Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge

“It takes wisdom to build a house,
and understanding to set it on a firm foundation;
It takes knowledge to furnish its rooms
with fine furniture and beautiful draperies.”
Proverbs 24:3-4 from “The Message”

It has often been said that furniture is just architecture expressed on a smaller scale.  The wisdom, understanding, and knowledge that makes a building come alive, is the same that is required to make a piece of furniture come alive in a way that gives long-term satisfaction and usefulness.

Sometimes it seems like this kind of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge is available to only a few experts – the best architects, the finest designers of furniture.   I would like to suggest that this kind of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge is available to anyone who is willing to take the time and make the effort required to find it.  It is, in reality, “hidden in plain sight” in the natural world that surrounds us.  As we have increasingly exchanged the real world for a virtual world, we’ve forgotten how to see the points, lines, volumes, proportions, and relationships that are around us in faces, bodies, the trees and flowers, flowing water, clouds, hills, ravines, and mountains to name a few.  Every day, they display to us the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding necessary to create anything – from a house to the furnishings that complete it.

If we want to design good furniture, we must wake up to the world around us and develop what one architect Jonathan Hale has described as “The Old Way of Seeing” in his book by the same title.

A number of books, including Jonathan Hale’s, have influenced my thinking about design and the creative process.  I’m listing most of them below in no particular order except for the last two which, to my thinking, provide the most accessible pathway to the “Old Way of Seeing.” If you pick just two books from the list, make sure to choose the last two.  They are sure to lead you in the right direction.

“The Old Way of Seeing” by Jonathan Hale, 1994
“The Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander, 1979
“A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, 1977
“The Nature of Order” 4 volume set by Christopher Alexander, 1980-2001
“The Nature and Aesthetics of Design” by David Pye, 1978
“Nature and the Idea of A Man-Made World” by Norman Crowe, 1995
“The Architecture of the Classical Interior” by Steven Semes, 2004
“The Power of Limits” by Gyorgy Doczi, 1994
“Art Forms in Nature” by Ernst Haeckel, 1998
“Art for God’s Sake, A Call to Recover the Arts” by Philip Graham Ryken, 2006
“Imagine, A Vision for Christians in the Arts” by Steve Turner, 2001
“Drawn In, A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers”
by Troy Bronsink, 2013

“By Hand and Eye” by Geo. R. Walker & Jim Tolpin, 2013
“By Hound and Eye” by Geo. R. Walker & Jim Tolpin, 2015

The last book will be available in September of this year, but can be pre-ordered from Lost Art Press with immediate access to a pdf copy.  “By Hand and Eye” sets the stage; “By Hound and Eye” takes you (along with Journeyman and his dog Snidley) through a hands-on, practical process that will forever change how you see and create things.

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Shaker Style Workbench Details

As promised in a prior post, I have put together a document with photos and commentary on my Shaker-style workbench.  The document is in pdf format can be found at Shaker Style Workbench

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Current Status and Future Plans

In a previous post I had noted that my wife and I were planning to build a retirement home in the town of Knox, Maine in the not too distant future.  Building a retirement home does not, however, mean that I have plans to retire from woodworking.  I have some long-term connections to the town of Knox since my great grandparents and grandparents were life-long residents there as farmers and store keepers.  My dad was born in Knox and lived there until his marriage after which he lived in the adjacent town of Thorndike. Just last week we closed on the sale of our home (and workshop) in New Hampshire and completed our move to Maine where we will be living in the house in which I grew up until our new house is completed (although I’ve come to realize that no house is ever really completed unless everything is contracted!)  For the next several months my workshop will consist of my workbench* and many boxes of hand tools until a new shop is completed.  Although I will be able to do some woodworking (and perhaps even complete a project I was unable to finish in NH), my focus will be on getting the new shop and house completed. It will also take some time to establish new relationships with retail galleries and stores in the area, but I see many good opportunities to be pursued, time permitting. In the interim, I hope to add some additional posts on furniture design continuing to build on some thoughts that began with a post on design from several years ago which have been developed further in a number of subsequent posts on design. I am thankful for the many years we had in New Hampshire and for the local clients I was able to serve there.  I continue to appreciate their interest in my work, and especially those clients for whom I was able to build multiple items.  I also I look forward to the woodworking possibilities in this new location.  There are many quality woodworkers in the central coastal area of Maine (some added as links on the right), and woodworking schools like the “Center for Furniture Craftsmanship” nearby in Rockland, ME that work to promote fine craftsmanship.  Stay tuned…

