You Thought Architects Designed Perfect Chairs? (Good, Better, Best)

THIS EXCERPT from an old post at Veritas & Venustas comments on some of the same issues that Witold Rybczinski just wrote about in a post and a Tweet:

Good, Better, Best

(originally published February 2004)

.. The concept is a way of grading things qualitatively, as Good, Better or Best. I first heard of Good, Better, Best when I owned a store called America’s Best Traditional Designers and Craftsmen. From my architecture practice, I knew a number of craftsmen who made wonderful traditional furniture, windows and paneling, and other types of cabinetry and woodwork. I also knew how difficult it was to find these woodworkers — who usually worked out in rural workshops — and how much more exposure greatly inferior craftsmen had. So I started a store to sell their work.

Once I was selling 18th-century-style American furniture, I had to learn more about it, and I learned all sorts of things I never heard about in architecture school. That included the secrets of traditional finishes, the qualities of various woods, how traditional joinery differed from contemporary practice, and knowledge of how construction details varied from region to region.

I went to museums and looked at the best American furniture collections, which trained my eye to see subtleties I hadn’t noticed before then. And I found lessons that applied to the design of architecture and urbanism.

The dimensions of the 18th-century chair embodied hundreds of years of experimentation. By 1700, chair makers had discovered the proper angle for the back, the perfect height for the seat, and the ideal depth for a cushion that would support the leg without cutting off the flow of blood behind the knee.

Chair makers perfected the form for the comfort of the human body and then used that form to make supremely beautiful art from functional objects. Sheraton chairs, Chippendale chairs and Hepplewhite chairs all had the same basic dimensions, and yet they looked very different because both their forms and their elaboration were very different.

The chair makers knew where to put their energies in making those elaborations. All the best chairs had several carvers working on them: The best carver would work on the top rail, the next best would work on the carving around the seat, and the apprentices would carve the feet. Not because the feet were less important than the top rails, but because they were farther away from the eyes of the beholders.

In 1951, the leading dealer of 18-century American furniture wrote an interesting article for Antiques magazine in which he ranked many pieces of antique American furniture as Good, Better or Best, and showed how to make those judgments. He later turned that into a book of the same name, which became one of the most influential books in the world of antiques.

The criteria for the judgments were simple: 1) design and proportion, 2) construction and detail, and 3) materials and finishes.

There are some obvious comparisons with the Modernist principles of architecture and urbanism, which swept away traditional design. Even though they invented “the science of Ergonomics,” many of the Modernist designers who made furniture only paid lip service to the functional paradigms for the comfort of people sitting in their chairs.

The proof is in the pudding: In the name of functionalism, superstar architects and designers like Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames designed some of the most uncomfortable chairs in the history of the world. They were less interested in comfort than the expression of modern materials and industrial processes.

Van der Rohe wanted to perfect the assembly process of chairs made with curved chromium tubing. Eames was fascinated by the manufacturing process for bending a piece of plywood. Both wanted to tackle problems like speeding up the mass assembly line, or how to make chairs that would stack efficiently for storage. Each wanted to create an unprecedented form that expressed their industrial age and individual creativity. That produced a very different result than the traditional values of Good, Better, Best, which judged objects not on the basis of their originality, but on the execution and elaboration of ideas and forms that had been proven to work.

Enough looking at different examples of 18-century chairs trains the eye to see the differences and appreciate the distinctions that distinguish one from another: One sees immediately that while one Chippendale chair might have a pair of front legs with beautiful curves, another chair has legs that by comparison are only good. Similarly, one chair might have a beautifully carved top rail, but another might have even better carving. Put that all together, and you have a list of objective criteria for judging furniture.

The same principles apply to architecture and urbanism. Traditional buildings and streets are judged not on their originality, but on the quality of their design and their execution of enduring principles distilled over time. Twentieth century architecture and urbanism rejected timeless principles of design for principles judged to be of the time. This was often done by turning traditional principles on their head, to create what Machado and Silvetti call “unprecedented reality.”

The search for novelty made the criteria for judging architecture and urbanism subjective, while the standards for judging traditional architecture and urbanism are comparative and objective. For example, within the various forms of classicism — Romantic Classicism, Palladianism, etc. — we can say which in each category are Good, Better or Best.

This has many useful benefits. One is that you can teach the principles for making a good traditional building or street to anyone, so that the student does not have to be especially talented to reach the level of Good. With the looser standards of Modernism, only the most talented and inventive reach the level of Good. The exception is in a Modernism based on well-defined principles, like the neo-Corb taught at Cornell. or the Miesian architecture once taught at IIT. But in this age of Eisenman and Koolhaas, that is rare.

Another benefit is that when dealing with the contemporary building culture, we can have different standards for different clients. Pulte Houses gets the parti and materials that a budget for the Good level can support, while the high-minded developer of the Windsor, an expensive Duany Plater- Zyberk designed TND-like resort in Florida, gets a code for the Best. Pulte might be allowed to use the Windsor line (no relation) of wood substitute windows, while Windsor can be held to the highest window standards, with only wood (unclad) allowed.

A large obstacle to improving the buildings in new urban developments has been the cost of quality materials and supplies. Most of the projects can’t afford the best supplies, and there is an enormous drop in quality from the best to practically everything else.

When dealing with window manufacturing companies, we can have one set of standards for the economy budget (Good), another for a better budget, and third for the highest budget (Best). If we can pull some of the largest manufacturers and builders up to the level of the Good, we will have accomplished a lot. Trying to raise the level of design and construction of the pseudo-traditional materials and supplies prevalent in the building industry today is one of the primary missions of the Institute for Traditional Architecture.

Implicit in Good, Better, Best is also a way to resolve Rob Steuteville’s problem: If we create a scale with Good assigned 1 to 10, Better 11 to 20, and Best 21 to 30, we can grade the 27 piazza on the same scale as the 9 TOD town center without disparaging the town center.

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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