The Fundamentals of Furniture Design: Proportion Part 1
by Patrick Harper - Blood, Sweat, and Sawdust
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, furniture design and creation were intimately connected. Furniture makers used whole number proportions to create harmony between their work, nature, and the human form. Like a symphony, proportion created balance between the micro and the macro. Unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution shifted priorities. As machines replaced our hands and eyes, measurements and tolerances replaced proportion and harmony.
Traditional designers strove for connectedness. Simple shapes with whole number proportions combine to create complex forms. Details echo proportions found in the larger form. This creates a sense of balance between scales. In the image above, the square proceeds to the double-square, much like a musical octave. The middle transition creates a 2 to 3 ratio. With nothing more than a compass and a straightedge, I am able to create any proportion or shape my heart desires; no tape measure or ruler necessary.
You don’t have to stick to traditional in order to create harmony in your designs.
The shape above represents the golden rectangle (phi). While, technically not a whole number ratio, phi (1.61803…) can also be represented by the Fibonacci sequence. As you progress higher in the sequence, the closer the ratios approach phi (i.e., 89:144 = .61805). This golden ratio is found everywhere from the spiral of sea shells to the pyramids of Giza. Designers often turn to golden ratio because it pleasing to the eye.
The traditional designer spent large amounts of time studying the classical orders. Above, the Doric order epitomizes the height of classic Greek design. Often seen without a base, the column height varied from 4 to 8 column diameters. In this example, the capitals are 1/2 diameter high and 1 1/2 diameters wide. The classical orders are similar to the keys of classical music. Each speaks a slightly different language, but each strives to harmonize its elements. Studying the classical orders can go a long ways in teaching a designer which proportions create balance and harmony.
Take a minute and study a piece of furniture that you find attractive. What relationships can you find between its height and width? Do the details echo elements found in the larger form? What shapes can you find hidden in the overall form? Repeat the same process with a piece of furniture that you find clumsy or clunky.