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Hand Made Guitars by Luthier Dan Koentopp

Art or Geometry?

Michael Darnton is one of the leading experts on Cremonese violin construction and I regard him as one of the best instrument makers today. His explanation below about the use of circles and simplified design is beautifully outlined in just a few paragraphs. A few years ago he gave an in depth lecture at a Guild of American Luthiers convention solely on this topic. This idea separates the good from the not so good. It also separates the great industrial designers from the amateurs. It may seem rather simple but it can be applied in the most difficult and complex of ways. This process continues to make me rethink and retrace my steps. As Michael states, “you either get it, or you don’t!”


“The basic issue is that you can’t speak of geometry with regard to any school but the Cremonese. Most other schools took a haphazard approach to violin design. However, the Cremonese approach is crystal-clear, which is, in my opinion, it’s attraction.

Essentially, the only two geometrical shapes you can recognize from a portion of them are straight lines and circles. What makes the Cremonese shape so attractive is that the eye can identify these circles, and the places where they join, and it gives something identifiable, concrete, and comfortably familiar to latch onto. Other designs just wander from one end of the violin to the other, in no special way–it’s the difference between listening to a great short story from a fine author, with plot and character development, vs hearing a drunk tell about his night.

The schools that copied Cremonese violins all took about the same approach, intentionally or not, and that was taking the outline and smoothing it out. If you have a bunch of Cremonese outlines and stack them up, you can see that for 200 years they’re extrememly similar, and they have a strong relationship to each other that more free-hand violins don’t have. In fact one of the thing that clued people into the idea of circles was inexplicable flat spots and lumps, in the same places each time, where the circles ran together (I see the French fellows haven’t seen those things, from their illustration, which steamrolls over all of those commonalities and removes them–that’s why I’m saying this approach is absolutely wrong and you shouldn’t waste your money on the book.)

This is a general design issue, not just related to violins. The thing that inspired my talk was all of the really horrible guitar designs people are doing these days using spline curves with computers, with which they can just push a line around until they like it. Unfortunately, when that’s done, the results are a complete wandering, with no familiar shapes and interactions and, consequently, no impact. I had a couple of professional designers come up after my talk and tell me that the same thing has happened in industrial design, resulting in the mushy type of stuff that the article I linked to earlier complains about.

In my speech, as well as violins, I used two examples of great guitar design that everyone likes, golden-period Martin, and the very modern Steve Klein. Both designs are strictly based on circles.

An outline of a golden-era Martin showing the importance of the circle

Steve Klein’s simplified approach

This lack of circle-based geometry is, in my opinion, one of the reasons that no school of violin making has made the visual impact that the Cremonese have, and a problematic failing especially of French and modern Italian making, where the original designs were so homogenized, by a cultural push for smoothness, as to become visually meaningless. For about two centuries there’s been a near-consensus of what the circles are, and where they are, but no cohesive plan for how they were placed, and that’s what Denis has finally come up with.”


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