* Several other woodworkers have indicated an interest in my workbench and have asked if plans were available.  While it is unlikely that I will ever have a full working set of plans for the bench, I did take a number of detail photos when the bench was disassembled for moving and I hope to post some of them in the near future along with a more complete description of the bench that might be helpful to anyone wishing to build a similar bench.

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The Best Laid Plans…

It’s true!  The best laid plans don’t always turn out as expected.  As the economy continued to lag three years ago, I put my woodworking business into a state of ‘hibernation’ (see ‘Woodworking and Hibernation’) and invested a considerable amount of time into re-organizing the shop (see ‘Will the Workshop Please Come to Order’), building a new workbench (see ‘Workbenches and Our Work’), doing other income-producing work (I collect field data for property tax assessments in the town where I live and occasionally assist in other towns),  and looking forward toward the time when the economy might be more supportive of doing a craft like woodworking.

During the fall of 2012, the signs were there:  tentative discussions about potential projects with some former clients, increased interest by retail stores in again receiving  new items, and a general sense that it was time to start making items again (see ‘Hibernation Ends’).

Little did I realize that during this same time frame, my aging (now 90 year old) mother would have to make the transition from nearly independent living to assisted care/nursing home living, and that the process would consume most of my time between travel, making arrangements, and beginning to manage all of her affairs.

Built-in Bookcase and Window Seat

Built-in Bookcase and Window Seat

As expected, there were several good woodworking projects (some photos here and below) that emerged early in 2013, but instead of becoming a focal point of the year, they had to be fit in between everything else that was going on, and there was little time for actively pursuing other new work. (A year ago, a new brochure intended to generate interest and hopefully attract new clients was nearly ready for printing and mailing.  It still is nearly ready.)

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Church Pulpit

During the same period of time my wife and I have continued to get nearer and nearer to retirement age (though I have no plans to retire from woodworking for some time!)  Approaching retirement age meant that we needed to get serious about finding a piece of land for building a retirement home, and start making plans for that home.  Our current home was great for raising kids, both of whom are nearly ‘out of the house,’ but it was never intended to become a retirement home from the time it was first built.  After a roughly 6 month search we found a beautiful 16 acre piece of property high up on a hill in Knox, Maine – the same town where my great grandparents and grandparents lived for their entire lives.  As we begin to engage in the process of designing a scaled down ‘connected farmstead’ for the property – “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn (meaning workshop!) we are aware that even though construction is perhaps 1-2 years out, that woodworking time will certainly be limited until the construction is completed and I can begin to re-establish myself in a new location.

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Kitchen Island

During the ‘hibernation’ time, I pursued a lot of thoughts on design, and used this blog to express and explore many of them.  I hope to find some time to pursue these interests more in the coming year and hopefully tie some of these thoughts together before becoming fully involved in building a retirement home.  (The outline for the next blog is still on the blackboard in my office nook from over a year ago!)

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Virtual Pipe Organ in Process

While I was not able to do as much woodworking last year as I had anticipated and hoped for, I did manage to find some brief times between other concerns to continue to pursue another long-standing interest that uniquely combines music, electronics, design, and woodworking.  The project involves a Virtual Pipe Organ (known as a VPO) that has been in various stages of design, testing, construction, and ability to actually be played for several years.  A Virtual Pipe Organ leverages CD (or higher) quality sound samplings of real pipe organs combined with computer technology and an audio system to recreate the sounds of the original organ (often an organ of historic interest.) A VPO is, by nature, a sort of open-ended project with lots of room for exploring the mechanics (keyboards, pedalboards, stop controls, and a case to house them – all of which involve at least some woodworking), electronics (mostly MIDI), and audio systems for the sound.  I will be adding a section to this website shortly to post some photos and details of how I reconditioned and ‘midified’ some older pipe organ keyboards, designed and built the stop controls, reconditioned an old pedalboard (recently replaced with a new shop-built one) and built an often-modified case that remains more of a prototype than the finished case I hope to build some day.  You can link to my VPO pages here.

