Thursday, 4 December 2008

Designing a Box - Part 1...

Given that the weather here is a constant -2˚C (around 28˚F) and we haven't seen the sun in weeks, it is not conducive to working in my shop, which, in case you were unaware, is currently located on the balcony of my apartment. Thankfully, we are moving into a new residence and I will be able to return to sawing, chiseling, and in general, whacking away on wood by the end of next month.

As I currently cannot spend time being intimate with a hand tool, I had to figure out something to keep my brain functioning and keep myself moving forward in my quest to master the art of putting two pieces of wood together so they stay that way. I could; of course, while away my hours cruising the web looking for more technical information, but the creative juices are humming so I must find a “fix”.

Before I get carried away in this writing and forget, did you see the latest video WoodTrek.com has posted? I don’t know anyone who isn’t fascinated by carving, whether actually doing it, or just looking at it. Keith’s latest video documentary has Brad Ramsay, of Irion Company, showing us more of his magic with a gouge, this time explaining how to hold it, motivate it and direct it. Definitely an informative filled 4 1/2 minutes.

All right, back to what I plan on doing with my next month.

Creating furniture, whether on a small scale like me, or pumping out whacking big armoires, all require an understanding of design. I have spent a lifetime in design, in one form or another; either in photography, graphic design, architecture and interior design, and have spent a lifetime studying the basis to ensure those designs have been commercially successful. The one thing I have never done, though, is put any formal thought into the in’s and out’s of designing furniture. This abundance of arrogance or lack of understanding has been proven time and again as I have never been completely happy with any particular piece of furniture design I have come up with. While I have never been completely happy with any piece of design I have done, I have noticed that I’m even less enthralled with my furniture pieces. Thinking about it, I feel this is because I have never taken the time to properly understand the design principles that furniture design is based on. I am not alone and I am sure this phenomenon of never being happy exists in all endeavors. I really don’t know any designer who is ever happy with what he or she has produced. This, I think, is a good thing. When you complete a design of something or other and you can find no fault in it, nor find a way to improve it - sell your pencils, your done. That second guessing of yourself and that pushing for something better is what keeps a designer motivated and striving for something a bit more “perfect”.

So here is what I have come up with as a way to challenge myself over the next month and improve my furniture design skills at the same time - I’m going to design a box. That’s it. A box. You can call it a Tea Caddy, or a Jewellery Box or even a Keepsake Box, but the bottom line is that it is just a box. I plan on using this simple object as a test to see where formal knowledge about design will take you. As I complete one element of design theory I’m going to take what I learned and apply it to this simple six-sided object to see if the theory works or not. Where will it take me, I have no idea, but I expect to have a hell of a time with it and enjoy the journey. So let’s get started.

The first “rule” is one that anyone who has even glanced at a woodworking article about design will recognize - “The Golden Ratio Rule”. Now there is a whole mathematical equation behind this basic rule and even a special name for it - “Phi”. Now I have never been one to get lost in the technical side of things, and given I have a difficult time balancing my chequebook, this is definitely not the one I’m not going to start getting technical with, so let me simplify it for you.

The Golden Ratio Rule, simplified, means; to give something a pleasing balance to the eye, its height should be 60% of its total width, or visa versa. (For those that appreciate the exact, this is a “rounded off’ value. If you must, the full value is 1.6180339887498948482)

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So lets see if it works in practice.

Below are eight shapes, all based on one dimension – 10”  (I told you I wasn’t good at math). Two employ the Golden Ratio Rule. Click on it to enlarge it and remove the distractions and see if you spot which ones employ this rule.


When you read my answers, the first calculation is always the width and the second, the height.

  1. 100% x 100%, or 10” x 10”
  2. 100% x 75%, or 10” x 7.5”
  3. 100% x 60%, or 10” x 6” (The Golden Ratio)
  4. 100% x 35%, or 10” x 3.5”
  5. 35% x 100%, or 3.5” x 10”
  6. 60% x 100%, or 6” x 10” (The Golden Ratio)
  7. 75% x 100%, or 7.5” x 10”
  8. 100% x 100%, or 10” x 10”

Analyzing each shape, here are my observations.

