Elemental Design

January 23rd 2014 Comments: 1 Topics: , ,

There are those who think money is essential in creating something architecturally beautiful. Elaborate finishes, rich materials and custom elements do ratchet up building costs but one need only look around to see that pricey elements are also attributes to a lot of ugly.
I posit that what sets the graceful and beautiful apart from the awkward and homely does not have a price tag attached to it at all. Any thing of great loveliness possesses three magnificent qualities: composition, balance and proportion, none of which cost a dime. To the common eye, this essential triptych of good design goes beautifully unseen. You just instinctively know when something is pretty or looks perfect. These are the mystical tools of any good artist, sculptor and architect whose adept eyes and hands can take basic elements and alchemize them into something extraordinary. This creative orchestration – not monetary expenditure – is what actually separates the sheep from the goats.

Stepping off my soapbox for a moment, I’d like to show some examples to explain how one can see these essential design elements in a piece of work.

felder-exteriors-002The street elevation of this house is an excellent case of how a simple orchestration of elements can create bold imagery. Here, the main gable is squarely anchored by a grand second floor bay window. This bay is made even more lofty by the squatty humble door assembly below – a playful game of proportions. This strongly centered balance is at once thrown off by the lilting roof to the left. Finally, the two small windows (one on the first floor and the other on the second) act as perfectly placed pieces in the composition, tilting the scale to bring the entire formation into balanced harmony.

ashurst-001The prior example was a simple composition exercise; this one is a bit more complex. It is interesting to note, though, that the same basic elements are used – beautiful music is still desirable whether your stage contains a quartet or a full orchestra. In examining this house, the front contains three strong elements – a powerful central gable, flanked on the right by a thin, soaring chimney and a an assembly of stacked windows to the left. This whole composition is a play of proportions – take for example the tiny windows hugging either side of the chimney, almost like children hugging close to their parent. Balanced in the middle of the gable, the enormous stair window sits atop a tiny slit window. Throughout the design of this house, whenever a grand gesture was made, an apology immediately followed. Here, asymmetry, with a nod to symmetry, leads the conversation of civility and balance.

2010-Xmas-Showcase-052I’ve been speaking of using these elements in the design of a house but, since they are artistically universal, they can also be used in interior design. Take for instance, the above vignette. The strong presence of this Italian desk is paired with a tall, wiry floor lamp – a play of proportions – think Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat. The robust symmetry of the desk is then asymmetrically balanced by the grouping of gilt candlesticks on top and a pair of vases on the writing surface. A small painting and book act to further visual equity. Finally, an upholstered stool weights the top-heavy composition to the floor. All is now right.

Look around your life. I’ll bet whenever you come across anything pleasing to your eye, whether it’s a building, a room, a painting, a sculpture, a furnishing – anything of design- it will undoubtedly be a masterful assembly of composition, balance and proportion. You can’t put a price on this. These unquantifiable components are indeed priceless.

Greg Tankersley for McAlpine Tankersley

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