Keeping it all in Proportion (part 2)

Written by David Savage

Originally published as Keeping it all in Proportion (part 2) in Furniture and Cabinet Making / 1997

Part 2 of a series of 2

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Putting on the Style

david sketchbook drawings

We hear many references back to classic principles as being Neo-Classic. One of the first and for me the most influential was the Renaissance in mediaeval Italy, particularly centering around Florence in the 15th Century. Its interesting to note that the intellectual “avant garde” of this period including Lorenzo de Medici regarded themselves as “Neo Platonists” that is revivers and followers of the ideas of Plato. It is to this period that I turn for one of the most clear examples I know of the way simple proportions, squares, circles, using low inditer ratios can be used to create visually complex structures. In the example shown our mediaeval architect Alberti combines squares and circles with such wit and zing that the image gives little evidence of the underlying structure indeed it’s hard to see them without really looking for them.

It’s great to have a sense of logic and reason and a mathematical core behind your structure and proportional decisions.

Critics of classicism will say and have been saying since 400BC ‘ah that’s all old hat, lets go for something new. Something brand spanking 20th century new.’ Sure the classic forms have been around a bit but it depends upon ones inventiveness and imaginative powers to create new combinations of these forms.

A second proportion method is the Fibonacci series. Fibonacci was a mathematician in I think 15th century Pisa who devised a series of proportional relations for the use of his students. They are 1 : 1, 1 : 2, 2 : 3, 3 : 5 ,5 : 8,etc. As you can see these are simply arrived at by adding the 2 numbers together to give the second number in the new series. Sounds simple doesn’t it but this series of numbers has been used in many aspects of life from architecture to engineering to predicting the  market movements in relation to passed time. Included in the Fibonacci series are the ratios 5 : 8 and 8:13 which are the classic “golden section” proportions.

Another tool used especially in dividing up carcasses for drawers is the decreasing ratio. Each division is reduced or increased by a predetermined percentage. That is drawers can get 10% larger or smaller as your eye moves up or down the elevation of the carcass.

porportionNow here I come to the crux of the matter. These techniques are essentially mathematical crutches. They should not be used as a primary means of choosing where a division inside a carcass should come. That should be an instinctive intuitive creative decision that comes from the very core of your being, only you can make that choice for yourself. Only you will feel it in that way. Having made these choices, by all means check them out, if you’ve got a proportion that’s nearly a square, tighten it up to the square, make it exactly a square. If you’ve got a proportion that’s failing near 5/8ths then tightening it up that way. It’s great to have a sense of logic and reason and a mathematical core behind your structure and proportional decisions. They make your image that much firmer. Having a division placed here just because it felt right ain’t quite enough – for tomorrow it might feel like it should be 5 mm to left or right. What we want is something really tight here that really could only be just there and nowhere else, either its dead right or its dead wrong. To do this I first of all put my divisions down by instinct, by feel and then I try to find a mathematical reason for leaving them there. If I can’t find a mathematical reason then I will question that particular proportional relationship very closely. If it still works then I will leave it and let the mathematics go to hell.

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