This weekend I was doing a bit more straightening in the workshop and I came across a box of older Fine Woodworking magazines that I had temporarily stored there and were in need of a better home. While sorting through the issues so that I could file them, I came across Issue #168 from February 2004 (…yeah, I guess they’ve been there for a while). In that issue there was an article by Graham Blackburn titled: A Guide to Good Design. I recalled reading this article in the past and thought that the information that it contained was very relevant to our discussions on design here at the web site.
Have you ever looked at the design of something – art, architecture, furniture, landscape etc. and thought to yourself that it just looks out of balance or awkward? Alternatively, when you see something that immediately strikes you as having a visually pleasing design, do you know why you like what you see? Whether it be in architecture or furniture design, even in nature and the human body, certain proportions are visually pleasing and balanced while others are not.
A common paradigm used in design is the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio (usually represented by the Greek letter ø – pronounced Phi). This ratio is roughly represented by ø = 1.618, and you can visualize a proportion based on Phi as a straight line divided into two segments: if one segment is length L, the other segment is L x ø in length. There is a corresponding application of the Golden Ratio in two dimensions called the Golden Rectangle and third application is the called the Golden Solid where Phi is applied to three dimensions.
Designing things based on this proportion tends to yield well balanced and visually pleasing creations. This is evidenced in everything from the Pyramids and ancient Greek architecture to the human body and the solar system. For example: on a human finger if the the distance between the tip to the first knuckle is L, then the distance from the first knuckle to the last knuckle is L x ø.
So, how do we as furniture designers make use of the Golden Ratio? The answer lies (as you might expect) in the proper use of proportions. This could be the proportion of the height of a table to its length or the proportions of a an individual element of a design such as the dimensions of a drawer. Of course, applications of this paradigm do not have to be exact, but prudent use will typically result in well-balanced and pleasing designs.
A follow on to the Golden Ratio is something called the Fibonacci Series. This is a sequence of numbers where each number in the series is the sum of the previous two (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, etc.) In this series, it’s interesting that any number divided by the previous one is roughly equal to Phi. Looking at this in practical terms, it becomes easy to see why certain dimensions are commonly used, such as 3 x 5 and 5 x 8 – they are based on Phi. This series is useful in many ways however, one very practical application might be to use it when designing how the dimensions of a set of design elements in a piece relate to one another – possibly like the individual heights of a set drawers in a case.
In spite of all of this, when we design a piece of furniture there will always be certain constraints to deal with – for example maybe we are designing a cabinet to fit within a specific space. Of course, we want form to follow function, but that does not mean that these design paradigms cannot be used. It just means that we may want to investigate using the constrained dimension to drive what the others are, based on the Golden Ratio.
Using this technique to define the dimensions of a piece of furniture may or may not be entirely appropriate in every given context. In the end, you will always want to make adjustments based on the utility and aesthetics of the piece. In fact, it would be a bad idea to constrain ones sense of design in order to conform to this technique. Symmetry is good, but asymmetry can also be very pleasing in a design – in fact an antisymmetric design could easily make use of the Golden Ratio in some areas. I usually think of these golden proportions as guidelines to help with the basis of a design and then I evolve from there. Just like any tool, you want to use this technique when it make sense while hopefully not stifling creativity in the design process.
In an upcoming post I plan to walk through and evaluate a recent design of my own. One of the things (among many) to be examined will be it’s proportions and whether they fit the Golden Ratio. In the process, I hope to solicit feedback on what you do and don’t like about the design. I think it will be an interesting exchange.
As always, please contact me at email@example.com with questions and also please leave comments here using the comments link at the end of the posts.