Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Chess and design

click photo to enlarge
What is good design? That's a simple question that is not so simply answered. Some say good design is what works well and pleases someone, and does so regardless of the time in which it is made. Others maintain that a good design can only be related to the period in which it appeared. I think there is a universality about a good design so here are my suggestions about what constitutes this difficult art.

A good design has simplicity, like the claw hammer . A good design is beautiful - not in the sense of having a style superimposed like an "E Type" Jaguar, but a beauty that comes from the unity of form and function, like the Citroen 2CV! A good design works - every time, and goes on working for a long time, like the double-lever corkscrew. A good design has enduring appeal, like a William Morris chintz, a Wedgwood coffee pot, or Le Corbusier's chaise longue. And finally, a good design looks right, obvious, inevitable, and makes you think that this is the way the object should be made!

The Staunton chess set, shown in today's photograph, incorporates all these qualities. The basic design dates from 1849 and arose from the need to standardise pieces so that they were familiar to all players, regardless of nationality. The first sets, made in London by Nathaniel Cook and his brother-in-law, John Jaques, showed slight differences between the King's Knight and Rook compared with those of the Queen. But, since no real need existed for this variation, it was soon abandoned. The shape of all the pieces could be largely completed on a lathe, with the exception of the Knight which needed more hand-finishing. Apparently its design came from a horse on the Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek sculptures from the Parthenon held by the British Museum. Howard Staunton, a noted English player and writer on chess, endorsed the design and his name has been associated with it ever since. Today the Staunton design is the most widely used chess set, and the mandatory form in many national and international tournaments.

This image was made using natural light from a window above and beyond the chess set. A longish focal length lens helped to give a sense of depth, and I placed a white card behind the board to silhouette the pieces.

P.S. Chess enthusiasts will note the not-so-deliberate mistake in the placing of the pieces on a board set up for a photo-op rather than a game!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 31mm (62mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/4
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: Off