The Shape of Things to Come or the Shape of Things Past?

In 1977 Triumph introduced their wedge-shaped TR7 car.  It was advertised as “The Shape of Things to Come.” The shape was considered very futuristic – though few cars on the road today have actually taken this shape.  At about the same time Eero Saarinen introduced his “Tulip” chair which was popularized by the TV show “StarTrek.”  Like the TR7, the Tulip chair was considered to be futuristic – though once again, few chairs in use today actually have this shape.  (TR7 photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Tulip Chair courtesy of Knoll on Wikipedia.)

The car and the chairs are interesting in their own right, but more often than not it seems that “the shape of things to come” doesn’t satisfy us nearly as much as “the shape of things past.”  It seems that craftsman of the past had an almost innate ability to create items with shapes that have endured for hundreds if not thousands of years.

In his book “The Power of Limits” author Gyorgy Doczi explores the concepts of shapes that are found in nature.  Many of these same shapes appear in man-made items that have endured the test of time.

My wife and I have collected numerous antique jugs, crocks, and bean pots over many years although we are hardly serious collectors.  For the most part, it is the shape and color that merit the purchase of one of these items.  Doczi’s book recently prompted me to spend some time with a few antique jugs as a means of sharpening my ability to visualize good shapes (and to create pieces of furniture that have good shape.)

One of my favorite jugs has a salt-glazed base and slip-glazed top which (as a best guess) probably dates from the early 19th century.  Careful measurements indicate that the overall shape fits inside a nearly perfect Golden Rectangle (which has sides with a 1:1.618 ratio.)  The top portion of the jug is also a nearly perfect Golden Rectangle.  In fact, both of these rectangles are within 0.02 units of being perfect Golden Rectangles.  This is amazing because I think  that the potter arrived at this shape using just his hands and eyes to guide him.  I think it is highly unlikely that he used a ruler.  He certainly did not use a calculator to arrive at these very precise ratios!

Another slightly larger jug is (I think) somewhat later, perhaps late 19th century in origin.  It, too, has a pleasing shape.  But this jug, unlike the jug above,  appears to have no Golden Rectangles at all.  (Alas, the secret of good shape isn’t to be found only in Golden Rectangles!)

The base of this jug is a nearly perfect square, and furthermore, if the top of the jug is bisected by a vertical line, the shape on either side of this line is also a nearly perfect square. And the area of each of these squares is almost exactly 1/4 of the area of the square that creates the base.)  Pleasing proportions based on a different approach.

In sharp contrast to these two jugs is jug number three.  This jug is later in origin and can be dated to between 1900 and 1940 based on the markings on the base.  Unlike the first two jugs (which I’m certain were entirely hand-made) it was manufactured by the R.C.P. Company of Akron, Ohio for the storage of whiskey.

The overall shape is not a Golden Rectangle nor is it even a 1:2 rectangle. The lighter colored base is only very roughly a square.  The same observation applies to the darker colored top.  In addition,  these two roughly square shapes appear to have no relationship to each other.

While this jug is not without some merit, it does not have an interesting and pleasing shape like the other two jugs.  (This jug was inherited and has some value for that reason, but it is not a jug that I would normally purchase.)  I have asked several people to “rate” these three jugs based on their “gut feelings” about only the shapes.  This jug always finishes last.

Like a good antique jug, a good piece of furniture (whether antique or new) has to have the right overall shape if it is to be pleasing and satisfying.  In the past few months I have tried to sharpen my own abilities to discern and create items with good shape.  I think it is critically important to get the overall shape right because I think it is highly unlikely that the later details of the design will be able to compensate for a poor overall shape.

An important resource in getting the overall shape of furniture right can be found in a 1993 book titled “The New Fine Points of Furniture – Early American” by Albert Sack.  This book (a followup to his earlier 1950 book on antique furniture) is a treasure trove of photographs of early American furniture.  Sack (himself an antiques dealer) uses his decades of experience in rating each piece as “Good”, “Better”, “Best”, “Superior” or “Masterpiece.”  Because of potential copyright issues, I’m reluctant to include any of his photos here, but if you have the opportunity, spend some time looking at the overall shapes of the masterpieces.  They overall shapes are well worth studying (as are the finer details.)

Like the better jugs, I think that many of these masterpieces were created not with rulers or by precise calculations of ratios, but rather they were created from the craftsman’s knowledge of good basic shapes and how to combine them in meaningful ways.

Good design seems to be both difficult and easy at the same time.  Difficult because there are few masterpieces (which suggests that they come only from the few and through much  experience and hard work), but perhaps – just perhaps –  good design is easier than we think because the actual principles behind the masterpieces are relatively few and relatively accessible if only we can come to understand them and actually use them.

Is is possible that by combining Golden Rectangles (1:1.618 ratios), squares (1:1) and other rectangles with small whole number ratios (1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 3:5, 4:5) or Pythagorean rectangles (created with two 3:4:5 triangles) one can arrive at the kinds of overall shapes that characterize the masterpieces, and at the same time avoid the intermediate shapes (like that of the whiskey jug) that don’t quite make it? Remember that these shapes can be combined horizontally and vertically, side-to-side, end-to-end, etc.  The possibilities seem endless, but in the end I think just a few rules might apply (though I’m not yet ready to venture exactly what they are!)  I show just one possibility below: a simple square flanked by two Golden Rectangles.

This shape could easily be that of a desk (kneehole in the center), or perhaps a sideboard, or perhaps even a dining table with four legs (or maybe just a single pedestal contained within the inner square?)  I think that this shape, rather than the many possible intermediate shapes, is mostly likely to be the correct overall shape for these items. (But not to the exclusion of many other possibilities like one long Golden Rectangle, or perhaps a 1:2 rectangle.  The overall setting, or some required dimension like standard table height might be the determining factor in choosing between the shapes.)

One final thought on design –  I frequently visit a local folk art store (think “Country” or “Primitive” decorations here), usually to purchase Olde Century Paints which I like.  But whenever I’m in this store I often take the time to look at some of the items of  “furniture.”  I put furniture in quotes because many of these decorative pieces don’t deserve the label of furniture (being made of particleboard, or having cheap plywood drawers, etc.)  However, one thing about them consistently impresses me:  the designers of these traditional items almost always get the overall shape right.  There is something in the “folk” tradition (like with the earlier antique jugs?) that guides the designers.  I think these pieces are popular not because of the quality of the work, but because people recognize that the shapes, at least, are right.  These items bring a certain desirable look and feel to many rooms.

In sharp contrast to these pieces of “furniture” are the offerings found in larger national brand furniture stores.  My observation is that while these pieces certainly have higher quality workmanship, they rarely get the overall shape right.  (A little too tall, or a little too squat, or a little top heavy,  or a little awkward here or there…)  All too often I suspect that the designers have opted for some “average” shape intended to satisfy all, but that in reality satisfies almost no one in the long run.

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.