On proportions

June 21, 2008

The aesthetic foundation of any crafted thing, I suspect, is proportioning. I can’t prove this, but I’m sure it is (to paraphrase the film “The Big Lebowski”) what really ties a piece of furniture together. Before composition, before texture, before pattern, before color, before details, the proportions have to be worked out.

Sometimes a very simple thing just strikes you as wonderfully beautiful. The work of the Shakers, though very plain and unadorned, I believe is deceptively simple. I am sure they put a good deal of consideration into proportioning their furniture. It usually just looks “right.” I don’t think that happens by accident.

But I find this all very mysterious. Sure, I sometimes use classical proportioning rules, and I think they are often a good place to start. For instance what is referred to in architecture as the “golden rectangle,” which has a long side that is roughly 1.618 times the short side, has long been viewed as almost magical. It is a rectangle that, when divided to make another golden rectangle, leaves behind a perfect square — and so on forever. (The golden rectangle even figures in the book “The Da Vinci Code”).

The bookcase at the top of this post is based on the golden rectangle: the main case, each cabinet door, the placement of the shelves, and the details in the frame around the glass all form golden rectangles and squares — shown by the yellow lines.

That said, I don’t like to be a slave to mathematical ratios. Sometimes you have to trust your intuition. Sometimes, I have found what seems to look best is not a precise ratio, but one that is just slightly off. I have no idea why, but I sometimes find this to be true when I try to decipher the proportions of a classic piece of furniture or a great building.

So, when I design something for you, this where I begin: proportions.


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