by George R. Walker
The first sign of spring in northern Ohio appears while the wintery landscape is still cased in snow. Ice-covered lakes give way to patches of open water and along with it the arrival of migrating trumpeter swans. My wife, Barbie, and I celebrate the first glimpse of their majestic wings flashing white against the blue sky. Swans have been an inspiration for millennia and designers have taken cues from the swan’s graceful form and interpreted it into countless objects from jewelry to furniture to architecture.
No doubt a biologist could expound on how the swan’s neck is a perfect match for its wetland environment, yet this functional masterpiece takes a back seat to its sheer elegance of line. Designers in the 18th century played with a curved form to crown a doorway or cabinet that today is known as a swan’s-neck pediment (also known as a broken-arch pediment). Regardless of your preference in furniture styles, this iconic composition holds a few valuable lessons about how to visualize and create a natural flowing curve. Just beneath the surface are some clues that can help your eye unpack a curved line.
Lessons from Design Tradition
This swan’s-neck form shows up in countless variations – from a compact vertical crown atop a skinny tall case clock, to a broad horizontal form capping a library bookcase. It’s also noted that some of the compositions are better than others. Some have a clunky mechanical look and lack a seamless flow between convex and concave curves (think 20th-century mass-produced “Early American” furniture), while others seem to sing from across the room with a sense of life and vitality.
While researching historical pattern books, I stumbled upon a drawing showing how to lay out the curves with just a straight edge and compass (page 18, top). I breezed past this drawing many times because the garish carvings drew my attention away from the simple layout behind the curves. This is one of the many layouts in historical design guides with no explanation in the text. The author assumed any artisan already knew it, or would grasp it with just the few clues hidden in the drawing.
Blog: Read more from George R. Walker on his Design Matters blog.
In Our Store: “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design” and “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings,” George R. Walker’s DVDs.
From April 2014 issue, #210