“Unfolding” a Design

Previously I have 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.