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For centuries, philosophers and mathematicians have tried to explain physical proportion through elaborate and sophisticated mathematical models. Alberti, Francesco di Giorgio and Michelangelo took turns interpreting the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius in explaining classical proportion to their Renaissance audience. They built elaborate paradigms of the Golden Mean and determined that the vocabulary of ancient architecture is predicated on the human form. Like them, Thomas Jefferson also searched for the key to understanding proportion. He concluded that universal laws govern the appropriate division of space.
This raises the question of whether beauty, like proportion, is guided by universal laws that cross culture and time. Plato wrote of "chairness," an archetype of perfection created by the gods. It is man's job on earth to uncover the intended essence of the chair.
I believe there is a good deal of truth to this. There is a transcendent beauty in nature, resulting from repetition of a pattern, the division of space, the balance between earth and sky, and, like music, it exists across cultures. In music these patterns have to do with dividing time (notes, rests, beats, duration), while in furniture the patterns are spatial (distance, placement of mass, repetition, cubic division).
Here are some of the general axioms in furniture design. Strength comes from a broad stance, i.e., more material at the base than at the top. Lightness comes from more material at the top than at the base. Height is achieved through vertical lines, while expanse results from horizontal line. Hierarchy is achieved by graduating drawer heights in equal intervals. It is also present in panel construction where vertical stiles and horizontal rails alternate, with vertical dominating.
Just as with music, a sense of proportion is an innate gift. And, interestingly, as with knowing good music when you hear it, those who don't have this gift in a creative sense, have it in a passive sense. They know good proportion when they see it. And so it has been for centuries, across cultures—in nature, art, human form and, of course, furniture design.
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