Puzzling out the essence of enduring design


Emily Carr Institute’s 3D design students face the challenge of creating a one-piece cardboard chair during class.

Since I quit my office job and plunged into the world of design two years ago I’ve learned one important lesson: The more I know, the more I don’t know.

For example, I’m fairly sure I won’t be creating the next Bauhaus or Eames chair, but I’m starting to understand why I’ve always loved those elegant, enduring designs.

Style, comfort and efficiency are the major factors, but there’s something else in those pieces that’s just beyond my mental grasp. The Japanese word “funiki” comes to mind — the soul or vibe of a space — but that doesn’t work for objects.

When I was a staff writer for a tourist magazine in Kyoto, I was asked to translate the following piece of Japanglish for an advertiser: “Feel the soul of the poetry of this wood.” Best I could come up with was, “We use high-quality wood.”

In short, some things just don’t translate. As consumers and viewers we may know what we like but we couldn’t tell you why. Designers, however, develop a kind of communication in the making, and it’s not necessarily verbal language but visual.

“Visual language” is a big theme in art and design. Instructors in this field compel students to consider the visual language in everything from Renaissance paintings to contemporary sculpture, from film to furniture. It’s not necessarily a secret to decode but a logical starting point. What is being communicated in the choice of that material, shape, colour or context?

At least, this was the train of thought shunting through my grey matter at the end of my Foundations In 3-D Design course at Emily Carr Institute Of Art And Design, at Granville Island. I’ve learned there’s a language I can barely grasp. Going back to school is a sure-fire way to shrink the ego.

This may be why an assignment that had us communicating a verb in a simple material like cardstock wasn’t the class favourite, admits design instructor Duane Elverum. (I was a ball of confusion as I tried to make a disposable aluminum roasting pan communicate the verb “buckle.”)

“It was the most challenging assignment because you have to dwell inside your head instead of just the material,” he told the class of 15 or so on the last day. “It forces the mind to go deep.” I’ll mull that point over curled up on my mid-century modern armchair with a glass of pinot gris.

Carlyn Yandle is a Vancouver journalist with her own room-planning business,Home Reworks. She dwells on urban-home issues every Thursday in Metro.