turned cherry wood bowl

Chippendale Mirror

These fret work mirrors are often referred to as Chippendale mirrors. I doubt that a simple project like this would have ever emerged from Chippendale’s fancy shop. The term fret work refers to the use of a fret saw to cut out the curved shapes.

A man named Carlyle Lynch did measured drawings of many fine furniture pieces of the period. This was from one of his measured drawings of a mirror that came down in the Bird family of Virginia and resided in Westover Plantation. Some of the fret work mirrors you see are not very attractive. I feel that the lines in this one are particularly pleasing.

I often scratched my head over this design. As I learned more about mathematics it struck me one day that this was an eighteenth century interpretation of fractal curves. Fractals are the product of repeated iterations of a mathematical equation. The results of the equation are fed back into the same equation again and again.

Only when we developed sufficient computing power could these mathematical functions be visualized in graphic form. This was the pioneering work of Jacques Mandelbrot who was working for IBM when he graphed them in color, and those images are known as the Mandelbrot Set.

Fractals are quite beautiful. The larger shapes can be found in the smaller shapes over and over, down to the smallest level. However, the smaller repetition is almost like the larger image, but not exactly. However, as a pattern it is clearly recognizable.

There are many examples of fractal curves in nature. The most familiar are cumulus clouds and eddy currents. Without the high technology we have today I guess this was as close as eighteenth century craftsmen could come to this phenomenon.

I am reminded of a quotation from the Vedic Literature of ancient India. “Curving back on myself I create again and again.” These mirrors remind me of that.