Claire, a student on a furniture making evening class I teach at Warwickshire College, has just completed her first self-directed project: a small side table with a drawer.
When we assembled the table, the results took me by surprise and made me smile: its proportions brought to mind some sort of cartoon character. Short and squat, flat topped with that wide panel of the drawer front at the top, we have been referring to it ever since as the chubby alien, like something out of Wall-E. I don’t know if the photos do it justice – but Claire knew straight away what I was seeing.
But I was also puzzled – How come the result had taken me by surprise? I am usually pretty good at visualizing the end result. In front elevation, the table is pretty much square, not unusual in a small occasional table. What is unusual is that in side elevation it’s not: the depth of the side is just over half of the width at the front: small occasional tables tend to be square.
When Claire first showed me the plans, my main concern had been to check that it was within her capabilities (while still stretching her skills) and it was structurally sound. The only aesthetic suggestion I made was to introduce a slight taper on the legs – I was concerned that it would feel a bit too chunky and heavy. Apart from that, it seemed a pretty straightforward design so I didn’t take the time to analyse it further: it if it had been one of my pieces, I would have made some 3D model (whether in CAD or in the workshop) as part of the process.
If we were to scale the piece up to double its current size we would end up with a perfectly normal console table (about 3ft long, 3ft tall, 11/2 ft deep). Doubling it up yet again, we would end up with an imposing cabinet – something with proportions similar to those traditional Chinese armoires – square and solid. In neither case I suspect we would perceive that sense of cuteness and playfulness, the little chubby alien. That does not reside in the proportions of the piece in itself but in our relationship to it.
It is a well known fact that we anthropomorphise objects and we relate to them as we would to people (who hasn’t shouted at the computer? Or cajoled an old car up a steep hill?): I believe size has much to do with it.
I noticed around town one of the new “large” Minis… I haven’t seen one of the new “large” 500 but I suspect I will have that same reaction I had with the Mini: the design doesn’t work! A critical part of the appeal and the way I relate to the Mini and the 500 is their size. They are small so they come across as cheeky, playful… not ‘real’ cars. I remember in my teens in Italy discovering that four of us could pick up our friend’s 500 and move it: these were the old ones, in the ‘80s, even smaller, little more than a toy car by today’s standards! Scaling them up to the size of a small SUV destroys that relationship… now they’re just cars. They don’t feel the same, they way I relate to them is different…
Or to come at it in a different way. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone there is a horrendous creature: a gigantic three-headed monster, scary and dangerous. Except that we learn from Hagrid (who is a giant himself and therefore relates to ‘size’ in a different way) that ‘Fluffy’ is actually a sweet puppy. Sing him a lullaby and he’s no danger to anybody… It’s just that for normal sized people it’s difficult to think of an animal of such a size as a puppy. Puppies are small, right?
Extra time clock in Birds Eye Maple, Black walnut and Steamed Maple
At various shows where I have exhibited my Extra Time Clocks, I have often been asked whether I made a smaller version. People look at the clock and say “Wow! That’s impressive! It really stands out!” but from there they go into “Oh, it needs a big wall, a big house”… I have vainly tried to point out that the clock is only about 100cm wide (the chimney breast of a small Victorian terrace is about 4 feet or 122cm). That many large screen TVs are bigger than my clocks but they would find rooms in their houses…
But still, the clock feels big. Normal household clocks are small, right?
Do I make smaller ones? A smaller one wouldn’t cost any less: the difference in material costs would be minimal, while the labour would be exactly the same… if not more: smaller components can be more fiddly to handle and more dangerous to machine… And would it have the same wow factor? I don’t think so.
We often hear of “well proportioned” products or objects having “classical proportions”:
Extra Time Clock in Masur Birch, Black walnut and Sycamore
I have always taken it to mean the proportions of the piece in itself… how each component and aspect of the piece relates to other components and aspects of the piece. What I am learning is that “proportions” in this context has also to do with how we relate to the piece and how it challenges (or conforms to) our expectations… So that a clock feels imposing, a car feels playful, a table feels cute and cuddly and giant three-headed dogs… well, you’re on your own with that one, I’m afraid.
P.S. I am planning on making a couple more clocks in the next few months: I might make a small one just to see what happens. I’ll keep you posted.