Aesthetic components of design
A general definition of beauty and aesthetic excellence would be difficult, but fortunately there are a number of generally accepted principles that can be used to achieve an understanding of the aesthetic considerations in design. One must note, however, that such understanding requires exposure and learning; an appreciation of any form of art needs such a background.
A thorough appreciation of design must go beyond the first impression. The first impression of the interior of a Gothic cathedral might be that it is somewhat dark or gloomy, but, by the time the visitor senses its majestic proportions, notices its beautiful stained glass windows and the effect of light, and begins to understand the superb structural system that permitted builders of cathedrals to achieve their lofty goals, he can truly begin to appreciate the overall aesthetic qualities.
One of the key considerations in any design must be the question of whether a design “works” or functions for its purpose. If a theatre has poor sight lines, poor acoustics, and insufficient means of entry and egress, it obviously does not work for its purpose, no matter how beautifully it might be decorated. Such a design could be considered good only if it were thought of abstractly as a kind of walk-in sculpture. In some cases the building is meant to be sculpture rather than architecture. The Statue of Liberty, for instance, is primarily intended as a monument, despite the fact that it contains rather tortured interior spaces.
To use function as the only aesthetic criterion would be limiting, but it certainly is a valid consideration to be kept in mind. Designers are often tempted to overdesign or “style” an object or interior rather than design it. Some of the most beautiful objects of the 20th century are beautiful because they were the result of purely functional considerations. It is conceivable that future art historians will consider a modern jet plane the crowning artistic achievement of the middle of this century, rather than any building, interior, or conscious art form.
The aesthetic response to an interior and its furnishings must take into consideration the social and economic conditions as well as the materials and technology of the time. The elegant or ornate interiors that are usually associated with the 18th and 19th centuries were appropriate to the social and economic conditions of the nobility or the wealthy bourgeois who were the original occupants. The chairs were designed for formal living, and the elaborately carved furnishings were designed to be cared for by many servants. Such an interior is alien to the 20th-century way of life and would be totally inappropriate for a contemporary middle class family. It would also be inappropriate to use modern materials and processes to imitate earlier materials and processes. Many manufacturers try desperately to make plastic look like wood, stone, or just about anything but plastic. All aesthetic criteria have something to do with honesty. Some aestheticians have compared beauty to truth, and there can be little doubt that honestly expressed functions and honestly expressed materials and manufacturing processes are far more beautiful than fakery and imitation.
All interiors, by definition, occur inside buildings and therefore have a very real relation to these buildings. The best interiors today, as well as in the past, are those that relate well in character and appropriateness to the particular building. The furnishings designed and scaled for spacious country homes or palaces would obviously be out of place in a small urban apartment or suburban home. A strong and unusual piece of architecture such as New York City’s Trans World Airlines terminal (at John F. Kennedy International Airport) could not be properly furnished with standard commercial furniture and products. The building, as well as the interiors, was conceived as a total design by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen. Whether the observer agrees with the architect’s concept or not, he clearly senses the strong interrelationship between the exterior and the interior—and therefore the aesthetic unity and success. Another successful interior and building is the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York City, the work of architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, with interiors by Warren Platner. The design is notable for its handsome spaces opening out toward an enclosed garden space. This obviously would not have been possible or appropriate if the view from the offices had been unattractive.
The interiors within indifferent or unattractive buildings must strive to make up for the lack of design qualities in the structures. Thus, it is sometimes necessary to ignore the ugliness of the building and create an inward-looking beauty if no architectural character exists.
The most difficult aesthetic consideration is the problem of appropriateness. The appropriate atmosphere or character of an interior must take all the foregoing points into consideration. The architectural character of the TWA terminal would make it inappropriate for use as an office building. The appropriateness of individual, more intimate, and small-scaled interiors is more subtle. The interior design of a discotheque would hardly be appropriate for a research library, and a college classroom would hardly provide the desired atmosphere for a kindergarten. Many of these responses and relationships are complex and have psychological as well as aesthetic factors.