The Principles of Design

There are three fundamental rules in designing furniture:  Rhythm, Balance and Harmony, according to Fred D. Crawshaw who has based his theory on E. A. Batchelder’s book “The principles of design.

Here is an excerpt from a book I’m reading dated 1912 for teachers of woodworking, I feel that many of you may find this beneficial in understanding the fundamental laws of furniture design which you may consider when drawing up your own furniture designs.  Even if you don’t design one yourselves you will at the very least have a better understanding of furniture design concepts and be able to differentiate between a good design and a bad one.

Steps to take in designing a piece of furniture

  1. In response to a need for a piece of furniture consider carefully it’s detailed use.


  1. Determine the material to be used in construction. In general, close grained and fine textured woods are most suitable for furniture which has a limited use such as parlour and bedroom pieces.  The courser grained woods have their principle use in living and dining room furniture.  Again, the close grained and hardwoods are best suited to pieces of furniture having many curved lines formed either by modelling or turning.  The courser grained woods should be used principally in furniture of severe design.


  1. Determine, if possible, the place a piece of furniture will occupy in a room. This will fix some of the definite dimensions and will enable one to make a wise selection of the kind of lines to be used that the piece may be harmoniously associated with its companion pieces.


  1. “Block in” the design so as to make the piece of furniture harmonise with the general “makeup” of the room. Secure the harmony by having a re-echo of the line.


  1. Consider now the indefinite or detailed dimensions to make all parts of the piece members of one family. This will result in unity.  All details such as the modelling of top and bottom rails, the use of curves in stiles and legs, the modelling of feet and top of legs or posts, and the making of metal fittings, etc., will affect this element – an all important one – in the design.


  1. Make good constructions and proportion serve as an important factor in the decoration of the piece.


  1. Before considering the design complete, give careful attention to the three fundamental elements of design: viz.: rhythm, balance and harmony. If the several parts are so arranged and formed that there is movement as the eye passes from one part to another in the design, then rhythm has been secured.  If, by having the whole arranged symmetrically with respect to an axis or by a judicious arrangement of parts, the whole seems to stand or hang truly, there is balance.  If the design as a whole does not “jar” upon one; if all parts seem to belong together, then there is harmony.  The design is a unit.


Correlation in Design


It is believed that no better line of work can be introduced in conjunction with woodwork than that commonly called “Decorative Metal.”  Many woodwork constructions are enriched by the addition of some escutcheon – a strap, a hinge, a pull or a corner plate.  The making of these metal fittings may be considered a legitimate part of a course of study in woodwork, especially one in which emphasis is laid upon the design and construction of furniture.  It is believed there is no line of work which offers a greater opportunity for the teachings of the principles of design and for their application than this.  There is, too, not only an opportunity but a demand for close and natural correlation between furniture making and its associate, decorative metalwork.


General lines and Proportions


The general character of the lines will be largely dependent upon the lines in the pieces of furniture with which the one you are designing is to be associated; there should be a general harmony of line, a re-echo of line, in the room as well as in the single piece of furniture.  The general proportions will be determined by the space your piece of furniture is to fill and its use.  In case it has no particular place in the home or there is not a decided need for it, a design is not called for.  It is believed that much of the furniture of either poor or mediocre design is the result of a misdirected effort due to a misconceived or purely mercenary demand.




The shape of the piece of furniture will generally determine its construction.  One will hardly make a mistake in the selection of joints to be used, but there are many forms of some of the principle joints, such as the tenon and mortise joint, from which to select.  Here, again, one must be governed by that fundamental law of design, viz., there must by harmony.

If the general design is a severe one, then the protruding form of joint will be appropriate, such as, for example, the open or pinned tenon and mortise joint instead of the closed one or the screwed construction instead of the nailed butt joint, etc.

Construction is no less an important factor in the ultimate beauty of a piece of furniture than is its design.  The best designed article may be ruined by poor constructions.  Makeshifts such as glued on parts to represent protruding tenons and pins are deprecated.  The butt joint fastened by means of screws or lag bolts may be an appropriate form of construction and decoration, but it should not be used as a general substitute for the tenon and mortise.

It is a false interpretation of honest construction and is one of the many things in manual training which helps to swell the number of those who condemn the subject for its insufficiency and impractical methods.


Decorative features


Simple carving, upholstering or textile or leather panelling is often the thing needed to give a piece completeness in appearance, but, ordinarily, good lines, good proportions and good finish are quite sufficient to fulfil all aesthetic requirements.  The simple modelling of the top or bottom of a post and the introduction of broken or curved lines in some of the rails and stiles is sufficient decoration.

In addition to these three considerations, it is desired to call attention to two others dependent upon one or all of these three:

  1. There will constantly arise as one works over a design the question of widths and lengths of certain parts.  Some of these will be definite because of the use to which the piece of furniture will be put, but many may be determined with some degree of accuracy if one will carefully consider the three following laws governing arrangement.
  • Uniform spacing of similar parts is usually unsatisfactory.
  • Wide masses and narrow openings should be made near the bottom of a piece instead of near the top to give the feeling of stability.
  • The centre of weight in a design should be directly below the centre of gravity.
  1. The satisfactory of filling of space areas is often difficult.  This is largely a problem in decoration although it may be one in construction when the strength of the piece of furniture is an important factor in the design.  As an aid toward a satisfactory of arrangement of parts in a given area the designer should become familiar with the term “measure” and the principles in design affecting it, viz., rhythm, balance and harmony, as set forth in E.A. Batchelder’s book, “The Principles of Design.”











4 thoughts on “The Principles of Design

    1. If you build a chest of drawers utility and function is automatically there, if you build a chair utility and function but not necessarily comfort is automatically there. If you turn a block of wood that has no purpose other than visual beauty that will sit as an ornament in a room then function and comfort does not come into play but, rhythm, harmony and balance do. The author is speaking of furniture in particular from an aesthetic design point of view, utility, function and comfort is a natural part of the design process that need not be mentioned. It’s like riding a bike, do you need to remind yourself that you need to push the pedals to go forward on every stroke or do you just do it automatically without thinking about it.

      Let me give you one good example if you compare a chair from IKEA or any big box store and sit it side by side a Chippendale reproduction, which of the two have more appeal. Obviously the Chippendale as it has utility, function, comfort, rhythm, harmony and balance. While the IKEA may only have the first two.

      Design is a difficult task as it’s impossible to please everyone tastes, but if the majority find it pleasing then as a designer you’ve achieved your objective but without utility, function and comfort that object of creation serves no purpose other than an ornament. I would also like to add that comfort is as difficult to achieve as rhythm, harmony and balance. Not everyone that sits in your chair will agree that it’s comfortable, this may be attributed to personal physical limitations and different views or opinions of what comfort means to each individual. But as long as the majority agree it’s comfortable then you’ve achieved your objective.

      I hope I answered your question.


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