Numbers 1 and 8 definitely do not work for me and I will admit that my opinion is tainted in this case from experience gleaned from other design applications. Squares, while used often in modern design, have no sense of line or balance on their own. They are just, well - there. To work, a square must rely on its surroundings to give the shape proportion. As this is a box all on its own, my opinion is that a square one just won’t work.

Number 2 is one I could live with, although it appears to me to be a bit bulky. If these dimensions were to work, there would have to be some accoutrements added to force it to appear, for lack of a better word, sleeker. Staring at it, I did have to acknowledge that its height is out of proportion with its width, yet it does project a certain power, which is what I like about it.

Number 3 does work, so the rule does have teeth. The balance between its height and width is right on the money. The one thing that struck me about it, however, is that it did not evoke any feeling in me. There was no jumping up and down, screaming, “That’s the one, that’s the one!” The dimensions do not offend the eye, but they didn’t tantalize it either.

Number 4 appears too squat for me, like there is something missing. Its squat appearance, to me, is less than gratifying. It just does not draw my eye to it, and when my eye does pass over it, it keeps on going, as the shape holds no interest.

Number 5, with the same dimensions as number 4, but standing on end, looks like it will fall over in the slightest wind. At these dimension ratios, there is no stability horizontally. This shape, for me, defines the reason why I have never seen a pretty telephone pole – too skinny – too tall. You could modify this shape to improve it, like give it a prominent and wider base, and that is something to be considered.

Number 6, another sized to the Golden Ratio, but this time vertically, works, but to me, it is a toss-up between it and number 7. Number 6 is well proportioned, but it does seem to me to be slightly narrow, and therefore, a tinge unstable. It is not near as unstable as number 5, but not as stable as number 7. Again a wider base would be a huge asset to it.

Number 7, the same dimensions as number 2, works for me vertically, but has only borderline acceptance horizontally. While it is wider than the one that employs the Golden Ratio, to me it has more “presence”, more “power”. Proof of this is in the viewing. When your eye wanders from one to another within the vertical samples, it keeps coming back to this one and is held there longer than with the others. Unlike numbers 5 and 6, it does not need anything added to it to give it stability; its dimensions give that all on their own.

Another thing I noticed while viewing these shapes is that many can be categorized as “masculine” or “feminine”, especially the vertical ones. Numbers 1, 2 and 8 are seriously masculine. There is power in their dimensions, and they do not require any further additions to project that feeling of power. Number 4, with its low dimension ratio, appears to me to be very feminine. It projects a “softer” connotation than the others. You could also add number 5 to the feminine category, but really, it is just too damned skinny to be anything but a bad choice. What I find a bit fascinating, though, is that the Golden Ratio ones, numbers 3 and 6, are neither masculine nor feminine in stature. Could this be one of the reasons the Golden Ratio has been a rule of thumb these last two thousand years?

So there it is. The first “test’ of a rule. With these simple forms, all based on one similar dimension, I have convinced myself that the Golden Ratio Rule should always be considered. As with any “rule”, however, you have to know it to know when to break it. From this simple test of it, I have learned a couple of things about it.

  1. While there is strong evidence this ratio works in the vertical, it does not seem to me to stand-alone when it is rotated horizontally.

  1. A shape conforming to the Golden Ratio is gender neutral. While some may think this observation is a bit of a stretch, the reality is, there is gender in shapes, and proportions go a long way in defining them. Applying this observation to my simple box is going to cause a quandary because the essence of this exercise is to produce just a simple box that is pleasing to the eye yet has no defined purpose. If this box were to be a man’s Jewellery box, a higher ratio might not be a bad idea. If it were to be a woman’s, however, a lesser ratio might be in the cards. This means that, to properly determine the ratio, the final usage of the item and the gender to which this item is meant for, must be determined first.

The final conclusion that I came to is that the Golden Ratio must be considered in the design as it does have a great deal of merit. I just won’t be chiseling it in stone anywhere soon.

Peace,

Mitchell