One of the hardest things I’ve tried to teach is good design. There are lots of architectural and mathematical rules that can be applied to proportions, but many pieces of furniture just don’t dovetail. Some pieces, like some chairs, don’t fit into a proportioning system. They are made using general rules – like seat height usually ranges from 16″ to 18″ on most chairs used at tables (and tables tend to run from about 27″ to 30″ in height depending on the intended use). That doesn’t mean these pieces lack good design; it just means some pieces are good while others are better.
The sack back Windsor chairs in the photos, for example, are a pretty good study in varying levels of design execution. One of the techniques I’ve always pushed as a way to learn more about design is to look at many examples of a single form at once. When you see groupings of pieces, in this case sack back Windsor chairs, you can easily see which pieces have the best overall proportions and which have combined elements that make the piece seem awkward or clumsy.
In the case of the three chairs pictured above, it’s easy to see the chair in the middle looks very tall while the one of the left appears short. The chair on the right has a better visual balance in spite of having clunky, underdeveloped legs. When looking at the backs, the chair on the right seems broad and open while the middle and left chairs are more compact; the elements fill the space better within the bow.
In these next three chairs, even though there is some regional variation between the two Pennsylvania chairs and the New England chair, you can still get a sense of how the makers used the various elements in relation to one another, and to fill the spaces created by them. The space defined by the back and arms is most successfully executed on the chair on the left; a little less so on the middle chair and even less so on the chair on the right.
Primarily I look at the negative spaces created by the elements. The chair on the right looks like you could almost fall through the back if you fell asleep while watching your favorite sporting event on television. Compare that to the chair on the left and you see how the negative spaces are smaller and more vertical. They help draw your eye up from the seat to the curve of the back. The long, narrow spaces just give the chair a sense of verticality without making it look all stretched out like the chair on the right.
When looking at the next two chairs you can see how they used the elements to create a sense of drama. The chair on the right looks more vertical while the one on the left has more visual tension. With the legs being more splayed, and the back having a greater rake, the chair just looks like it’s under compression; giving the chair a sense of drama (it almost looks like it’s in motion). The chair on the right just lacks any visual tension whatsoever.
Small details like the chamfering of the undersides of the seat lends to the drama. The chair on the right looks blunted and clunky while on the left it helps draw the eye upward and makes the seat appear to be floating on top of the legs. The way the spindles bend as they pass through the arm and up into the bow lend to the left chair’s sense of visual compression but the straight spindles of the right only emphasize the stiffness of the entire chair.
There’s obviously much more to comparative design than can be covered in a blog post, but hopefully this is enough to get you started. By showing you a small grouping of similar pieces, the hope is that you begin to look not only at the mathematical rules of design, but how the various elements combine to create designs that either fly or fall. The more time you spend looking at groupings of furniture, regardless of style, the more you begin to develop a discriminating eye. When you start looking at furniture in this manner, you take your first steps toward real connoisseurship; your own pieces will benefit.
If you’d like to learn how to make Windsor chairs, and put all that new-found design knowledge to use, check out Mike Dunbar’s classic (and newly updated) book on the form by clicking here.