Thursday, July 8, 2010

Attention to Detail: God is in the Details

As Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe exclaimed “God is in the details.” The famous architect knew that what separates the sublime from the mundane is the attention to detail that an artisan expresses in their work. It is refinement of technique, if you will, a stylistic turn of the hand that somehow transcends the mediocre, bringing the work into the realm of the ineffable. As Nelson Algren, the writer says, “it’s all in the wrist.” Of course, we are not talking billiards here, but about the loving care and eye that the master craftsperson creates, when sculpting his work of art, whether that be a painting, a building, or an interior.

Attention to detail goes hand-in-hand with quality workmanship. It is a creative process in two ways: one is the evolvement of a work of art from its inception in the artist’s hands, the other is where the artist leaves off and the work becomes a living entity unto itself. That is, the work that is built, from this creative process, now relates to the world at large, its form having transcended the admixture of material and inspiration. What is the outcome? Sometimes something so beautiful, it is inexpressible; sometimes something so witty, that it transcends humor, sometimes something so subtle, that its refined sensibility, its synesthetic appeal to all the senses is, just “is.”

As an interior designer, attention to detail is expressed in many different ways. Perhaps, it is the result of the unexpected: using materials known to function for one purpose, and used as another. For instance, one generally doesn’t see drapery cornices composed of metal tiles. Doing so, not only greets the viewer as a surprise, it evokes interest and an element of perhaps intelligence in its relationship to its surrounding environment. Another such detail, used mainly in architecture, is the reveal. It is a subtle groove, a void, between elements, whether that be between the floor and the wall perpendicular to it, giving the wall an elevated feeling , or a carving out of part of the baseboard, giving it a lighter, more sculpted look. Reveals are more commonly seen in door frames or cabinetry, where, in effect, it says to the viewer, that it is separating one architectural element from another - in this case, the door from the frame, or one piece of wood from another.

Attention to detail encompasses the materials and finishes used to create a piece of furniture or structure. Something as common as a doorknob can become a work of art if the one chosen is of superior quality and design. For instance, a hand hammered knob by Butler, which takes many hours of careful labor to create is not the same as the typical Baldwin knob produced on an assembly line. A desk hand-made of straw, piece by piece, hour after hour, with a great labor of love, is a tour de force. Costly, yes; worth it, definitely. It sublimely surpasses the ‘sameness’ of most furniture. Other elements of attention to detail like using nail heads on a sofa delineate and distinguish these differences as well. As small an element as the cord or trim on a chair or pillow can speak volumes in separating it from the mass produced. Parchment, woven meshed metals, shagreen, cashmere, cerused woods are all materials and techniques which are different and unusual. Even employing a striae wall technique can alter the appearance of a wall.

Perhaps it is the sheer element of the unexpected, such as a prison-like stainless steel water closet in a very high end bathroom that evokes that illusion. Or, the ironic composition of putting a leather wall tile in a bathroom contiguously poised next to irregularly Erin Adams’ hand-cut tortoise shell tiles, installed bit by bit, that creates a beautiful juxtaposition. On the humorous side, it may be a kitchen bar faucet that looks like a vodka bottle. Or a Jean Cocteau illustration drawn directly upon a wall. Kohler’s new HatBox water closet is a humorous expression of the common day toilet. While perfectly functional and exquisitely designed to look like a hat box , it is, in the end, just a toilet. It’s serendipitous combination of form and function transcends the usual.

And, then, there are the master craftsman, who manifest these masterpieces, who have the vision to create and recreate originals in their own mind’s eye. Artisans like Jean-Paul Viollet’s Atelier sculpt pieces that combine precious and unusual materials into aesthetic and functional forms of furniture. For example, he regularly uses straw, shagreen, horn, and exotic woods like amboyna, with mother of pearl inlay, materials and finishes not commonly seen everyday. Within the fabric arena, one finds Gretchen Bellinger’s pearl and diamond studded silks that are so subtlety woven that, though sounding over the top, are subtle productions of woven goods rendered absolutely gorgeous. Carolyn Ray’s wallpapers are so ingenious and witty; they combine historical and humorous images, like that of a collage, to create interestingly patterned walls. With leather, we have fabricators such as Dualoy, who combine colors, techniques, and designs, making their goods look rich, luxurious, different, and clever. And, lastly, there is ornamental plasterwork, which separates the ordinary from the unusual. Here, the master craftsman like Balmer carve and sculpt beautiful images, whether modern or traditional, for the ceiling, walls, or cabinetry. They add depth, interest, and fascination, when looked upon.

What distinguishes the good from the great, the mundane from the sublime, the slapstick from the witty: it’s all, as MVR says, “Attention to Detail.”


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  2. Most certainly could not agree with you more on this issue. However we live in a time of both dumbing down of clients by mass marketers and mass media and a tearing down of the appreciation for real quality. Our society, except at the very "high-end" really don't know what attention to quality and details is all about, nor have an appreciation thereof. I have seen people compare a track home interior to one painstakingly created by skilled master craftsmen, and would not be willing to pay more for one vs. the other, sad in my view. But it is the times we are living in. The Home Depot's of the world are convincing our middle class and sometimes our upper middle class, that buying a product in a cardboard box and installing it in their home is somehow equivalent to a custom created piece hand crafted for the same place. It seems very few people these days are willing to pay for and appreciate "high quality".

    Further, in the art crafts of fine home building and master craftsman quality goods, we have all but lost the apprentice system which passed down to a younger generation the values, methodology and "tricks-of-the-trade" traditions witnessed only two generations ago. This was the world in which Van der Rohe grew up in and flourished as a trend setting designer and innovative creator.

    I believe we are in the twilight of these values except as heretofore mentioned the ultra elite of our society. However, one must realize as the gap grows ever wider between the haves and the have not’s, what is happening in the design and other trades is a reflection of our society, its current values and human condition.

    When a client, with a good eye appreciates "Attention To Detail", it no longer carries with it the appreciation of the additional hours, expense and expertise it took to create it. In that analysis, it holds no real value in the eyes of that person. This is one persons opinion.