By Hand and Eye

I keep an ever growing list of things I should have been taught in school but that were omitted from my California public school and university education. Some examples: the art of memory, philosophy, navigation and that crazy book Moby Dick. I can now add to that list the use of a divider.

Geo R. Walker and Jim Tolpin’s book By Hand & Eye takes you back to a forgotten age when “rulers didn’t rule.” The book introduces you to the vocabulary of proportion. Just as music has a scale, traditional design has a visual scale. Through simple exercises such as creating rectangles, exploring the proportions of the classical orders and creating curves you learn the, sadly, forgotten and lyrical aesthetic legacy of our ancestors.

I’ve always been intimated by design tasks such as creating a website, laying out a newsletter, building a chicken coop or, most recently, creating a spice rack for the kitchen. When it came time to design that spice rack, thanks to By Hand & Eye, I was no longer intimidated by how to begin. I could get out a pair of compasses and start marking out certain proportions that human beings of the past have judged to be more pleasing than others. The door of my spice rack is a golden section, for instance, and the shelf spacing came from an exercise on page 131 of the book. Far from being restrictive, I found the principles in Walker and Tolpin’s book liberating. I now had a starting point for any design project.

For modern folks it’s difficult to imagine working without a ruler. Walker and Toplin explain,

Instead of asking, “How high is this base dimension in inches?” pre-industrial artisans would have asked, “How tall is this base in proportion to the case above it? How wide is this leg in proportion to its height? How much does this leg taper in proportion to its width at the widest part?”

The book walks you through how to apply this knowledge with the hands on use of  dividers, compasses, battens and the forgotten sector (used to divide an object into equal parts).  It’s not a catalog of magical formulas, but rather an introduction into a way of thinking about design that provides guidance from thousands of years of shared human experience.

While written specifically from the perspective of cabinetry and furniture design, I think everyone should read this book. But there’s a downside. Once you know these principles you can’t un-know them. Walker has a disclaimer on his blog:

Continued exposure to the content in this blog may result in serious side effects should you venture into a “Big Box” furniture store. Side effects may vary but may include: nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and in severe cases convulsions. Even in cases of mild reactions it is known to cause embarrassing and uncontrolled verbal outbursts which may cause you to be escorted from the premises. Side effects are temporary and usually disappear shortly after leaving the store. Prolonged exposure to mass-produced ugly furniture may even result in death, though ongoing studies are still not conclusive.

I’d add that these side effects extend, unfortunately, to the entirety of our modern built environment.

Should you want to go down this dangerous rabbit hole, in addition to By Hand & Eye I’d suggest the following web resources:

But you have been warned. Walker’s not kidding about the side effects.

Share this post

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book… I am hoping I can get it through interlibrary loan, as even our superb regional library does not have a copy!

Comments are closed.