Issue Three T.O.C. - Through a Wilderness of Ornament: Making Sense of 18th-century Pattern Books

Upcoming in Issue Three: “Through a Wilderness of Ornament: Making Sense of 18th-Century Pattern Books” by Bill Pavlak

This past February I began my presentation to a group of 250 period furniture making enthusiasts at Colonial Williamsburg with a simple question: how many of you own a copy of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director? Not surprisingly, most raised their hands. When I followed that with “how many of you actually refer to this book regularly,” I got a very different response – perhaps fewer than ten raised hands.  This is exactly what I expected. Why? Because at first blush Chippendale’s plates, like those in other 18th century pattern books, only bear a slight resemblance to the Colonial American furniture so revered and familiar today.  Wildly ornate and aristocratic, these designs can be off-putting to modern eyes.  While we sense the historical significance of such books and detect their influence, we struggle to come to terms with them ourselves.  After all, we like our woodworking books full of tools, joinery details, and measured drawings.  Chippendale and his contemporaries give us fashion plates overgrown with foliage and teeming with putti, nymphs, and sea creatures.  The books stay on our shelves, closed. 

Can we ignore the angry looking baby about to strangle a large bird on top of that bed?  Probably not, but there are ways to demystify these high style designs and see them with new eyes.  Likewise, we can recover some of how our predecessors may have utilized published patterns.   Let’s give ornamental design a rethinking similar to what we’ve done with traditional artisan geometry and classical proportioning systems in recent years. While more difficult to codify, we can study and learn techniques of ornamental composition as both an analytical tool for existing furniture and a creative tool for new designs in historic styles. 

Drawing isolated ornamental elements from pattern books for the past ten years has helped me learn historic design languages.  Since many details are a bit vague in the engravings, I often find clarity and gauge my success by observing and drawing similar elements on surviving furniture.  The back and forth process of drawing and looking has not only increased my fluency in the language, but has also allowed me to build up a library of design that I can use in my own work.  I’m excited to share some of this thinking in Mortise & Tenon Magazine. Rather than explain how to draw, I will offer some thoughts on what to draw and how to develop an eye for period detail. 

As a case study, I tell the story of my experience with the pattern for a music stand published by the English designers William Ince and John Mayhew in their Universal System of Household Furniture (1762).  Though the plate looks remarkably detailed at first, it actually leaves a lot to the imagination.  This is most evident in the design for the knee carving on the leg (see the detail below) where the pattern is shown from only one perspective and its details are fairly sketchy.  This was all the information an experienced carver needed to carry out his work in the period – the engraved ornament functioning as a kind of shorthand.  Without a seven year apprenticeship in the eighteenth century, that shorthand is a real challenge for modern eyes to decipher.  However, by pulling from the library of ornament that I’ve been building through drawings and photography over the past decade, I fleshed out the design and came up with something reasonable. In the article I illustrate this process and offer some ideas on how we can attune our eyes to this seemingly foreign aesthetic.  This, in turn, deepens our understanding of the streamlined variations on these ornaments more typical in American work. By opening these pattern books and using our eyes and pencils together, we can begin to cut a trail through this rococo wilderness.


- Bill Pavlak

Stay tuned for tomorrow's announcement of the next article upcoming in M&T Issue Three...


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