Tactile Learning

Some weeks in the office are thrilling.  Whether steeped in conceptual thought and design exploration or attending climactic client meetings that involve the presenting and discussion of these ideas with a broader audience in which everyone is enthused and can “see” the project, I would argue the highs of being a practicing Junior Architect are very palpable.

Then there are weeks that you look at cabinetry.   And hardware.  And appliances.

…and you enjoy it!   Because, as an architect/designer, you enjoy high-level thinking, but admittedly are (or should be?) detail-oriented.

This sums up last week at work, in which my project team and I took the leap from drawings to reality.  This process entailed getting down to the details of actually looking and touching “things,” with the end-goal of specifying product.

In this specific instance, we were looking into product-line options that will eventually transform our plans and elevations into functional, beautiful kitchens for residential units.  While seemingly mundane, these products and how they are manufactured/assembled/installed will have a big impact on the overall interior architectural design and experience for the residents of a mixed-use building in a popular downtown, urban environment.

To be honest, this process of lines-to-reality can be a fun but challenging process for architects and interior designers alike.  Lines on paper imply so many sexy hypotheticals and possibilities.  “This black square drawn in Sharpie marker on white printer paper represents cabinetry carved in relief out of a rare stone from Indonesia—I mean, its made out of dichroic glass that changes color from day to night and plays music when you open it.”   In reality (i.e. built physical form) parameters that do not exist in 2d or virtual space become self-evident whistle-blowers “Play music when you open it?  That is going to cost $15,000 per unit and will need to be wired into the backer-board by a special agoraphobic sound engineer based in Turkey.”

Now a few lines with ninety degree angles that seemed unassuming but explanatory have become question marks regarding brand, price, quality, lead times, performance, sustainability, and, of course, aesthetics.

That’s why I enjoyed this past week so much.  While I love the creative process and could explore design options and hypotheticals ad-nauseum, it was helpful to step away from my computer to visit showrooms and meet with representatives.  While navigating drop-down menus and product brochures with dated models and weird lighting can be helpful in the cursory stages of a project, seeing things installed/in person was enormously helpful in terms of understanding our options while validating our initial design intent.

As emerging professionals, we often have cursory knowledge when approaching relatively new or unfamiliar project types or levels of detail within a project.  This is no fault of our own; just lack of time and experience in the profession that, say, someone that’s done 30 of the same projects over a span of 40 years might have.

In my case, as someone with more commercial than residential experience, this past week was a great example of acquiring a new wealth of knowledge regarding material options, construction methods/ technologies, and the price and production implications of standardization vs. customization for products that will likely be used in our project.

While I don’t plan on utilizing this new, exciting breadth of knowledge as first-date or dinner conversation (“So do you like soft-close or pull-out drawers in your kitchen?”) I feel more confident in my design decisions with regard to understanding what product options are available, as well as how a separate-but-related industry operates.

I’m excited to start drawing and formalizing the information we acquired this week, and look forward to the next chance to delve into materials and product research.  And in the meantime, I’d encourage anyone working on a project in which they’re drawing beautiful lines but not really “looking at things” to take a break and do just that…

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