good design: knowing when to innovate and when to trust tradition

10/06/2011 § Leave a comment

ray and charles eames, storage unit


last friday, i attended the opening of good design: stories from herman miller.  the invitation mentioned mad men attire being optional.  holding a cigarette in one hand and glass of whiskey in the other was not optional or even allowed; we live in ethical times.  set on small platforms throughout the galleries were those iconic pieces of furniture which don’t need much introduction.  what stood out most from the evening was the title: good design.  good design for herman miller involved mass producing elegantly planned and nicely crafted pieces of furniture, all the while with a lucky strike in hand.

in the fifty years since ray and charles eames and others designed their famous furniture for herman miller, good design as craft shifted towards good design as ethics.  smoking became bad, especially in public places.  we began to care for indoor environmental air quality.  the work place was re-envisioned.  leading the way was william mcdonough, who is best known for passionately advocating for designers to think in terms of cycles and not dead ends.  even herman miller understood the importance of ethical design as good design and commissioned mcdonough to improve their work environment in holland, michigan.  the design received great acclaim for its capacity in increase “psychological and social well being”.


kieran timberlake, loblolly house, 2007


mcdonough’s influence has since grown and now there are spin offs employing the same sorts of talk.  take for example kieran timberlake, creators of the loblolly house.  their book, elements of a new architecture, advocates for streamlining design and construction by utilizing bim technologies and modular components.  the goal is an architecture of assembly not construction.  scaffolds are assembled.  walls are constructed.  they wrap their design up in beautifully packaged images – likening the building to the statue of an aztec eagle warrior, the perfect image of man and nature intertwined as one.  they believe the loblolly house connects to nature.  the wood piers and variegated wood slat siding mimic natural conditions on the site, such as, the loblolly tree trunks and the dappled light of the forest canopy respectively.  they even go as far as to compare themselves with the farnsworth house.  in their eyes the loblolly house is a camouflaged structure connecting man to nature and the farnsworth house is an isolate object in the field.


ray and charles eames, eames house, 1949

a more appropriate comparison to the loblolly house can be found in the eames house, beautifully designed and assembled using industrial components on the wooded portion of a site in santa monica, california.  the eames house was conceived of before the invention of bim and therefore the loblolly house does bring something new and admirable to the table.  but kieran timberlake do so at the expense of design.   kieran timberlake believe their building design provides a camouflage, blending building and nature.   i’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not this works.  without directly speaking of the immersion of building into nature, the eames, by placing their structure into the slope and nestling it behind a row of trees effectively blended the building into nature.  these siting techniques, i.e. placing a building behind a row of trees, aren’t new concepts either.

the simple placement of the building shows why the eames where great designers – they knew when to innovate and when to trust tradition.


get out of town.

a young hare

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