When The Awesome Converges With The Everyday

This past weekend, I caught a documentary called Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo (it’s airing on PBS currently). It’s about the the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and his friend and client Darwin Martin. It chronicles Wright’s struggles and eventual ascent as a prominent architect.

As Wright’s design sensibility matures, a tension is revealed. Wright viewed his work as art. Every excruciating detail was accounted for. It was a clear vision that could not be compromised in Wright’s eyes. The budget for the Martin House spiraled out of control as Wright replaced his client’s requests with his own grand vision. Practicality gave way to an ambition to attain something uniquely austere. Darwin Martin’s wife, who was nearly blind, complained over its impracticality, most notably the lack of sunlight allowed into the home.

Most creative art, whether paintings, theater or music,is created for passive observation. We, the intended audience of art, rarely interact with the creative work. We listen to music; watch a movie; observe a painting; etc. Architecture, on the other hand, is highly interactive. We often live within, and live with the creative work.

The Conservatory of the Darwin Martin HouseIn many ways, architecture is the precursor to interaction design. It’s one of the few early art forms that contends with that tension of creative expressiveness and basic practicality. Wright had a personal vision that blew away conventions of the day. His work was derided as impractical and heralded as groundbreaking all at once. What fueled Wright’s tangent away from conventional design was not just a simple desire to be different. He sought to create a memorable work that evoked emotion. He wanted its inhabitants and the occasional visitor to feel something about the place. Utility took a backseat.

We can learn a lot about respecting this tension as designers – and feeding both ends of it. It isn’t easy to create something both beautiful, emotionally-evoking and at the same time useful, intuitive and practical.

During the program, one of the commentators summed up this tension perfectly (I’m paraphrasing):

What Wright sought was to somehow reach a place where the awesome converges with the everyday.

4 Comments When The Awesome Converges With The Everyday

  1. Nick Dominguez

    The comparison between architecture and interaction design is really good, it’s something rather basic but I just never thought about it before.

  2. Rob McKeown

    When speaking about interaction design, I often find myself drawing more analogies to architecture and industrial design more than pure visual art. In any of the three disciplines, the balance between how the product is perceived visually and used physically is the main challenge.
    Explaining the value of interaction design somehow is easier when you say things like “Imagine you walk into a building and you can’t find the stairs, the elevator, anyone to help you or even the door you just came in.” Or even “Imagine that what you thought was an elevator was really a closet and the stairs that you climbed up actually took you down one level” (Its a good thing M.C. Escher didn’t dabble in architecture) That type of confusion would never be tolerated in the physical world… yet somehow, we deal with it all the time in the digital one.

  3. TomD

    Art often deviates from the practical. Imagine, as Rob mentions above, having to use an interface designed by Escher. Or Dali. Or Wright. To follow the architecture analogy, if a business needs a building in which to store stuff, it builds a warehouse. A big, ugly, gray squat, square building–but it is cost effective and does what it is supposed to do perfectly. Sometimes interaction design needs (or can?) be art (sometimes we get to build things like the Sydney Opera House)…more often, though, it needs to be a warehouse.


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