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Hibernation Ends!

Quality furniture is always a good investment, but in uncertain economic times most people choose to defer purchases, including furniture.  In the Spring of 2011 the impact of deferred spending on my woodworking business was significant enough that I decided to place it in what I could only describe as a state of “hibernation.”*

During this time my business was very quiet and unable to respond to clients (since it was no longer covered by commercial insurance); however, I used this time to focus on design (see a series of posts starting with “The Shape of Things…”), rethinking my workshop and tool set (see “Will the Workshop Please Come To Order!”), and working on various other non-client woodworking activities including a class on hand molding planes.

As of November 1, I am happy to inform you that the time of hibernation has come to a close and I am ready to accept new work from clients.

Many sections of this website have been revised to reflect this new status and I invite you to re-explore the site and consider items that might enhance your life.  Please contact me for assistance in starting your next piece of fine furniture!  I look forward to working with you on the design and construction of an item that will satisfy you for many years to come!

* See “Woodworking and Hibernation” for the original post on hibernation.

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Shaker Furniture and Design

Shaker End Table based on Thomas Mosers Book

Shaker furniture first caught my attention about 35 years ago with the publication of Thomas Mosers “How To Build Shaker Furniture.”  I built a few items from that book for my own use.  Since then I have accumulated perhaps two dozen books on Shaker furniture.  Not all of the items depicted are good, but many are outstanding and have taught me much about the essential elements of furniture design.  Shaker furniture is helpful in learning about design because it usually leans heavily toward the basics and gives us an important window into proportions, lines, etc. without obscuring those features with much ornament.  There are no issues to be had with ornament (used appropriately) as such; its just that its absence in Shaker furniture helps the eye to see and comprehend the essentials more clearly.

I’ve kept a woodworking journal for many years, sometimes recording useful quotes, other times observations on how to design and build furniture – some my own, some from others.  Recently I decided it would be good to collect and organize some of my (and others) observations about Shaker furniture.  Here are some things that emerged that I think will be useful for good design (whether in the Shaker style, or otherwise.)

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The Shakers approached their work from a certain vantage point that strongly influenced their work:

    • They had a certain attentiveness to the world and themselves
    • They had a desire to create beautiful things that somehow reflected the goodness and potential of creation around them
    • They had a respect for the inherent limits of the materials they used
    • They desired to bring order out of disorder
    • They focused on using quality, mostly local, materials
    • Each craftsman gave the work their own best effort (some with very high levels of craftsmanship, some much less so, but still their personal best.)

The Shakers had a strong leaning toward functionality and while they did not turn aside from artistic expression, they tended to express it directly through function:

    • Honest functionality and utility were high on their priority list
    • They were not afraid of creating unusual pieces in the pursuit of functionality

The Shakers usually stuck with basic shapes:

    • They relied almost wholly on good proportions and harmony
    • They almost always created pieces with clean, simple but still elegant lines
    • They relied heavily on “unadorned” forms
    • They maintained geometric simplicity by using proportions related by small whole number ratios

The Shakers were careful about the details:

    • They kept their forms unadorned, simple, and stripped of vanity and excess
    • They removed “unnecessary” stuff and non-supporting centers (areas that essentially “did nothing”)
    • They used ornament with great restraint keeping their work calm, always excluding trivia
    • They added ornament only to highlight or create a foil for extreme simplicity
    • They cared a lot about color (either through the species of wood or by working the colors into the wood in ways that didn’t detract from the grain and texture)
    • They were very careful in shaping each part making it comfortable to the eye, comfortable to the hand, often using very slender or light features
    • They focused on details that would delight an attentive eye

The end result was predictable:

    • Their furniture was fully functional, always fulfilling its intended purpose.
    • Their work had (in Christopher Alexander’s words) “Simplicity and Inner Calm”
    • There was a wholeness, unity, and completeness in their work
    • There was a slowness, stillness, and quietness that gave their work an unexpected majesty.

