Gestalt, a German word for a configuration, pattern, or organized whole, the whole having qualities different from those of its components, if these components are considered separately. Today, sometimes without the inclusion of the concept's label, we speak of "the 'whole' being larger than the sum of its parts". For example, since this website is about woodworking, visualize the parts a piece of furniture, say a chair, laid out on the top of a workbench, ready for assembly. (We'll return to this below.)

[I touch on gestalt psychology in the file: "glossary_instruction_sheets.htm"]

Gestalt is a concept developed by psychologist in the 1930s. The key argument is that the nature of the parts is determined by, and secondary to, the whole. While the original claims about what Gestalt embraces in explaining human behavior were questioned by other psychologists, the concept's main ideas were absorbed profitably into psychology's mainstream, and, as is usual for terms that are found to contain a set of human truths, subsequently into everyday speech.

1890 C. Von Ehrehfels in Vierteljahrsschrift fur wissenschaftliche Philosophie XIV. 249 (title)

Ueber 'Gestaltqualitaten'.

1922 K. Koffka in Psychological Bulletin 19 531

The Gestalt-psychologists proper. Ibid. 574 The Gestalt theory is fundamentally incompatible with the associationist's principles.

1924 81 Gestalt-Theory.

"Professor Wertheimer, in his lectures, has treated personality as a Gestalt".

1926 Encyclopdia Britannica Supplement 1 page 45, column 1

"The work of the Gestalt school with its stress upon the unity of psychic processes. Note, The Gestalt theorists".

1931 M. BELGION Human Parrot 1, No. 15

"The Behaviourists and the apostles of Gestalt".

1936 A. J. Ayer Language, Truth & Logic ii. 57

The Gestalt psychologists who of all men talk most constantly about genuine wholes.

1941 W H Auden New Year Letter 1 No 19

A true gestalt where indiscrete perceptions and extensions meet.

As shown above by the quotes recorded in the OED, as a concept, gestalt was coined in Germany in the 1890s. But, after a few decades, the evidence suggests, as a term to describe how the "whole" differs from the "parts", gestalt must had served a useful purpose, because gestalt had worked itself into the popular vocabulary.

Because much of woodworking almost entirely comprises the combining separate component parts into functional "wholes", say a chair's posts/legs, seat, stretchers, "back", spindles -- as a means of capturing the overall effect of assembling a piece of furniture into its final form -- a word with gestalt's meaning comes readily into use.

(An aspect of woodworking's "gestalt", not considered in this entry, but something needing to be discussed is "ornament". Today, in furniture design, especially, ornament does not loom very large as an issue; a century or so earlier, in the wake of the first mass produced furniture in the Victorian era, ornament was an over-riding issue, economically, aesthetically, as well as in other ways. It is a matter worth more thought.


Psychologists have long studied how the human eye and brain function together in the process of perception.

Many of the Gestalt investigations deal with the notion that images are first per­ceived as unified wholes before they are perceived as parts. This means we "see" the whole before we "see" the parts that make up the whole.

Gestalt psychologists have concluded that the combined activity of our eye/brain does not initially differentiate each of the individual component parts of an image. Instead, it organizes the components into a more comprehensible, unified whole.

However, Gestalt theory also argues that within a gestalt (that is, a particular field of vision or a single frame of reference), the eye – working with our brain – has the capacity to absorb only a limited number of unrelated units, that together, make up a “whole".

This capacity, obviously, is dependent on the units' visual differences, similarities, and relative positions and upon the viewer's background knowledge of the field in which the “parts" belong.

The following diagrams and explanations are intended to illustrate Gestalt theory and to show how it can be used in a visual art context to create unity and harmony.

If we are confronted with too many unrelated units in a single gestalt, the eye/brain attempts to simplify the gestalt by organizing the various units into a perceptually manageable whole. When this is not possible, the image will continue to appear unorganized or chaotic.

gestalt 1

For example, Figure 1 contains several whole units that are totally unrelated in size and position. The visual effect is that of a haphazard, disorganized arrangement of shapes.

In Figure 3, these same units have been visually organized into three unified groups, so this figure appears more organized and less chaotic than Figure 2.

Figure 3 presents the same units in still another whole configuration that becomes the recognizable image of a horse. This image seems less chaotic than those in Figure 2 or Figure 3. In Figure 3, the whole unit "horse" is apparent to us before we become aware of the complexity of the horse's various parts and their relationships.

gestalt 2

Clearly, then, Gestalt theory proposes that the eye/brain is continually involved in a process of organizing, simplifying, and unifying activity designed to produce a comprehensible, harmonious whole.

From our lifelong intuitive contemplation and conscious evaluation of our own experience, we struggle to make a "whole" out of seemingly unrelated parts.

We, in other words, to create organization, try to respond positively to disorganized imagery.

When confronted with an image or form that has a poor gestalt (an image lacking visual unity or harmony or falls beyond our immediate personal experience), as a “viewer" we often find the separated parts of a "whole", the visual effect, at least, unrelated, busy, or disturbing. This creates the impression that "something is wrong." Consequently, the image will be ignored or rejected by the viewer.

gestalt 3

If, however, we have acquired from experience a background knowledge of a field, we are able to "organize" the existing components of an image so they create a comprehensible whole.

To accomplish this, psychologists and other scholars for whom these concepts are useful, the follow­ing elementary methods for simplifying, organizing, and unifying images or forms have been developed: deletion, proximity, overall pattern, closure, alignment, and similarity.

For woodworking, say a chair (to return to the example above), from "design" to "finished" project requires a "special" "strong" gestalt, because separate parts as in figure 1, need to be visualized first as figure 3. (Tim, i could use some help here. while i know what i want to say, capturing the precise thought escapes me at the moment. perhaps it will come later. also, do you have photos of the "parts" of a morris chair, laying on a workbench, awaiting assembly?)

Sources: Adapted from Frank R. Cheatham, et al, Design Concepts and Applications Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983, pages 2-4;
The study of gestalt psychology is placed on a definitive footing and related to German scientific culture in M. G. Ash, Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995;
This major study is preceded by Ash's survey in 'Gestalt Psychology: Origins in Germany and Reception in the United States', in C. E. Buxton, ed., Points of View in the Modern History of Psychology Orlando: Academic Press, 1985, pages 295-344. See also 'Max Wertheimer's University Career in Germany', Psychological Research, 51 (1989): 52-7, and 'Gestalt Psychology in Weimar Culture' HHS, 4 (1991): 395-415, which explores the aspirations of the gestalt psychologists to resolve questions about values.