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Getting off the right path can be liberating.
I I can see it with my eyes closed: a curved stretch of highway that meanders past the Otter Cliffs in Acadia National Park. Every turn in the road opens up a jaw-dropping view of surf crashing on the pink granite coast. You probably have a favorite stretch of road. The highway is likely to have curves that gently reveal a landscape dear to your memory.
Ever since carpenters turned logs into planks, we have been making furniture with straight lines. Like our highway system, straight lines are functional, efficient and… predictable. No surprise, then, that we’re tempted to experiment with curves. A simple flowing line or a combination of curves can add life and vibrancy to your designs.
Curved surfaces have a charm on several levels. First, a curved surface has a tactile attraction. In a very real sense, our hands are a second pair of eyes. Without thinking, we follow your fingertips to the front of a curved drawer and small elements like a sculpted handle or drawer can be almost irresistible. Curves also have a powerful visual component as they guide the eye, especially in transition areas.
It is quite common in nature to see delicate curved transitions. Just look at the thumb. Does it stick out of the end of your arm like a nailed up railroad nail? Or does it flow from your hand like something that, well, grew there?
Finally, the curved surfaces add life thanks to their reflective properties. A flat surface reflects light in a single monotonous band while curved surfaces play with light and shadow. A convex surface has an area of maximum reflection that gradually fades into shadow. Concave surfaces are just the opposite, with maximum shadow areas gradually giving way to greater reflection. This play of reflections and shadows can make a piece seem alive. It gives an impression of movement as you pass and look at the piece from different angles.
Go over the straight and the strait
If the thought of introducing curves makes you cold sweat, you’re not alone. Admit it: much of our initial woodworking training is focused on creating straight cuts and square joints. This is also the sweet spot for many of the common power tools such as the table saw, radial arm saw, and router table. But beyond the technical challenges of working with curves, there is a legitimate fear of tackling the design aspects. There is a fine line between something lively and flowing and a confusing collection of curved elements. Nature looks full of curves to inspire us, but translating that into a furniture design is a different kettle of fish.
Also, the reflective properties of curves are not something you can easily model in a model or drawing. This is no small problem as reflectivity tends to exaggerate the contours, often asking for some restraint. In many cases, it is only when the final finish is applied that you can see the full effect. So, what are some of the starting points to keep in mind when venturing down that winding road? Let’s start with some basics.
Keep in mind that the goal is to design something that flows and catches your eye through a shape. Just as a grid of repeating squares tends to be static, repeating a series of identical curves can have the same effect.
There are several ways to break this. When assembling a composition with multiple curves, consider alternating convex and concave surfaces. You can also interpose flat surfaces between curves to act as a punctuation or border between one curve and the next.
Another way to spice it up is to organize the curves into major and minor parts. At the top right are some profiles for the front of a dresser or sideboard (the view is downwards). The example above simply divides the facade into three equal parts with three identical curves. The central version divides it into three equal parts but alternates concave and convex. The example below divides the facade into seven parts, giving three parts to the major convex curve in the center and two parts to each of the flanking concave curves.
Which profile looks best to you? In the last example my use of the 2: 3: 2 ratio to create a major-minor sequence was arbitrary, but I find it useful to work with simple integer ratios when looking for a flowing combination. Plus, as you experiment with simple relationships, you’ll start building a working library in your mind about how curves work. This is especially useful when studying curvature in a furniture masterpiece or in nature, allowing you to visually unpack and climb inside.
Apply it on a microscale
The same concepts apply on a smaller scale when combining curved elements into a molding profile. A lively composition alternates convex and concave, and separates curved profiles from flat surfaces (fillets). Also, the elements are resized in major and minor. Notice how many curves are used in the cornice molding above and how each element is scaled in relation to the adjacent element. This is a complex profile, but also keep in mind that you could separate it into several smaller moldings, each capable of standing on its own.
Hope this inspires you to venture down that road full of curves. Who knows what discovery is around the next bend!
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