Bookcase in the Shaker Style

The Shakers understood the essentials very well.  Those same essentials are important to all furniture design whether Shaker in style or not.  It is important to get the essentials correct; once that is done, additional work can be done to fully develop a piece in ways that are fresh and new without sacrificing functionality or by adding so much detail that the essentials become lost.

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“Centers” create the “Whole”

In my last post on “Unfolding a Design” I noted how a relatively complex piece of furniture can be “unfolded” from relatively simple shapes to create the “whole.”  Each unfolding creates a new center which supports existing centers and sets the stage for the formation of yet another center.  As the centers unfold, each center becomes a potent visual field that draws our attention.

The concept of “centers” and how they “unfold” to create a “whole” comes in large part from architect Christopher Alexander’s four volume series titled “The Nature of Order.” Alexander explores these concepts in great depth from theoretical, philosophical (even spiritual) and practical perspectives.  Alexanders theoretical work has often been considered controversial (especially by other architects!)  I find myself in disagreement with some of his philosophical and spiritual conclusions: I would not, however, dismiss them lightly because they are an important part of his work. I would, however, modify them to bring them more in line with a traditional Christian worldview – a view that Alexander appears to reject, but I think for the wrong reasons.  All other considerations aside, the practical implications of his work to any artist or craftsman are simply breathtaking.  After reading his work (which can take awhile – the four volumes contain over 2000 pages of fine print along with hundreds of beautiful color photos) you will “see” the world around you through a clearer lens, and will come to see the process of creating an object such as a piece of furniture as a vibrant and living process.

Back to Centers themselves:  A Center is hard to define precisely, but a Center may be thought of as an area or better yet, a  visual “field,” that exerts a significant influence over adjacent areas, and even over the object as a whole.  More than anything, a Center is something that catches and holds the observers attention.

The largest Centers in a piece of furniture can be observed from a distance (across the room), perhaps even in subdued light or partially closed eyes. They determine the overall shape and appearance of the piece.  From a closer distance (half way across the room), these Centers will be seen to be composed of other smaller Centers.  At a very close distance (standing next to the piece), these Centers themselves will be seen to be composed of other smaller centers.  (The importance of considering a piece of furniture and its design from these three distances has been pointed out by other well-known woodworkers such as Gerry Osgood and Garrett Hack.)

A good piece of furniture is made up of Centers which are always composed of other smaller Centers.  The Centers at each level of detail arise as they emerge or “unfold” from the larger Centers that contain them.  As the Centers unfold, an almost organic structure arises (although hardly organic in the “hippie” sense which tries to avoid any semblance of structure.)  This structure is similar to the structures that are deeply embedded in the natural (organic) world around us.  Pieces of furniture created by the “unfolding” of Centers, though man-made, are very closely related to the natural world surrounding us.  It is not surprising that we feel “at home” in the presence of furniture created by this process because the natural world around us is our home.  These pieces are also very “human” in scale, and we relate to them in positive ways.

As the Centers unfold step by step, each new center should support and intensify the other centers.  As the design unfolds, each center should be developed to its fullest potential. When all of the Centers from large to small are mutually supporting and intensifying, the entire piece of furniture becomes and is perceived as a Whole.  The piece has a remarkably deep unity that, in a masterpiece, at least, would be diminished by adding or taking away any Center regardless of how large or small.

In a masterpiece, all of the Centers work together to capture our interest at all scales – from across the room, to mid-way across the room, to close up where the finest details may be experienced.

The collection of Centers that make up the Whole cannot be created simply by assembling various parts (a set of legs here, a drawer or two here, and a door there, for example.)  Creation by assembling parts is a concept developed by the Industrial Revolution.  The pre-industrial craftsman thought in terms of creating Centers, not creating individual components for assembly. The pre-industrial craftsman’s thinking is fundamentally different from that of an industrial worker or designer.  It is this way of thinking that we must re-learn if we, too, wish to create masterpieces.

