How Furniture was Designed

What does a Boston tea pot by Paul Revere, a Kentucky flintlock rifle by Jacob Dickert, and a Charleston chest on chest by Thomas Elfe have in common? This may sound like a riddle from the oracle at Delphi but it’s not. What all have in common is they are the product of a unified system of design that was once universal in the 18th and early 19th century. This system of design encompassed all of the decorative arts.

With the beginning of the Renaissance there was a rebirth of learning. A new way of seeing. This included music, science, mathematics, and architecture. Architecture was the heart and soul of the design. The basics for this was Roman models of temples and public buildings. Classical architecture was to dominate for the next 350 years. Geometry and proportional relationships of the different elements formed the core of classical architecture. These architects sought to create harmonious designs that reflected the perfection of God’s creation. Palladio went so far as to assign harmonic values to rooms of houses he designed.

The first chapter of Serlio’s “The Five Books of Architecture” printed in 1584, is about geometry. He defines lines, triangles, squares, and rectangles. He set out different rectangles and describes how they are proportional formed from a square. The different proportional ratios shown are 1:3, 1:4, 2:3, 3:5, and 1:1 all different ways to form rectangles. The 3:5 ratio that we now think of as the golden mean didn’t have the mystic of being the perfect rectangle in the 18th century. One of the most commonly used rectangles in 18th and 19th century furniture is 1:1, or a square on a square.

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