger are your built-in portable, waterproof, hairy, handy ruler. My own hand span is 8 & ¾ “, both hands together are 17 & ½” (or just call it a foot and a half). The distance between the first and second knuckle on my index finger is 1 &1/2”.
We have lots more to share about this, but you’ll have to wait till our book “By Hand and Eye” through Lost Art Press comes out in early 2013. Until then, measure your own built-in portable, waterproof, hairy, handy ruler. It comes with a lifetime guarantee.
George R. Walker