Honing in on Proportions

Small changes can make a big design difference – and help train your eye.

By George R. Walker
Pages 18-19

How do you dial in the proportions on a furniture design? I used to pose that question a lot. Perhaps what makes this puzzling is the fact that small differences can have a dramatic effect. The line between the merely good and the dazzling is often blurry. Face it: Most of us aren’t setting out to create a masterpiece; we’d just like to be able to make solid, confident design decisions and create furniture we’re proud of.

For many years, whenever I’d spot an eye-catching bookcase or chair design, I’d question the maker about how he or she found that sweet spot. But even experienced builders often have difficulty answering that question. I often heard, “trust your gut.” That’s code for, “Build a lot of furniture and eventually your eye for proportions becomes second nature.”

No doubt – there’s no substitute for experience. But for many of us it sounds like a long journey. Even if you accept a long journey as part of the equation, a road map would be nice. I don’t want to set out on a journey to Savannah, Ga., and end up in Newark, N.J. (no offense to the Garden State). The good news is that our woodworking tradition offers some helpful insight to help us cut through the fog. With a little practice you can begin to trust your gut and not have to wait until you’ve designed and built a lifetime’s worth of furniture.

Tapping Into Your Sixth Sense
Regardless of any self-doubt you may harbor, you already have a strong sense of proportion. Leonardo da Vinci illustrated this vividly with a series of drawings called grotesques. He took a normal human face and exaggerated just one or two proportions out of kilter. Our natural reaction to those images is a testimony to our inherent sensitivity to proportions. The key, then, is learning how to tap into this proportional sixth sense, and learn to consciously unpack a design to begin to see proportional relationships.

But before we tackle the subject of dialing in proportions on a furniture design, it’s important to acknowledge that our individual sense of proportions is subjective. There are broad principles of design that most of us find compelling, but individuals have a range they find pleasing. It’s similar to our preferences in music. We may enjoy different types of music – jazz, rock, bluegrass or classical – but underneath all it’s held together with just a few simple notes. Just like we have an ear for musical notes, we can develop an eye for proportions.

Who’s Related to Whom?
Design is largely about connections, and as a builder it’s most important to learn how to find a way to connect with your inner eye. As you work through a design or a build, you may sense something is off. It may be a just a sense that the design is too heavy, or clunky.

 

Blog: Read more from George R. Walker on his Design Matters blog.
In Our Store: George R. Walker’s DVDs, “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design,” and “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings.”

From the October 2012 issue #199
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