Design in Practice: Negative Spaces
Continuing last week’s post (read it here) on comparative design, I thought it might be fun to move to Chippendale style chairs. The great thing about American Chippendale chairs is there’s tremendous variety, yet few are direct translations of Chippendale’s designs.
The chair to the left is a perfect example. Chippendale’s “The Gentleman’s and Cabinetmaker’s Director” features no ball and claw feet in the book, but they remained popular in the colonies through the Revolution.
For this post, I’ve chosen chairs that have several elements in common: trapezoidal seats; eared crest rails (except one); and cabriole legs. And, yes, they all meet the criterion to be Chippendale in style. Just the fact that they have trapezoidal seats is enough to qualify. While the chairs might be from different regions, and have different feet and other details, they can all be compared using some of the ideas from the post on sack-back Windsors.
Negative spaces are very important to a successful design. This is particularly significant when looking at cabriole legs and back assemblies. When comparing cabriole legs, for example, I like to look at more than just the shape of the knee, calf and ankle. If the leg flows correctly, the negative space on the inside and outside of the leg will have graceful, flowing lines. Try focusing on the white space that surrounds the legs in the photos and you’ll see some of the legs take on a whole new appearance – some better and others worse.
Personally, I think the shapes created in the negative space are a major reason for the existence of knee blocks. Whether a peaked cyma curve or voluted, they add interest to every aspect of a cabriole leg. They punctuate the interior of the leg and give the knee more definition; they provide balance for the foot while calling attention to slender ankles.
Chair backs are where negative spaces run rampant. On chairs with pierced splats the spaces can often be overwhelming, but solid splatted chairs can sometimes appear dull and stunted. When you see a chair where the negative space between the leg and splat just flows, however, often reduces the pierced or solid splat to little more than a border.
These negative spaces help define the chair. Often they make the difference between a chair that borders on appearing too wide and one that is plainly elegant. They can take a chair with a back that’s just too tall and give it needed breadth, or one that’s too wide some height.
Look through the chairs in this post and comment on what you see. It’s fine to compare one chair to another (in fact, I’ll be disappointed if you don’t). Which chairs appear the most, and least, in proportion? Which have combined various elements to achieve a taller or more balanced appearance? Which have legs that are too thick, too thin or are just right?
Like most woodworkers, I like to think I’m pretty optimistic. When it comes to furniture design, however, sometimes being negative is a good thing.
For more on cabriole legs, check out this digital download from Glen D. Huey.