Design chaos

I have a bathroom that was built in the 40s. It has tiny black and white ceramic tiles on the floor, shiny white tiles with black edge trim that kind of zig and zag here and there on the walls, and ordinary old fixtures, all of which are stained or mildly disfunctional in some way. The floorprint is teensy, about 5′ x 7′. When I added an addition to my house, I sawed out the ceiling and shoved it some 14′ up into the attic space so I could install a window way up there to bring in a bit of natural light. Then, one day, I pruned a tree and carried one of the limbs up into the bathroom and wedged it into that very high ceiling space, then strung the limb and the splotchy pipes under the wall-mounted sink with fake plants. Later, to make matters even more interesting, I took a course in faux finishes and painted the bathroom door and the space where the old window was in a very imaginary fake marble. All of this happened more than 20 years ago.

If this bathroom isn’t a designer’s nightmare, I don’t know what is.

Nightmare or not, this bathroom makes me think, once again, about what is “good” design. Clearly this mess of a bathroom is not what any learned designer would call good design – I know I would never specify dead tree limbs and plastic plants if I were designing a bathroom for a client. Yet, like the rest of my house, this crazy bathroom feels friendly and cozy and I actually like it a lot. It’s a curiously successful space. So, is good interior design only what you might find in a design magazine or can it also be defined as a space that makes people happy? Does good design have to present a unified concept or can it sometimes rise out of a random conglomeration of stuff? I believe good design has room for both ends of these spectra, with a lot of complexity in between.

Indisputably, an interior conceived with careful consideration of the elements and principles of design – space, line, texture, balance, rhythm, and so forth – is infinitely more likely to be good design than an interior that is simply thrown together. A space so conceived just feels right. But this isn’t the whole story. Most interiors are used by people and the functional and emotional needs of those people have to be met before a design can be deemed to be truly good. An acclaimed design that disregards the needs of the people who experience it is, in my mind, needlessly pretentious.

But can an interior design that generally disregards the elements and principles of design but fully satisfies the emotional needs of the people who use the space also be “good” design? Interiors are, after all, for using and experiencing. If an interior creates a positive emotional connection with its users and people want to be in the space, it’s a good thing.

I suppose it can be argued that such a space might be good, but it’s not “design.” Logically, a “designed” space should at least consider the elements and principles of design. Actually I strongly agree with this. Striking an emotional chord, however, may require stepping outside these boundaries to some extent. Emotions are by nature chaotic and perhaps a design that successfully touches emotion has to embrace a certain amount of chaos. Design chaos may be the antithesis of the elements and principles – or it may be one of the most important elements of all.

My bathroom, and indeed all of my house, is a hodge-podge of intense color, textures, art, and random furniture with no particular style or design direction, but everyone who comes in says they absolutely love it. There’s got to be something to be said for that. Clearly this bathroom is not even close to being “good design,” but its strong emotional appeal gives it definite design value. Good design is complex.

[Note to self: I started this post because I saw a sink in a magazine and wanted to record the name of the manufacturer so I could find it if I ever decide to remodel this bathroom. The post turned into something else, but the company with the sinks is AFNY Architectural Fixtures.]

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