By Leslie Fray
I was chatting with my Dad over dinner the other night and, not surprisingly, our conversation drifted to the subject of antiques (as it often does at our house). I began inquiring about the antiques “obsession” - the mad desire people have to fill their homes with antiques and more antiques; this passion that has passed on from generation to generation. This led to a discussion about the inherent beauty of well crafted antiques and how they simply lend a sense of aesthetics to the spaces around them.
This seemed obvious to me, so I steered my questions into a different direction. If people love antiques so much because they are “beautiful”, why then are some spaces considered more beautiful than others – even if they’re both filled with antiques? How is beauty defined? Why is it that people find one piece more beautiful than another? What is it that sets them apart?
“It’s Phi,” my Dad replied. My blank stare then prompted, “You know, the Golden Ratio”. I had no idea what he was talking about. So, after still more awkward silence, my Dad began to explain. He said it was a sort of golden rule that defined what the proportions of any given object (including antiques) should be in order for them to be the most aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. Of course, this conversation turned into a very lengthy one-sided lecture, but it finally offered an explanation to something that had puzzled me for years. This prompted me to do some research. Here’s what I learned:
The “Golden Ratio” is a mathematical formula devised by Euclid, a Greek mathematician (also know humbly as “The Father of Geometry”). Since math is not and never will be my forte, I’ll spare you the numeric details about the definition of Phi and let you discover them for yourselves on the internet. The important thing to know is that the Golden Ratio, or rather the “Divine Proportion” is a universal way of defining the perfect proportions of any object, whether it is something in nature or man-made. And it is, in fact, thanks to the Golden Ratio that certain objects are more aesthetically pleasing than others.
The Great Pyramid of Giza built around 2560 BC is one of the earliest examples of the use of the Golden Ratio.
Studies of the ratio first began in ancient Greece through Pythagoras’ concept of dividing lines into extreme and mean ratios in the geometry of pentagons and pentagrams. Although there is no factual evidence documenting the first utilization of the ratio, it began appearing more frequently in Greek architecture in buildings such as the Parthenon in the Acropolis in the form of the “Golden Rectangle”.
Swiss architect Le Corbusier applied the Golden Ratio to his creations as well. He came up with a scale for architecture proportions known as the Modulor.
This system, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, was an attempt to improve the appearance and function of architecture based on the discoveries of the mathematical proportions of the human body. Below are some examples of Corbusier’s designs.
The Golden Ratio exists within the painting world as well! Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, a drawing that has been referenced throughout history, reflects the correlations between the ideal human body proportions and geometry that roman architect Vitruvius described in Book III of his treatise “De Architectura”.
Da Vinci’s other works such as his illustrations in the “De Divina Proportione” and the Mona Lisa incorporate the Golden Ratio as well.
Illustration from "De Divine Proportione"
An illustration of the golden rectangles in the Mona Lisa
Architecture and painting, however, are just the beginning. The Golden Ratio is present in book design and music as well as Mother Nature herself. Adolf Zeising, a German philosopher and mathematician in the 19th century, discovered the appearance of the Golden Ratio in the arrangements of branches along the stems of plants and veins in leaves. When we look at something as common as a flower or a pineapple, we look at it and find it aesthetically pleasing (at least I do) and that is quite probably because of the Golden Ratio! It is at work in many of the things we see every day.
This is perhaps why, then, we are drawn to certain pieces of furniture while others not so much, why certain spaces feel better than others, why we are moved by some paintings and left indifferent by others. The Golden Ratio provides us with a sense of harmony and balance, two qualities that are often the main determinants in the aesthetics of an object. Now this is not to say that the Golden Ratio is the only factor that determines the beauty of an antique or anything else for that matter, but it is almost always present in anything that has been historically considered "perfect".