Every artist has a theory. Every theory is based on a principle. I have taken a journey through many artists, their theories, and the basic principles of design. I have found a few o theories to feel comfortable and significant to me. They have given me more reason to my own design, and I feel have been armed with knowledge to back up and support my own art. They have given me a vocabulary to critique and design with. Below are the 10 theories/principles that have made the biggest impact on me thus far in my design career.
“We have no mind.”
This quote is from a Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel interview with Charles Moore on American Architecture Now. Charles Moore is speaking of the attitude of his design team in approaching the concept for the Episcopal Church of Pacific Palisades where he collaborated with the church members to develop the design. He states that the architect should not go into the situation with preconceived ideas. I believe in this approach. As a designer, I am hired help. It is my job to find out the needs and wants of my patron and base my solution to their problems on those parameters. In this course, we’ve gone over examples of selfish design such as the Villa Savoye, which did not work out for the owners, or Louis Sullivan’s desire for all architecture to reject classical design and think his way, which led to his somewhat alienation. I go into interior design with a desire to help people discover and manifest a hope they could not quite put their finger on. I believe the “getting to know you” phase is critical to programming. Not only do I need to know what spaces a client wants included, but how they will use those spaces. I need to know what uses they have that currently do not have a space. I hope to provide elements that make life easier and more organized. I hope to create spaces where people can feel more productive, or more relaxed, based on their specific needs. I fully believe that in order to do this, I need to have an open mind. This will allow me to experience inspiration to fit the project.
Chance, Experiment, Knowledge, Reason
“…The arts were born of Chance and Observation, fostered by Use and Experiment, and matured by Knowledge and Reason.” Leon Battista Alberti. Once I am inspired by the needs and wants of my client, I can begin to form ideas and research them. A cycle of research and inspiration, inspiration and research, will form. I can experiment with form and function based on reason and knowledge to develop a design based on evidence and need. I’ve learned in my quest to be an interior designer that the deciding factor that makes an interior designer what they are is knowledge. We have the professional, dedicated education to make informed decisions. We have a license that make us legally responsible for the lives of individuals. Our design decisions should not be based on a whim or purely on aesthetics. There is a concept to follow, rules that can be followed or broken, and an overall experience to portray. A great tool in the pocket of any designer is iteration. Alberti’s quote speaks directly to this practice. Through iteration new ideas can form and take purchase or be discarded. Through iteration a designer can push the boundaries and try all options, therefore leading to the most logical response. I believe this is our most valuable means of finding the solution.
Solve the problem.
To find a solution, there has to have been a problem. Florence Knoll is largely responsible for the development of interior designers as a profession separate from decorating. In getting to know her client, the American office, she discovered that people were not communicating well. Simple, yet impactful, solutions such as curving the conference table and bringing workers out of their closed offices onto and open floor plan so that they could easily see and talk to one another proved to be indisputable fixes for generations. These are solutions based on need, reason, form and function. Perhaps her clients knew they needed a conference table, but not that they couldn’t properly see each other. As a good interior designer, it is my job to see problems that even my clients do not. I believe this is done by getting to know your patron, by asking them questions on what works and doesn’t work, observing them use a space… It is important to learn as much as possible about the user to give them a space they will more than function in, but thrive in. We are taught in our design education that we are problem solvers. It will be my intention to approach every design job with an open mind ready to hear the problems my client is facing and to find the ones they are missing.
Beauty can be found in nature.
We have spent much of this theory course looking at the concept of Beauty. I do believe Beauty exist and that it can be achieved. For me the ideal source of beauty is nature. In my experience, most people can be humbled by the Grand Canyon, touched by a flower, or moved by a tree. Nature has a universal quality to it that people of all ages can see. Nature has a mystery to it that we have spent all of our existence trying to understand and explain. We have the special relationship of having been created by nature with it giving us the special ability to contemplate our creation. We term it Mother Nature, the highest honor of love. We say things like, “God is in the details,” because the details are intricate and infinite. Many design movements have been based on nature: Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Organic… There is something about the term beauty that fits better with Art Nouveau architecture than it does with Deconstructivism architecture. Straight lines are rigid and cold. Curves are soft and organic. So much effort has been put into defining the beauty of nature such as the Fibonacci sequence or the golden rectangle. They are a reach for perfection based on nature. I believe design will always be able to pull from nature. It’s the perfect fall back that will never let you down.
Although we’ve spent an eternity trying to understand nature, we have not always taken such good care of it. In the days of Vitruvius, nature was infinite. In the 21st century, we are receiving constant reminders that it is only infinite in that it is cyclical, and if we do not contribute to the cycle, we will break the cycle, thus finite resources. Sustainability cannot be ignored. Green building and design is the present and future, or we won’t have a future. I read a statement in the book Cradle to Cradle: “…To believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the “be less bad” approach.” Our current approach to put less toxins into our bodies and the earth is not a solution to global warming, mass sickness, and natural disaster. We need to contribute to the success of the planet. If you told your boss, “I didn’t poison anyone today, but I also didn’t do any work to contribute to the project,” you would surely get fired. We need to plant plants, nurture the animals, clean the air, and filter the water. We need to actively produce and do. There is research to grow bricks. Paint has been and can be safely made from milk. There are locations in the world creating surplus power with wind and solar energy. As the creature that successfully makes 500 ton airplanes glide through the air, I believe we can do more than poison ourselves slightly less.
Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness, reminisces on ancient buildings and their presence of form to portray the inhabitors’ religion. Vitruvius too said that buildings talk. How often have we heard a viewer say of a piece of art, “What does this piece say to you?” I fully believe this personification exists in interior design as well. Social Anthropologist, Shirley Ardener, says to us, “The environment imposes certain restraints on our mobility, and, in turn, our perceptions of space are shaped by our own capacity to move about, whether by foot or by mechanical or other transport. So: behavior and space are mutually dependent. …Space defines the people in it. … People define space.” There is a relationship, one could say a conversation, that that space has with anyone who enters it. Thoughts and actions are formed based on the space around us. A room can tell us, you are only allowed to go to the left if you want to get to the back. A pea green color can make us think of the past, or soup, or vomit. You will have an interaction with that space on a conscious and unconscious level. All design speaks. If it did not, it would not have a purpose. We decorate our homes to not only make us comfortable, but to tell those who enter it who we are or who we want to be. I am vibrant, fun and pink. I am simple, clean and minimalist. See my antiques, I have wealth and taste. Companies spend endless dollars on branding to say who they are from their credo to their lobby design. The role of the interior designer is to control that conversation, that experience, for everyone who enters that space.
Vitruvius speaks of Oeconomia. This represents the best achievable outcome with the means available. In a sort of return to We Have No Mind and Chance, Experiment, Knowledge, Reason, we come into a design with a blank slate and need to research in order to address any part of it. In order to solve a problem, we not only need to see the problem, but get access to all of the solutions that have come before. As a designer, we need to understand the scope of a problem. Only by studying the past solutions and the current solutions can we begin to choose an appropriate one or develop a new variation. A designer needs to be a fresh pair of eyes outside the box that the client lives in. It is our job to go beyond the common. We are a consultant, an expert, a professional. We need to be well versed in multiple possibilities for any restraints.
Repetition, Repetition, Repeat
In addition to theories of design, I have become fond of a few principles as well. Repetition is important to me. It creates pattern and can create harmony. Everyone knows the fun value of a pop of color, but that color does not pop without a repeated other color for its background. A repeated color can tie different pieces together and help create a unit of the space. A unifying motif can make a statement and drive the eye around the room. A repeated element almost tells the story of the design. Again the room can speak. The repeat says, “I am important, acknowledge me.” The lack of repetition, a sole standing element, is a focal point. It can anchor a room. Again it says, “I am important.” Easily repetition can play into emphasis. Rarely do principles stand independently.
One way to achieve balance is to repeat the same element on the opposite side, hence symmetry. One can also place an opposite figure to the opposite side and create an asymmetrical balance. Balance plays with light and weight. Our eyes have a desire for things not to be lopsided. Crooked is unnerving. Off balance is nauseating. An asymmetrical face is not beautiful. A crook is untrustworthy. A balanced checkbook is in good standing. Our need for balance is ever present. Imagine if the yin-yang symbol was more black than white. Instead of peace it would bring questions of why. The black would be overpowering. I believe balance is a strong tool for a designer. I think it can easily tell of a professional vs. a nonprofessional. I try to look for the balance in interior spaces as I learn to judge and critique interior spaces for myself. I want to make balance more of a conscious thought for my future designs.
Harmony is usually the first thing I look for in an interior design. It is the culminating result of all the other principles. I start here and work my way backwards. Why or why isn’t there harmony in this room? Do the pieces relate to each other in scale, color, or form? As I learned about this principle through Vitruvius, he mentions that it is the opposite of a cacophony. As a vocalist, I fully understand cacophony and never quite thought of it as the opposite of harmony. This is the test of whether or not the room works. I consider myself and eclectic designer, and I love the possibility of mixing times and materials and stories to create a new unified piece. In order to do that, the pieces usually have to share a similar trait. I actually remember the lesson of similar vs. same in grammar school. I had never really know the definition of similar, even though I had heard the word. This rule, that the objects were the same shape but different sizes or different colors (these were the only examples) was an epiphany moment for me. They weren’t different; they weren’t the same; they were similar. A whole new world of description had opened up or me. This basketball and this tennis ball were similar when all the time I had thought they were different. I have a historical memory of fondness for the similar, and I think that will stay with me as a designer for life.
I am grateful to have studied design theory. The information I have gained is invaluable to me. I not only have a vocabulary I can converse with but have learned more about myself and who I want to be as an interior designer. I am appreciative of Vitruvius and all those who came after him to try and bring order to the world of architecture and design.