Lush and springy, the dense foliage undulates over unseen humps and valleys, propelling thoughts of moon bounces and leaping through clouds . . . Chips of stone and grunts of effort fly into the air as chisel gouges rock as pale as bone . . . Imagine running your hand along the bricks, feeling the rough surface crumble into dust, imperceptibly deepening the crevices and leaving a dry red residue on your fingertips . . . From afar the tiles appear a continuous glossed finish, but up close you can see the faint color variation from white to cream, trace the scaled pattern that expands and contracts to accommodate arcing curves, notice grout lines and cracks . . .

Can you guess what / where these are? Think iconic.

What is so special about pulling on a thick cashmere sweater in the dead of winter? There’s the static tug of fiber on hair, an immediate insulated warmth, and the incredibly soft, duckling-down caress. An important part of our interactions with the sweater and the rest of the physical world is through touch. And this, for me, is a multifaceted interplay starting at the eyes, routed through the frontal lobe, triggering desire, and transmitted down to the fingers. In other words, I see something interesting and am struck by a strong urge to touch it. [The same compulsion applies to smelling things, but that’s a different problem] I imagine other curious people experience a similar feeling, and if their impulse controls are as undeveloped as mine then they too must go around stroking and poking all sorts of things just to see how they feel.

So back to the photos above . . . Ideas?

. . .

. . .

. . .

They are:

Musée du Quai Branly’s living wall, on the south bank of the Seine in Paris.

A rough-carved statue in the “passion façade” of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona.

Weathered bricks – a centuries-old house in Serenissima, La Dominante, The Floating City, Venice.

The shell-like tile mosaic exterior of the Sydney Opera House.

[I admit, the bricks are a bit of a stretch on the “recognizable” scale, but you won’t see that much history in a Boston brownstone.]

How’d you do? A+, anyone? No? Not surprising, since the experience of these monuments is rarely so intimate as to include zooming in on macro or sticking out a hand for some heavy petting. Texture is not usually among the defining characteristics of well-known buildings, yet if given a second glance, you realize that the extra flourish can be the cherry on top that elevates a design from remarkable to spectacular. Sure, a key step in any design process is material selection, and often that includes a study of surface properties: Does this provide enough / cause too much friction? Will the fabric pill after a month of rubbing? How well does it reflect sunlight? These are the big-picture questions for “small” items – pieces that interact in close proximity with other components or the user, from bearings to laptop cases to cars. Such consideration isn’t necessarily applied as rigorously to larger, inanimate structures and the results don’t always take into account my own experience as I walk up to a wall and squint at it down my nose or absentmindedly run a hand along the side while I walk. Still, this is how physical things are consumed, how they speak to us, not in wide-angle photos but by invading our personal space.

Designers should stop and smell the flowers more often, and pinch them and prod them and capture their hues and thorns and buzzing bees. Sometimes we get too caught up with the general form or function or appearance and forget the little details that can be just as profound. Think about how your bricks will feel after decades of storming ocean spray; whether making the effort to get up-close-and-personal with your work will be rewarding or uneventful; the way remnants of construction processes might affect the finished product. And though buildings were a useful demonstration subject, this facet of the design process must also be brought down to earth for those “small” items I said were already relatively successful in harnessing physicality and texture. Nerve endings play an even greater role with things you can toss in your hands. And as evidenced by whoever’s idea it was to make stuffed animals out of that weird velour that always feels oily and gross, there’s always room for improvement.

Categorized as Design

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