Good Shapes, Proportions, and Design

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, and 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!