After developing the concept of centers and how they unfold, Alexander draws an amazing conclusion based on his observations of literally thousands of buildings, artifacts, works of art spanning thousands of years.  His conclusion is that the best works – the ones that have stood the test of time – have just fifteen properties. This is an amazing conclusion considering the wide range of observations and the fact that they cover several millennia.

The Fifteen Properties describe the qualities Alexander believes will characterize all good Centers.  The Fifteen Properties are all highly interdependent and as they are emerge they become very tightly interwoven and intertwined.  Their interdependence is, at least in part, responsible for how the Centers work together to make the Whole. In the end, the Whole is a field of centers characterized by the Fifteen Properties where all the centers are mutually intensifying and support the formation of a coherent whole.

Without attempting to define the fifteen properties in this post, I will simply list them below.  The link at the end of this post will take you to a page that defines and describes each property in the context of furniture.

Alexander’s Fifteen Properties

  • Strong Centers
  • Levels of Scale
  • Positive Space 
  • Good Shape 
  • Local Symmetries
  • Echos
  • Gradients
  • Boundaries 
  • Contrast
  • Deep Interlock
  • Alternating Repetition 
  • Simplicity and Inner Calm
  • The Void 
  • Roughness
  • Deep Interconnectedness  (“Not-Separateness”)

At first glance, the Fifteen Properties seem a bit overwhelming in their scope, but I would encourage you to explore them with patience (many times!)  Once you get past their names and begin to grasp the qualities that they represent, they will emerge and make themselves present more readily as you begin to work out a design.  To explore these properties further, click here.  This link will open in a new page.

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Details Matter – Cutter heads and hand molding planes

Details Matter – they matter in the natural world around us, and they matter in the things we make.  Molding profiles are a good example.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with some antique molding planes; some are are termed “complex” because they combine two or more basic shapes to create an entire profile, while others are termed “hollows and rounds” and create only simple convex or concave profiles.  The hollows and rounds can be used in conjunction to make more complex moldings.  Most of my antique planes were purchased for about $10-20 each years ago and have proved useful from time to time, especially when I didn’t have (or didn’t wish to purchase) a particular router bit or shaper cutter.

I have only one 18th century plane and I considered it to be a good deal at $65 about 20 years ago partly because it was dated so early, but mostly because it created a beautiful ogee profile that happened to match one that was to be used in a house my wife and I were building at the time.  This house required literally thousands of feet of this molding, and for practical reasons most of it was produced by a standard shaper cutter, but the 18th century plane was used to create the molding in a few special places such as the fireplace surrounds.

I have always been struck by the fact that the 18th century plane gets the details right while the standard shaper cutter is at best just “OK.”  Both profiles are shown below

The 18th century plane makes a nice smooth transition from concave to convex while the shaper cutter creates more of a “bump” rather than a convex surface.   The smooth transition is pleasing to the eye and has a sort of relaxed feeling.  In contrast the “bump” transition is kind of abrupt and not especially pleasing.  The difference between these two profiles at the maximum point of difference is only about 3/32 of an inch, but the visual difference is far greater.

The “industrial” shape of many cutter heads or router bits tends to be determined by practical matters such as relief angles, fragility of carbide edges, etc. whereas the profiles of the older hand molding planes were determined solely by the beauty of their curves.  I’ve often wanted to re-grind this shaper cutter head so it would be more like the molding plane profile, but unfortunately the cutter head needs more, not less, steel at the transition point.

Good furniture deserves care in creating the molding profiles.  Most of the profiles on my furniture are designed and scaled specifically for that piece.   Sometimes industrial cutter heads or router bits are able to produce the desired profile (and perhaps save time if more than a few feet of molding are required), but I think molding planes (even just a quarter set of hollows and rounds) allow for much more creativity and flexibility.

