Category Archives: Design Basics

For all Practical Purposes

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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!

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It reads:

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.

Modern paraphrase:

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.

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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:

Harmony

Simple Shapes

Jim Tolpin and I cover a wide range of furniture design theory, myth, mystery, and practical knowledge in our book   “By Hand & Eye”

 

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Shop Geometry that won’t make your eyes bleed

Roubo plate 23

Recently Chris Schwarz lamented that that much of the historic literature on craft is stuffed with geometry but doesn’t explain how to set up a smoothing plane. And to make matters worse the geometry lessons quickly spin out of control with drawings that look like some freakish nightmare.

Back in the day, books were expensive. A modest book in the 18th century could easily cost a weeks wages so a treatise on things like milking a cow or setting up a smoothing plane, or constructing window sash never entered anyone’s thought. In a village of a hundred souls, ninety-nine knew how to milk a cow and half of them could set up a plane in their sleep. Yet no one in the village, possibly no one in the county might know (let alone share), the knowledge that lies behind the smoothing plane, window sash, or that magnificent cathedral up on the hill. That my friends is geometry. But hear me out. It’s not as devilish as it sounds. This artisan geometry of the trades doesn’t involve memorizing a boatload of theorems and formulas that make you want to light up a cigarette and knock down a shot. Well you might want to do that for the pleasure of it, but not because the geometry drove you there.

I admit when I first explored what the old writers had to say, I complicated it by my own ignorance. I often passed over the simple stepping stones of knowledge and then skinned my shins. Here’s an interesting bit on this path of artisan geometry best illustrated by Plate one, figure one from Roubo’s monumental collection of engraved drawings.

Plate 1, figure 1 from Roubo

Plate 1, figure 1 from Roubo

 

Plate one, figure one starts with a point. Roubo isn’t alone in beginning at this humble starting place. Many similar examples could be cited, often there is a break in forty pages of medieval Spanish text with a single          .           followed by another twenty pages of narrative. Point being you can learn to visualize and build some really marvelous things if you begin at the right beginning. And that beginning is the humble point.

Jim Tolpin and I are at it again, writing a workbook that takes that historic knowledge and walks you through it step by step. Who knows? Maybe there’s some window sash, elegant chairs, or even a grand cathedral inside your head just waiting to be made if you knew what they knew.

 

George R. Walker

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Awesome carved bowls

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Last year I had the pleasure of spending time with Dave Fisher in his workshop. It’s a feeble attempt to try to explain his work with this photo. You only get  this one static look that doesn’t capture the sparkle of sunlight bouncing off the curved forms or the messages only your hands can read.  Dave recently started a blog (Link) about his craft journey. Regardless of your interest in carved wooden bowls, he has a wealth of hard won knowledge about design, especially about incorporating curves in a design. He’s someone I pay close attention to. I must warn you though. After I spent a day in Dave’s shop I came away with more questions than I went in with.

Just a note, I’ll be teaching a design workshop at Richard Grell’s in Hudson Ohio on the 26th & 27th of January and there are still a few spots available. Also, I’ll be in Phoenix in Feb at the Southwest School of Woodworking. Still have a few open spots in that design workshop also. Hope to see you there.

 

George R. Walker

 

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Design workbook coming in 2015!

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Jim Tolpin and I are in high cotton. Even before By Hand & Eye was finished we sensed there was still a critical missing piece. That missing piece was a bridge that linked the head knowledge of design with the everyday practical problems in the woodshop.  Our thoughts kept turning to a down and dirty shop guide meant to hang on a nail over your bench. I’m happy to report we are at it hammer and tongs writing a design workbook slated for release next year through Lost Art Press . It’s a self study guide peppered with drawing exercises to hone your inner eye as well as a boatload of practical layout strategies like a quick and elegant way to space narrow slats on a chair back, or how to draw a sweet curve that bristles with just the right amount of energy.

“With the most primitive means the artist creates something which the most ingenious and efficient technology will never be able to make.”

Kasimir Malevich (Early 20th century Russian artist and theoretician) 

This workbook is a natural outgrowth of our own journey as woodworkers but also a product of the many workshops we’ve held over the last few years. Essentially it’s a guided tour back to first principles. We start from a single point          .↶   literally, and progress through lines, planes, solids, and curves. Along the way we explore proportions and patterns found throughout nature and the entire built world with plenty of exercises so you become familiar with the concepts. Armed with just a pair of dividers, a straightedge, and a ball of string, you’ll be able build your own version of the Parthenon, a pie cabinet, or some really snazzy patio furniture.


George R. Walker

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Design Workshops Far and Near

By Hand & Eye Graphic

Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.

