The design aspect of every craft has some theory, a bit of myth, and a sprinkling of mystery. But, there’s another category of knowledge, things that work because – well.. they are just practical and intuitive. The best of all worlds is when theory, myth, mystery, and the practical converge. Best, because that practical thing we reach for has some deep thought behind it along with a bit of mystery beneath the surface.
Here’s an example from Sebastion Serlio’s early treatise on design and architecture circa 1611. It’s a challenge to read since it’s 17th century English translated from a Dutch text, translated from Italian, with a Gothic font. Ouch!
There are many quadrangle proportions, but I will here set down but seven of the principlest of them, which that best serve for the use of a workman.
Here are a handful of rectangles, seven in fact, which are useful in design and building.
Then he goes on to show seven simple rectangles, six of which use whole number ratios to govern their width to height, ie 1:2, 2:3 etc. These are practical because you can easily step them off with dividers. Serlio also mentions a specific name for each rectangle. The rectangle below he names in Latin (As though we don’t need another confusing language thrown in) a ” Sexquialtera ” Translated that simply means a ratio of 3: 2 but it’s also a medieval reference to a fifth in music. That’s the bit of myth and mystery thrown in. He also explains how this rectangle relates to a square, showing how these all flow from something we can easily picture in our minds.
Now when I mention myth and mystery in the traditional sense, I’m not talking about the tooth fairy, but more like some deeper reality embedded out of sight. Things that we haven’t the words to explain properly. Like the way the ancients saw a connection between simple proportions and musical harmonies.
If a solid grounding in theory helps you (and it should), ride it and squeeze every possibility you can from it. If a taste of myth and mystery frees you to experiment and play, drink it deep. But sometimes it’s the simple and practical bits that are most helpful. Like a few simple rectangles that you can use to rough in a form for a desk, a cabinet, or a tool chest.
George R. Walker
Here are links to a couple of older posts where I discussed harmonic proportions:
Jim Tolpin and I cover a wide range of furniture design theory, myth, mystery, and practical knowledge in our book “By Hand & Eye”