Up until a few years ago, it was relatively easy to find matched pairs of hollows and rounds locally, but my two favorite antique stores (with woodworking tools) are no longer in business.  After much searching on eBay and other internet sites without much success, I recently decided that it would make the most sense to make a quarter set of hollows and rounds (1/8″, 1/4″, 3/8″, and 1/2″ –  commonly numbered as #2, 4, 6, and 8).

Many years ago I made a couple small beading planes by attempting to copy some existing planes with larger profiles.  They were fitted with reshaped antique irons (which could often be found at flea markets) and were functional, but hardly in the same class as the originals.

Fortunately today many more resources are available for making (or buying) molding planes.  The Lie-Nielsen produced “Making Traditional Side Escapement Planes” by plane maker Larry Williams (Old Street Tools) is an incredible resource.  Matt Bickford also has some very useful information (e.g. rabbet planes) on his website (MSBickford.com), and also has planes available for sale.  High quality tapered plane irons are now available from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.

In the past few weeks I have made pairs of #6 and #8 hollows and rounds which are shown below.  I also modified a #11 hollow to match an existing #10 round (a relatively easy way to get matched planes.)

I’m looking forward to making the #2 and 4 pairs in the near future and using this set of hollows and rounds on my next piece of furniture.

For anyone awaiting the next “design” post, I’m working on it, but reducing Christopher Alexanders concept of “Centers” and their “15 Properties” to blog size is a daunting task and I want to do it right because I think he has captured the essence of good design in his writings.

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“Unfolding” a Design

In my last post I noted how a complex piece of furniture like a traditional highboy is often composed of shapes that are relatively simple (like a 1:2 rectangle.)  After reflecting on this piece a bit further, I realized that there is a more elemental 1:2 rectangle that forms the basis for this piece.  It is the rectangle that encompasses the legs at the base of the highboy.

The remainder of the piece is essentially “un-folded” up from the base with a series of equally sized rectangles.  The first two make the base (or lowboy) portion; the next two make the top (which creates a “country style” highboy); the final “un-folding” up is in the form of a triangle (essentially half of the rectangle) that creates the bonnet (and a more refined highboy).  This seemingly complex piece receives its final overall shape in just 4 simple un-foldings of a 1:2 rectangle.

It should not come as a complete surprise that next level of detail (which consists mostly of the drawers) can be “un-folded” in a similar manner.  Because it is tedious to show the details step by step, I will show just one final sketch and make a few observations.

First, the shape of the legs is contained within a series of 4 squares (think of the leg as “growing” up from the floor in four equal increments).  Second, all of the drawers appear to “un-fold” from just one basic rectangle (the one that outlines the top drawer of the base section.)  The drawers below it “un-fold” from rectangles that are 1/4 the length of this basic rectangle.  Third, and amazingly, even the graduated drawers that make up the top section follow this basic rectangle (although their graduation, of course, precludes a precise match.)  It is also worth noting that the bonnet (which touches the edges of the upper triangle, but does not fill to the top) has its actual height set at three basic rectangles high.  I’ve not considered the curves beyond noting that the diameter of the upper circular openings and the radius of the lower shell carving appear to be very close to the height of the basic drawer rectangle.  They are in a 1:2 relationship with each other.  Furthermore, the curves on either side of the shell appear to have a radius more or less equal to half the height of the basic drawer rectangle.

Each “un-folding” step creates a new “center” that becomes an increasingly more interesting visual field as it is fully developed. The process is not very complex:

Step 1: The bottom rectangle with the legs creates a “center” that consists mostly of empty space.  The “empty” space is developed into a rich visual field by the curves in the legs.

Step 2: The rectangle above the legs creates another “center” that re-enforces and further develops the bottom rectangle. The drawers and especially the curves of the shell and adjacent areas reinforce and complete the curves in the legs making another visually rich field.  Note how each curve simply flows into the other curves.

Steps 3 and 4: The two rectangles above the base form another “center” and re-enforce the base by completing it and creating an upward movement.  The graduation of the drawers serves to further intensify the sense of upward movement.  The drawers create a simple, yet visually rich field.

