De­sign Mat­ters

Sub­tle use of pat­terns and re­peat­ing mo­tifs please the eye.

Popular Woodworking - - Contents - BY GE­ORGE WALKER

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.

Picket Fence

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.

Stor­age Wars

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.

Sim­ple Rhythms

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.

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