Centers Create the Whole

In “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.