Daniel J. Boorst

 

Game changer! That’s the comment I hear most often during a “By Hand & Eye” workshop. Lights click on, gears start to mesh, and frustration and doubt gives way to confidence and big smiles. Folks who shied away from curves can’t wait to do some off road woodworking. I have one more workshop this year and 2015 is beginning to take shape. Consider signing up for an experience that will influence every aspect of your woodworking. This weekend I’ll be traveling down to The Woodworker’s Club in Rockville Maryland for a Saturday session with the Chesapeake SAPFM chapter and then a two day design workshop on Monday and Tuesday.  There’s still a few spots available for the two day. 2015 workshop dates are firmed up but not yet open for enrollment. I’ll post when signups begin, but for now you can mark your calendar.

2014

  • Saturday Nov 1st Rockville Maryland – Presenting to the Chesapeake Chapter of SAPFM, The Woodworkers Club
  • By Hand & Eye Workshop, Nov 3-4 (Monday and Tuesday) The Woodworkers Club, Rockville Maryland. Sign UP

2015

  • By Hand & Eye Workshop, Jan 24th- 25th, R. Grell Fine Woodworking Workshops, Hudson Ohio. Details coming soon.
  • By Hand & Eye Workshop, Feb 13-15th, Southwest Center for Craftsmanship, Pheonix AR. Details coming soon. 
  • Design presentation, March 28th-29th, Northeast Woodworkers Association Showcase, Sarratoga Springs, NY. Details coming Soon.
  • By Hand & Eye Workshop, Oct 17th-18th, Marc Adams School of Woodworking. Details coming soon.

George R. Walker

 

 

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Visit the Design Graveyard…

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With Halloween just around the bend I’m reminded of one of my favorite haunts (no pun intended) for thinking about design – old graveyards. The monuments in all shapes and sizes are like a lexicon of design, sort of a mini museum without the alarms. My last blog post had a photo of an obelisk shaped town marker in Nantucket which inspired Dave Fisher to send me these obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

photos from a nearby cemetery. I had to grin inside at the thought that I’m not the only one strolling through the democracy of the dead, trying to keep my designers eye alive. Dave crafts free form wooden bowls which are featured in the November 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. He commented “To my eye, the most beautiful obelisk in the entire cemetery is the Mathers obelisk.  Much of the reason, I believe, has to do with the base (plinth?).  The quickening curve of the base roots it firmly to the ground, then leads the eye on a ride up to the obelisk itself.  There is still a clear indication of where the obelisk itself begins, but without jarring the eye on the way up.  The whole piece is organic, much like a tree rising from the ground. ”  

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Packard Obelisk

I concur with Dave’s educated eye and would add that several other examples, the Roberts and Packard obelisks, look like they took a standard monument and plopped an obelisk on top of them. Not certain I ever noticed that before until they were side by side with the Mathers example. One is a unified organic composition, the others are just combinations of parts. There’s a powerful lesson illustrated here. How often does a design or a work of art fail because it’s a busy mechanical  assemblage of parts rather than an organic flowering? I’m interested in your thoughts as you compare these different interpretations of a design.

 

George R. Walker

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Roberts obelisk

 

Mathers base detail

Mathers base detail

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Training your eye for Design

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“We need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.

 Shakti Gawain

If you are new to design, telling you to trust your eye sounds like some joke that everyone’s in on except you. How do you know what your eye is telling you?

First of all, those times when your eye feeds your imagination with rocket fuel is a rare event even for gifted artists. So much so that when that explosion of  juice starts to flow, it’s wise to ride it irregardless of eating or sleeping. Magic should not be squandered.

But aside from those rare bursts of inspiration – every day our eye talks a lot. Mostly it’s like that beeper on a garbage truck when it’s backing up the alley. It tells us what it doesn’t like. A crude example of this is plumb and level. Even though we have accurate tools to measure level and plumb, most of us can do a fair job of gauging it just by eye. In fact, our inner eye is pricked when that picture frame on the wall looks tilted in spite of what a level tells us. Our eye is filled with judgments, mostly negative about proportions. We may not think all that negative feedback is that valuable. It may feel frustrating, like we hired a travel guide who tells us all the sights not to  see. But if you realize that this is the eye’s way of guiding, you can learn to listen to it and best of all, learn to train it. I may get a burst of inspiration, a spark of an idea of what I want to design. But the actual design process is listening to a series of nos that gradually morph into yeses.

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by  Author

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by Author

But training the eye? Traditionally this was done by studying masterful work. All the old design guides waxed glowingly about the classic orders. Truth is you may never incorporate a single element from a classic order in any of your furniture designs. Yet, drawing the classic orders gives your eye a reference library of no’s that are inescapable – pushing you, guiding you, until the nos start turning to yes. With a basic understanding of proportions, you can let your eye be tutored by great buildings, furniture, nature, and art.

 

George R. Walker

 

George R. Walker

 

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