Subtle use of patterns and repeating motifs please the eye.
Patterns and repeating motifs please the eye.
I was waiting on a phone call so I didn’t think twice when my phone rang. Two words in and I hung up the call. Why do telemarketers manage to get through when I least want to talk to them (which is never). Perhaps a bigger question is how do I know in two seconds it’s an artificial voice, some pre-recorded zombie trying to lure me down a rat hole? Granted, technology has come a long way. The early versions of electronic speech sounded like a drunk talking through the whirling blades of an electric fan. Now days, artificial speech is only slightly annoying, like a child trying to recite memorized lines. But my point is that our ears are finely tuned to pick up small nuances in human speech.
Perhaps it’s an important defense mechanism we developed to quickly determine friend or foe. When we hear that artificial voice we know in just a word or two that it lacks the rhythm and emphasis of a live person. It comes across as mechanical and dead. That’s an important concept that we can apply to design. I’m convinced that those things that grate on us, like an artificial voice, may hold deeper clues about how we respond to the world around us. Let’s take a look at how rhythm and emphasis can make a design come alive.
Our senses, especially our hearing and sight are highly adept at picking up patterns. Individuals may vary but taken as a whole; we have similar responses to certain types of patterns. In general, when presented with a monotonous or single note pattern, we respond with apathy or distain. A picket fence is a good example of a pattern.
To many folks, a picket fence is a negative thing because it represents a life with everything charted out and no room for surprises or spontaneity. That may be true but the horizontal pattern played out by the pickets and the spaces between them creates a rhythm. Note that even the monotony of a picket fence is greatly improved by making the empty spaces noticeably narrower than the width of the pickets. Look at the play of rhythm on this stone dentil molding. The empty spaces separating the lower dentil molding
are half the width of the adjoining teeth while above it on the larger brackets, the empty spaces are twice as wide as the brackets. The designer flipped the patterns and changed the scale creating layers of rhythm to provide visual interest. This tells us something important.
A pattern with a single note is visually dead. In proportional terms it’s a pattern of 1:1:1:1 etc. It changes dramatically simply by setting up a pattern that goes 1:2:1:2:1:2 or 2:5:2:5:2:5 etc. Look at examples decorative carvings like the egg and dart. Although it’s a pattern that repeats, it flows visually because it has a bit of rhythm. It alternates between the egg and dart with a major minor, major minor pattern. This applies to small parts like carvings and inlays but also to larger components in case furniture.
If the goal is efficiency, a row of identical boxes is the best way to get the most out of a space. We see this in office cubicles, hotel rooms, and apartment buildings. The problem is that those layouts tend to grate on us. We chafe at being warehoused.
On a similar level, case furniture can benefit by breaking up the monotony of a grid like layout. Often cases are broken into three spaces across the width with the center portion narrower or wider than the two flanking outer spaces. This does two things. First it sets up symmetry with a mirror image on either side which tends to lead the eye to the center. It also creates a bit of rhythm between the flanking spaces and the center.
You don’t need to be musically inclined to work these proportional rhythms into your designs. All these patterns, whether on a small running carving or the spacing on a large cabinet make use of simple proportions. Forget your ruler and instead use dividers to step off whole number simple proportions. It’s not complicated at all. In the case of a layout for a three bay case carcase, the layout might be 2:3:2 with the center case wider than the two flanking cases.
To work out the size of the actual spacing of the parts, first add up the simple proportions. In the case of a layout of 2 : 3 : 2, simply add those numbers together 2+3+2=7. Then use your dividers to step off the entire width of the case into seven equal parts using trial and error. (figure five) Once you’ve stepped it off into seven equal parts, that’s your module to lay out the breaks between cases. Starting on one end, step over twice for the first opening, the next three steps mark the center portion, you should be left with two spaces for the third opening–2:3:2.
Look For It
Once you realize how these rhythms add to the visual interest in furniture designs and architecture, take note of examples you see in the wild. What simple combinations seem pleasing or which could be made more alive by breaking up the spaces? This will help inform you as you learn to apply this to your own designs.
George Walker is the co-author of two design books and writer of the By Hand & Eye blog with Jim Tolpin. Read more at byhandandeye.com.
This Gustav Stickley credenza (in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago) creates a simple rhythm by varying the width of the cabinets.
1 The picket fence at the top has equal spaces and pickets or a pattern of 1:1:1:1. The one below it breaks it up, which does your eye prefer?
2 Architectural moldings are good places to look for rhythms in the wild.
3 Although the spacings repeat, there are several proportional patterns woven into this egg and dart design.
4 Same case with different patterns across their width, which do you prefer?
5 Look ma, no ruler! Just step off simple rhythms with your dividers.