Design, what is it?

It’s a word we architects use constantly, but when asked to define it, I was at a bit of a loss. Dictionary.com to the rescue and very quickly I found two definitions that seem right to me: “to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully,” and “the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.” I like the two together because when we talk about “good” design we’re generally talking about “fashion artistically or skillfully” design. We know it when we see and we, for the most part, feel that we don’t see enough of it.

I’ve attended numerous architectural design award ceremonies and a typical part of the program is showing slides of the award winners on a big screen behind the podium. There are generally murmurs of congratulations to the winners and hushed comments traded around the table but every once in a while a slide is shown that is so visually stunning that a collective “ooooo” is heard. That’s good design. As architects we’re tuned into that, we seek it out; we appreciate it when we see it. But what about non-architects, do they react the same way?

Cars elicit an emotional response from people with little interest in design, so do kitchen gadgets, cell phones and computers. While the typical “civilian” might not be actively looking for good design, they can appreciate it. There are preconditioned responses about architecture, especially home design. On HGTV shows, clients talk about the curb appeal of houses that are little more than garages with a front door tucked off to the side and they marvel about the spaciousness of an entry foyer that is just a tall narrow room with an uninteresting stair along one wall. I don’t count those. And I don’t think its about genius or total no holds barred originality. Sometimes wonderful architecture just slips up on you.

Two examples that should be familiar to all South Carolina architects are the Drayton Hall stair hall and the bathrooms in Clark and Menefee’s Middleton Inn. Both are visually stunning initially, invite closer study and then reveal a myriad of wonderful, thoughtful touches. Both examples are appreciated by people without any particular knowledge of architecture.

I think our goal as architects with every house, every office building, and every school should be to elicit that “oooo” from its users. Is this an unrealistic goal? Probably. Does it mean that we shouldn’t try? Absolutely not!

Drayton Hall is worth a visit. It’s certainly the greatest Georgian house in the South, possibly the best example in America.

The Inn at Middleton Place is (in my opinion) South Carolina’s best “modern” building. The main draw to Charleston is downtown and this is 30 minutes away, but it’s such a wonderful place that you really need to consider spending a few nights there.

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About More Than Architects

I’m Rick Clanton. Michael Ruegamer and I are architects and the principals of Group 3 Design on Hilton Head Island, SC. We provide architecture and interior design services for homes in the US and the Caribbean Islands.
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