Teaching Taste (and) (Through) Media_conference presentation

Analysis of CSH#20. Buff, Straub & Hensman. Bass House. 1959.
Student: Molly Sherman, MS Interior Design.
Analysis produced SP13.

Presentation delivered at the Interior Design Education Council (IDEC) National Convention. Boston MA. Spring 18.

When one asks the question what is the most important qualification for an interior designer, the average person’s answer is (still, often, sadly) they have to have great taste. When one asks the question what is taste, the average person’s answer is it’s what I like.

This is clearly not a satisfactory answer for an interior designer, who makes design choices through a complex process involving research, analysis, testing of options and the ability to navigate and satisfy a multitude of preferences, as well as one’s own.

Taste, based on scholarship since the 18th century, is a set of intuited preferences or values to which one is conditioned by environment, experience and education. This conditioning is akin to an unconscious learning process, all the more powerful because its reception is not critical; it forms what we think of as natural. It is insupportable however to assume that taste IS nature, an inherited set of proclivities, embedded and unchanging. We all have preferences to which we’ve been conditioned; for designers, a robust design process leads us to test our intuited choices and can offer opportunities to actively question conditioned values; that having been said-  as it is an integral part of a designer’s sensibility, an understanding of what taste is and how it forms is critical for any designer.

So how to teach students about a set of values that are not explicitly learned?

An important player in the development of one’s taste is media. Certainly most of a designer’s familiarity with canonical works of design since the beginning of the twentieth century (whether in the classroom or the atelier) has been through photographs, affording us global access that continues to grow in form and reach. Yet, as Roland Barthes tell us, what we see in a photograph is not its power as a medium but its content or its subject. A source of its power is its relative invisibility. An uncritical consumption of images imprints us with an understanding mediated by its authors and its form. In that way, the act of viewing a photograph is a metaphor for and one site of the formation of taste.

Publications featuring the Case Study Houses (1945-1966) offer a unique opportunity to examine this phenomena. Commissioned by Arts and Architecture Magazine, these projects offered contemporary design luminaries a chance to propose and build prototypical housing models to address post-war housing shortages; it also offered a built-in opportunity to disseminate and promote those projects in a lush image-dense publication. These projects have been extensively documented in other publications up to the present day; each frames the project differently.

This presentation concentrated on comparisons of CSH projects across different publications (with an emphasis on the analysis of photography and layout) produced by graduate Interior Design students from 2011-2016. Teams of students undertake a detailed study of the content, cropping and framing as well as the context (order, adjacencies) of each image and compare that with a close reading of texts- even advertisements are understood to be part of an article’s context. This granular analysis that reveals the point-of-view (a constellation of opinions, attitudes or judgements) embedded in these publications; students are able to identify a range of alternative identities for the house itself, as well as differing definitions of domesticity, privacy and gender roles, readings not easily discernible to a more casual reader.

Students leave the class with a greater mastery of the techniques of design representation (and critique) as well as an understanding of its power: that our mediated access TO design transmits a set of embedded values, an understanding critical for both consumers and producers OF design. Analysis illuminates its mechanisms, and offers an analogy to the unconscious conditioning that forms taste.

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