How Interior Designers Can Reconnect With the Inner Artisan

01/16/2019

Clay Odom

Artisan. This evocative, romantic term has dominated both the expectations and the core of interior design since its inception. As a critical, contemporary issue, how are interior designers engaging and challenging the expectations of what “artisan” and “artisanal” mean to the profession?

Two possible trajectories for reconsidering the artisanal lie in either issues of craft and making and in issues of experience and authenticity. Today, interior designers have the capacity to organize and generate projects of all sizes and at all budgets. If interior designers harness the capacities that computation, digital design and fabrication provide, they will not only be able to continue to deliver projects, they will be able to reconnect directly with new forms of the artisanal.


Flowering Phantasm in Amsterdam, Netherlands includes digitally controlled fabrication, CNC and water jet cut aluminum parts that are then hand assembled. Images courtesy of Clay Odom.

Two possible trajectories for reconsidering the artisanal lie in either issues of craft and making and in issues of experience and authenticity.

Crafting vs. Experiences

Both trajectories implicate the outcomes of our work as contemporary interior designers in different ways. The first, and most accessible, definition relating craft and making is easy enough to consider.

However, the second is a bit trickier, but perhaps fruitful to think about. Here, we begin to think not just of the things we create, but of the people who experience them through their own bodies and senses. People often associate the made object with other more subjective considerations. The artisanal in this sense links with what can be considered the core – but too often avoided or apologized for – aspects of interior design: decoration, ornament and subjectivity. In this view, people’s experiences are an effect of craft, and therefore an extension of the artisan’s work.

The artisan in many ways operates within a paradigm that is charged with the haptic immediacy of materiality and heuristic knowledge gained from exploring and developing technique. For contemporary interior designers, particularly those outside of academia, the immediacy of material making is often subjugated to other forms of exploration – namely drawing. In this way, interior design in practice is still particularly oriented toward 2D organization and representation.

However useful to the pressures of practice as it coordinates business, clients, vendors and builders, the separation of the designer from the act of making is problematic, but also represents an opportunity for designers to critically examine what artisanal really means in the early 21st century.

How Technology Affects Artisanal

The traditional view of artisanal tends to skew thinking toward the “perfection” of the hand of the master craftsman or of the delightfully imperfect craft associated with more prosaic forms of making. But new technologies, or old technologies used in new ways, affect how we understand the artisanal and by extension how we understand and define interior design.

The artisan in many operates within a paradigm that is charged with the haptic immediacy of materiality and heuristic knowledge gained from exploring and developing technique. For contemporary interior designers, particularly those outside of academia, the immediacy of material making is often subjugated to other forms of exploration – namely drawing. In this way, interior design in practice is still particularly oriented toward 2D organization and representation.

However useful to the pressures of practice as it coordinates business, clients, vendors and builders, the separation of the designer from the act of making is problematic, but also represents an opportunity for designers to critically examine what artisanal really means in the early 21st century.

Today, new forms of interaction with the material world are becoming more available through digital techniques. These emerging yet accessible approaches allow new forms of exploration and a reconnection with the artisanal. Re-engaging in an ongoing development of technique and method is one way for interior designers to reclaim and, most importantly, redefine what the artisanal means today and in the future.

In my own work, I have been engaged in ongoing investigations of craft through the lens of digital design and fabrication. The work directly confronts the notion of digitally-oriented work being oriented toward a sense of perfection. In fact, the work interrogates and negotiates with the reality of making even when aided by computation and digital fabrication processes ranging from 3D printing, to CNC routing and robotically assisted methods.

The work falls under what I call ‘Articulate Assemblage’ and develops idiosyncrasy not through the hand, but through the digital fabrication and assembly that allow for a proliferation of detail which, although it is extremely precise, yields imperfection and artisanal qualities as effects of digital design and fabrication processes.

A Few Closing Thoughts

Today, interior designers have the capacity to organize and generate projects of all sizes and at all budgets. If interior designers harness the capacities that computation, digital design and fabrication provide, they will not only be able to continue to deliver projects, they will be able to re-connect directly with new forms of the artisanal. The quality of newness that is inscribed as potentially re-engaging the artisanal mark a trajectory for a new form of speculation on interior design as a discipline and the very notion of the interior.

Artisanal qualities are not rhetorical or simply bestowed upon work regardless of how it is realized. Such qualities are earned through ongoing actions of design which are now available to be developed directly by the digitally enhanced designer. In this way, they are crucial to a contemporary reengagement with the artisanal.

Certainly, interior designers will still engage with traditional artisans in their work. But interior designers can develop their own contemporary design-oriented approaches to the artisanal by openly engaging and expertly wielding contemporary tools and techniques within different aspects of their work. Ultimately, they just might rediscover the artisan within themselves and, in the process, create a particularly contemporary, artisanal quality that cannot be found through ceding every act of making to the hands of others.

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Clay Odom is an assistant professor in the interior design program at The University of Texas School of Architecture. He is a licensed interior designer and principal of the research-oriented design practice, studioMODO based in Austin, Texas.