Step 5: The top rectangle (now a triangle) becomes another “center” that reinforces the whole piece by crowning it.  The curves in the bonnet and base echo and re-inforce each other.  The entire piece comes alive as all of these “centers” and their visual fields interact with each other.

The remarkable unity of this piece arises from the fact that each center is created by  the consistent “un-folding” that flows from a single initial 1:2 rectangle.  It is as if the entire piece “grew” from just that initial rectangle.  Its structure is “organic” (although hardly in the “hippie” sense of organic which tends to avoid any semblance of structure.)  Instead, the organic structure that emerges almost effortlessly in the highboy is similar to the  structures that are deeply embedded in the natural (organic) world around us. The highboy, though man-made, is very closely related to the natural world that surrounds us.  It is not surprising that we feel “at home” in the presence of a piece like this.  As noted in my previous post, it is also deeply “human” in scale.

One final note: while a significant part of the beauty and depth of this highboy comes from the consistent un-folding process, some of its interest (especially in the details) comes from the fact that (like nature) it does not unfold with complete or mechanical precision.  The slight variations (like the graduated drawers) serve only to further intensify each center and ultimately they intensify the whole piece.

The concept of “centers” and how they “unfold” to create a “whole” comes in large part from architect Christopher Alexander’s four volume series titled “The Nature of Order.” Alexander explores these concepts in great depth that is simultaneously highly theoretical and immediately practical.  I highly recommend his work to anyone who is interested in exploring good design.

Alexander has observed 15 qualities that work together to create centers.  I hope to explore these 15 properties and their relationship to furniture design in a future post.

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Good Shapes, Good Proportions, Good Design.

Quoting from a prior post: “The challenge in making really good furniture is to first get the overall shape right.  Once that is done, the path toward getting the details right is sure to follow.  I think the basics of good shape are within the reach of most craftsman with just a little work.  Get the overall shape right; follow through with some equally well-shaped details; then put it all together using some time-proven joinery and construction techniques.  Could it become a masterpiece?”

I think the answer to this question is “Yes!”

Recently, I’ve spend some time looking at various pieces of furniture that are acknowledged to be “Masterpieces.”  One of the pieces I have looked at is a traditional Townsend-Goddard Queen Anne Highboy probably dating to about 1750.  I have never built a piece like this, but if I were to build one like it, I would want to sure that my own design would be very good because the investment of time and materials would be substantial.

As I have looked at this piece, I have observed some things like the fact that the height of the bottom drawers on both the base and top are the same, or that the curve in the cabriole legs is much closer in shape to the curve in the bonnet than a first glance might suggest.  The height of the bonnet is very close to the the combined height of the top two drawers.  It is probably not a coincidence that the combined height of the drawers in the base is also equal to the height of the bonnet, or that the height of the small center drawer in the base is equal to the height of the drawer above it. All these are just a small sampling of literally dozens of relationships that can be found –  some obvious, some much less so.

So how did the original builder arrive at all these sizes, shapes, and proportions? And  how might I arrive at them (or similar ones, assuming that I’m not interested in making a copy)?

I think the first step in getting a piece of furniture “right” is to make sure that the overall shape and proportions are right.  As I noted above, if these are not right, the details that follow probably won’t be right either.

Fortunately, I think the general process for arriving at the overall shape and proportions is not nearly as difficult as it might seem.  For the moment, I would like to focus on just the overall shape of this piece.  Think in terms of looking at it from a distance – say from across the room – far enough away that the finer details remain irrelevant because you can’t see them yet.

I have found it instructive to “reverse-design” this piece as a means of grasping how the original builder might have arrived at the overall shape, proportions, and major divisions.  Having “reverse-designed” this piece, here is the process by which I think the original builder might have sketched out the original design.

It is clear the the intent of the builder was to make something that was relatively tall (as opposed to long and low.)  Selection of this very general shape was perhaps based on the space into which the piece would be placed, or perhaps the overall shape was based on the intended use.

With this in mind, begin with a tall rectangle with a 1:2 ratio – what could be more simple for a tall, but not exaggerated, shape?

