Keeping it all in Proportion

Written by David Savage

Originally published as Keeping it all in Proportion in Furniture and Cabinet Making / 1997

Part 1 of a series of 2

design proportions

I am frequently asked by students – how do I proportion a piece of furniture? This is really like approaching the Rolls Royce dealer and asking him the price of the latest Silver Shadow the implication being that if one has got to ask then the chances are one doesn’t have the where-with-all to carry it through. After all one cannot teach a pig to sing and sadly neither can one grow feathers upon a toad but it should be possible to encourage those so disposed to make a start . Starting after all is often the most difficult thing to do, that first psychological hurdle the empty sheet of paper deters so many creative adventures, so, my objective here is to help those of you perhaps feeling a little tentative about furniture design to make a start with working out the proportions of a cabinet or similar piece of furniture. Deciding upon proportions is essentially a personal aesthetic decision and it would be unhelpful to tell you how to think and feel. But perhaps I can help by exposing just a little bit the processes I use when choosing the proportions of a piece of furniture and also by telling you about some of those influences that have formed my aesthetic decisions.

When we talk about proportions, we are talking about the relationship of two dimensions – usually height to width. The proportions of the piece of furniture are best used in elevation and are most appropriate to a piece of furniture that would stand against a wall and be viewed from front on, such as a chest of drawers, or sideboard, or wardrobe. Although these pieces may well be seen from the side or partially in plan, the greatest impact is frontal and the development of the front elevation is a major step in the design process.

…that first psychological hurdle the empty sheet of paper deters so many creative adventures…

In this I would feel honoured to be regarded as a classicist. That is my ideas and inspiration are rooted in principles of design developed by the Greeks approximately four hundred years before the birth of Christ so you see i don’t take up ideas that have not been well tested The very longevity of these ideas is itself interesting for concepts that can inspire and move mankind throughout history must contain within them something that touches the very core of our humanity. Sadly we have very little to tell us exactly what it felt like to be a part of that vibrant and sophisticated culture. The skeletal stones of a small assortment of Temples are all that we have left to show us what these monumental houses for the gods might have looked and felt like. Although frequently nothing more than a badly reassembled skeleton these places are themselves capable of being extremely moving and are often highly sophisticated structures. What would they have been like wreathed in wood, housing a single statue, a deity maybe 200 ft high, carved in stone, inlaid with ivory and seen first reflected in a single enormous pool, probably of olive oil placed between the viewer and what was not a statue of the god but an image of the god him or herself. These are places of immense theatrical intensity and we are only able to appreciate them by these skeletal pile of old stones, pillars and lintels. Yet these structures are immensely sophisticated and incredibly proportioned.

The Greek believed in proportions of low inditer numbers 1 to 1, 1 to 2, 2 to 3, which to the Greeks had more relevance as relationships in harmonics than in proportion relationships in architecture. The Greeks regarded architecture as a minor art form and were far more concerned with mathematics, poetry and music. So perhaps it is ironic that we look for clues to classic principals of proportion in such places rather than in the principals of music but one must study where one may. A study of classic sites in Greece and particularly Scilly, would serve the student furniture designer well.

A study of classic sites in Greece and particularly Scicily, would serve the student furniture designer well.

Here you will see columns reeded to capture and enhance the dramatic hard light of the Mediterranean the massive forms of the temple columns often 15 or 20 ft in diameter are broken down with these reeds to these finer visual elements. Entasis or a bellying of the vertical elevation of the column is used to combat the illusion of the columns appearing wasted as one looks up at them. Compare the plan of the temple with the elevation. See how the porticoes are placed on those columns and see how the steps up the temple form a part of the overall elevation. Again look for squares, look for low number ratios 1 to 2, 1 to 1. 1 to 3. View the temples from different angles, for each temple has its own secret. Its own structural logic and integrity and it won’t immediately unfold itself to the casual observer. What it will do is appear right. The overall structure – if the temple is a good one and most of them are – will appear as a place of calmness and serenity. And it is this calmness, this serenity, this timeless rightness, that has attracted generation after generation back to the Greeks.

It’s not necessary to look just at the Greeks, for thankfully many periods in history since then have interpreted and refashioned these principles. Each time clothing them in the garb of their particular culture. The first was the Romans, and it’s the Romans that give me a particularly powerful image. That of The Vitruvian Man drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a testament to the power of this image that it is used today as a logo for a current affairs television programme ‘World in Action’. It is not powerful because it was drawn especially beautifully by Leonardo but because it is an image of a man in relation to mathematics. It is a man placed centrally within the two principle geometric forms – the square and the circle. Here Vitruvius a Roman scholar of earlier Greek culture is comparing the size of man with classic forms and more than comparing but also placing man centrally within those forms.

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