The Art of Design

I don't know if they still make them, but remember those paint sets with the clear plastic cover that you flipped open to reveal the half dozen or so paint colors poured into perfect ovals, the thin brush clipped horizontally along the top of the case? I had one and loved it. Of course the colors ended up all getting mixed together to make that beautiful muck color and none of my paintings made is past the family frig.

I thought about that paint set the other day when I was watching a documentary about John Audubon. He didn't mess around with a cheap paint set needless to say. The documentary is a great story of his life (thank you PBS) but what I loved most about it was a reminder of how beautiful sketches, paintings and watercolors are. It is a lost art in the world of design. As much as I am a fan of the latest computer programs, such as 3DStudio Max, and the amazing graphics that they create, the personal touch that is present in a hand rendering is irreplaceable.

For those of you curious, Audubon used graphite, watercolors, gauche, among other materials, to document 497 birds, all at life size. His Birds of America, (yes, a creative title) was finally made available for purchase in 1826, when he was in his early 40s. In making his paintings, Audubon labored over each detail, even making his own paint brushes with just a single hair in order to paint each feather more accurately. Sure that's pretty crazy and he actually sounds like not that nice of a guy. However, his work is amazing. There is so much depth in each color and texture in every inch from the deepest crimson on thin light feathers to the faintest pale grey on a wrinkled foot. The longer you look at them the more you see. The birds look nearly real but there is still a veil that let's you know it is art, not reality. That is the true beauty.

Computer renderings on the other hand do not want that veil. They want to be real, but in that process, cool as it is, the art of rendering and the appreciation of the design of the space is lost. With the efficiency of the digital age hand renderings of architecture and interior spaces are becoming more and more rare. They are time consuming and require skills some of us simply didn't learn how to do. I sure can't use watercolors the way I would like to! Not so long ago however hand renderings and watercolors were pretty standard in the design world. That same notion of detail and personal touch Audubon put into his work was put into creating renderings of architecture and interiors. Here are a few watercolors I recently stumbled upon when I was flipping through Sister Parish Design: On Decorating. These watercolors are not as intensely detailed as Audubon's work but they still give the space a sense of magic, a glow that is intriguing and dimensional. You want to study it, take it in a bit more, understand the nuances of it.

(Yes, I know the birds on the wall - ironic, yet so fitting.)

While you're studying the watercolor you start to appreciate all the details of the space that you miss when you look at computer renderings because the computer generated images appear so real you don't feel like you need to look more closely. That magic is lost, the art is gone.

That veil, the distance between the image of the space and the reality of the space is what I enjoy. One thing that is so exciting about design is making the reality happen, creating the feeling and atmosphere you have in your mind's eye with physical things. But before we get to the reality, let's take some time to enjoy the art of it, that dreamy not so perfect part that reminds us that what we are making when we design is itself art.


Why am I doing this, you may ask.

I once started one of those big old term papers in college with the line, What do you notice when you walk down the street? It's a simple question in some ways but pretty complicated, (enough for a fifty page paper) in other ways. I liked it because what I was writing about was urban design and architecture, and what you notice when you walk down a street can really make it or break it. What buidlings do you see - are they old or new? Is there a sense of history? Are there trees, shade and a sidewalk so you can stroll and enjoy the space or can you just drive by in a flash? I always notice these little things and it makes a space what it is. This is why I love architecture and urban design.

Then let's say you walk in a building from this street. Are there shadows from the sunlight dancing around in patterns on the floors and walls or one of those places where it's always high noon no matter what your watch says? Let's say this building is amazingly gorgeous inside plus you're tired (all these things you're thinking about and all) and you want to sit down and take it all in. Is your butt now on a hard bench or on a soft cushion? Does your hand fall on a thin plastic armrest or on a wood armrest that has been hand carved by an artistan centuries ago to fit your grasp? This is why I love interior design and furniture.

This kind of stuff is all over the place and I like learning more about it because I just simply like it for one thing. But also, I think it makes the spaces around me more interesting, my day a little more entertaining. It's not always about taking trips to experience new things in design, sometimes it's just about appreciating what's already around us.

Since I don't think I'm alone in this idea I thought I'd share what I learn along the way with people who seem to have the same sort of interests as myself - people like you I suppose, if you're reading this and my website ermillerdesign.com. Maybe you'll even be nice and share it with some friends if you like what you get out of it (yes, that was a request).