Now, divide the rectangle in half horizontally with a line (that will become the “shelf” in the final piece.)

Having divided the 1:2 rectangle into a top and bottom, now do the same to the bottom rectangle dividing it in half horizontally (just like the original 1:2 was divided in half horizontally) letting the bottom half become the space for the legs and the top half a space for some drawers.

At this point the bottom half is essentially a lowboy with generally pleasing proportions, but let’s continue on to create a highboy by filling in the top rectangle.

One could stop here (and the overall shape would be very close to that of many “country” highboys), but I suspect that the builder (or his client?) desired something a little more elegant.

To achieve this elegance in a tall piece it would make sense to add something not unlike a roof to cap it off.  So, with this in mind, add a triangle at the top, but not just any triangle.  To be consistent with the previous sub-divisions, make the height of the triangle equal to half of the section above the “shelf” (or ¼ of the original 1:2 rectangle.)  Think of it as almost being “unfolded” upward from the top half of the top section – as if it were just hinged along the top edge of the “country” highboy and “opened” upward like a door on a hinge.

The process from the 1:2 rectangle to the final overall shape has required at the most just 3 or 4 steps depending on how the top was formed!  To me, the simplicity of the process is remarkable (even if there was some “reverse-design” effort initially!)

At this point it is worth stopping to note that our builder is following a process that almost always involves the subdivision of an existing space in order to create the next space.

His process is pre-industrial in that the he is not using (or even thinking in terms of using) pre-made parts from which he will “assemble” the final piece. His process (and his thinking, I think) is almost biological – it is like the development of an embryo where one cell divides into two, two into four, etc. – each division creating a “space” that will eventually become fully developed in its own right as it becomes fully differentiated from the others. (Think of a cell dividing or “unfolding” in such as way as to eventually create legs, a body, and a head, just like our highboy has developed legs, a body, and a head.)  Everything, in a manner of speaking, has been “unfolded” from initial 1:2 rectangular shape.  Nothing has been added (except possibly the top triangle, but it is better to think about its having been “unfolded” from the top quarter of the original 1:2 rectangle rather than “added.”)

The end result is one of many possible masterpieces that could have arisen out of the basic 1:2 rectangle.  The various masterpieces would differ more in the details than in the overall shape.  (I’ll return to the thought of developing the details in another post – the details need as much attention as the overall shape if a true masterpiece is to emerge. )

As a final observation on the overall shape of this piece: I don’t think it is a coincidence that Leonardo da Vinci’s “idealized” Vitruvian man can be superimposed over this piece and that the major divisions of the idealized man match the overall divisions of the highboy very closely. Note especially how the head of the man and the head of the highboy resonate. Furthermore, it is no surprise that a classical order can be superimposed on the highboy with similar results.  The classical order, the idealized man, and the highboy all share the same shape and proportions – all of which are derived from the natural world around us.  All of which come from “The Old Way of Seeing.”

 

There is much more that could be said about the details, but I’ll note just one observation:  the measured height of this piece would not be precisely equal to the height of the shapes themselves because the details of the bonnet touch the edges of the triangle though no detail actually reaches the peak. The shapes are not “slavish” in nature nor in this piece; they only require that their background presence be acknowledged in a meaningful way.

Having arrived at the overall shape and major sub-divisions for this piece, I think the very same process exactly would have been applied to each major subdivision as each one was in turn fully developed. This “re-application” of the process to each major sub-division would result in the emergence of the details (like the graduated drawers) that would be seen from a closer perspective – perhaps from half-way across the room.  A further “re-application” would develop the finest details (like the carvings or finial) which would only be fully appreciated from a very close perspective.

There is much more to say (in a future post), but remember that the process which moves from a simple shape to the overall shape of finished piece and its major sub-divisions is not too difficult to grasp.  Start with a shape appropriate to the intended purpose of the piece, and step-by-step “unfold” the rest of the major divisions using only simple whole number proportions taking care not to be too exacting.  After all, nothing in nature is that exacting either!

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