Design Matters: Design by Proportion

Simple adjustments in ratios can produce pleasing and functional results.

By George R. Walker
Pages 60-62

My wife, Barb, set a bag of groceries on the kitchen counter and said, “I saw a great work table – will you build me one?”

On the surface it sounded like a simple request, but I’ve been down this road before. She spied a trestle table in a furniture store that sparked her interest and got her thinking about what she really wanted.  This was confirmed when we visited the store showroom.

After a few moments of looking it over she said, “This is exactly what you can make for me, except the top is too wide, I don’t like this breadboard end on the top, the feet need a little spice (maybe a flowing curve?) and the cross-brace thingy – can you move that down a bit so I can rest my foot on it while I’m sketching? But other than that it’s perfect!”

What I took away from that conversation was a sense for the scale and proportions she wanted. Smaller details, such as the profile on the trestle foot, would be easy if I could nail the overall feel she was after.

Deceptively Simple
It’s hard to imagine a furniture design that’s simpler than a trestle table. Yet that simplicity comes with a challenge. With everything in plain sight, a single miscue can throw the design off. Trestle tables span a wide range of tastes from robust, sort of timber-frame like, to light and delicate. Because this form is so basic it’s a good example to use while sharing some practical insights on proportioning. I actually built this without using a tape measure and opted to rely on simple proportions to guide the design.

We started by establishing the overall width and length of the top. I asked Barb to spread her hands apart and show me how deep she’d like the tabletop and then I mocked up few configurations in cardboard for her to look at. All were rectangles defined by simple whole-number ratios stepped off with dividers. I made up several different samples, all the same width but with different lengths, 3:5, 4:7 and 1:2 (see “Visual Notes” on page 62 for more information). She quickly chose the 4:7 as the footprint for her tabletop.

Proportioning the Trestle
I’ve included here a few trestle table drawings to work out the proportions of the feet and the brace at the top of the upright that supports the top. Barb wanted a narrow tabletop and it worked out to be the same width as the overall height of the table. That meant the end view of the table is essentially a square.

 

Blog: Read more from George about design 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 June 2012 issue #197.
Buy the issue now.