As I consumed Jonathan Hale’s book “The Old Way of Seeing” about 11 years ago, I could feel the excitement and tension twisting in my gut. This was the book that finally was going to show me the secrets to designing well-proportioned furniture.
It was all there. All the famous formulas: The Golden Section (sometimes called the Golden Mean or the Golden Rectangle), the Hambridge Progression, the Fibonacci Series and even some discussion of the mysterious “column orders.”
Perhaps I should never have finished reading Hale’s book. Because somewhere in the second half, Hale makes a passionate argument that following these formulas will not make you a better designer. Instead, they likely will crowbar your work into unnatural forms that will appear forced or bogus.
Instead, we should design like the mechanics and builders of the 18th and early 19th century did (Hale contends that decent architecture ended about 1830). That is: We should be aware of these formulas, but not use them as tools. The formulas describe the patterns found in nature. So our designs will be better off if we draw and build things from nature and from our gut. Oh, and symmetry is overrated.
This week I’m in the shop building a pair of early 18th-century-style wall cupboards. The doors are based off a piece that came from historian Wallace Nutting’s furniture collection. The carcases and mouldings are based on pieces that I saw this fall at Winterthur. But the piece isn’t a copy. I’ve fiddled with it far too much. So whether the piece fails or not is really my fault.
As I was preparing to build the piece, I mocked up the elevation in Foamular insulating foam and made some significant changes, including beefing up the width of the face frame’s stiles to make room for the rattail hinges now lying on my bench.
They weren’t large alterations, but the piece sure looked different. I thought it might be a trick of the CAD drawing because the new mock-up looked great. But to be sure, I wanted to see if I’d made the horizontal dimension too expansive, even though I’d also increased the height to compensate.
So I checked the ratio of the old design vs. the new. And that’s when I got a little shock. The cupboard’s overall dimensions, 36-7/8” high x 23-1/8” wide, are a near perfect and spontaneous Golden Rectangle. It took 11 years, Mr. Hale, but I think I’m finally getting it.