02
Jul
13

Design Wisdom: Materials Matter

The “M” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Materials Matter.

As virtual reality becomes surreal, designers have the opportunity to make it real.

As we expand new digital design, modeling and fabrication technologies, we may find simultaneously a reawakening to the sensual potential of physical materials themselves.

M-banner

Looking at history

As my 10th grade history teacher pointed out, in mankind’s quest to put an astronaut on the moon, the unexpected benefit was looking back and seeing the earth for the first time. In our present era, computational technology is at the forefront of our cultural imagination – constituting our present giant step forward. Computers and invention of the worldwide Web have, and will continue to, transform our contemporary culture in extraordinary ways. So, the question is: What will the exciting “look back” be with regards to our burgeoning digital revolution? I believe the answer lies in a re-evaluation of the nature of materials themselves.

One would be tempted to look to the Arts and Crafts movement as a somewhat comparable precedent. The origins of that movement however were rooted in reform of the practices and effects of the Industrial Revolution. Pioneer of the movement, artist and writer William Morris, sought an antidote to shoddily mass-produced decorative arts, often created under oppressive working conditions. In some respects the movement was reactionary – seeking a return to a simpler agrarian era. As such it’s not a good model for our present era.

I believe there’s a better art history precedent. The first photographs created and publically shown were unveiled in 1839 to the French Académie des Sciences, by artist-inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. These daguerreotypes as they were called were photographic images upon highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper. Is it a coincidence that scarcely a quarter century later in the same culture, painters developed what came to be known as Impressionism?

Most contemporary art historians consider that it was primarily the development of photography which enabled, indeed provoked, artists to seriously explore the expressive potential of painting. Especially as the technology of photographic reproduction became more accurate in rendering realistic images, artists were, in some respects, “freed” from obligations of producing objectively faithful imagery. Ultimately color itself became “the subject” as painting moved into new realms by the “Fauves” and later Abstract Expressionist “Color Field” painters. That inquiry subsequently moved even beyond the use of pigmented paint as contemporary “light painters” such as James Turrell explore terrestrial optical color effects.

Real or virtual?

What is the design opportunity of the present era? The digital revolution is emphasizing conceptual thinking and virtual experiences. As a result we are becoming less bodily present. More and more, perhaps without realizing it, people are “walking with their brains”, not their bodies. As technology “frees us” to fly through virtual worlds inhabited by fantasy creatures, it unexpectedly concurrently creates a greater potential for physical (embodied) sensual experiences. Herein lays the unexpected opportunity of the present era. The newest frontier will be the re-engagement with our physical environment. We will again truly inhabit places, not merely use them in a functional way.

When was the last time you delighted in your actuality – the authentic, real-time presence of the where you were in the universe? The opportunity is to re-engage our bodies through all of our physical senses. It’s time to design to create that new bodily awareness. It’s time again to savor the smell of cedar shingles in the hot afternoon summer sun (or just smell the roses).

An example from design practice

As mentioned in an earlier post, one of my favorite buildings is the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark. A traditional house in a residential neighborhood was expanded into a world-class contemporary art museum. The site, abutting the coast, slopes significantly in all directions and has numerous mature trees. Rather than creating a “tabla rasa” (or clean slate) on which to efficiently set a flexible, generic exhibition gallery, the architects (Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert) intentionally chose to respect and harness the natural particularities of the existing site. As a result, the exhibition space is attached to the original house, but is broken into discrete pavilions, strung together as a necklace, each oriented to unique site views. The connecting “string” is a casually mendering glazed corridor which actually slopes with the adjoining ground and bends here and there – at once showcasing and avoiding disruption of mature trees along the way. I can’t think of a more successful synthesis of culture and nature.

Clearly the architects and client could have found a cheaper alternative than literally working around trees and slopes, but not one that would have so substantially contributed to creating the most heavily visited museum in Denmark. It is a true joy experiencing a particular place, engaging ones mind and body.

The opportunity of our present era is to reawaken our senses and bodily awareness. In this pursuit, the materials of our craft will take on renewed significance.

Remember, Materials Matter

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter M, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Maroon and Mint, and a photo of Material-free (virtual) house.


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