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Among its many achievements, modern design opened our eyes to the beauty of functional objects without ornamental disguise, of compact and efficiently arranged working parts, as well as machinefabricated materials like tubular steel, wire mesh and carbon fiber. In the hands of designers like Marianne Brandt, Walter Gropius or, more recently, Jasper Morrison, even humble domestic items like a corkscrew, a tea set or a coffee pot might brilliantly marry form to function. From an early modernist point of view, furniture too should adhere to strict principles—a chair is not only a piece of sculpture made for visual enjoyment, but also a seat that must abide by the determinants of physical facts and human necessities.

Broadly, one can say that every object that functions properly is a viable product, a successful expression of the designer’s intent and integrity, the fulfillment of a need or desire. Yet, there are certain things— buildings, tools, tables, chairs—that reveal more clearly their nature as an artifact, as an item made by the hand of man or his machines to serve a particular purpose. The wood beams of a building, the articulated parts or brass connectors of a piece of equipment, the exposed joints of a chair, offer evidence of constructive assembly and attentiveness to practical matters. Far from rendering such things inelegant or dull, the honest expression of function often comes as a breath of fresh air in a world of visual complexity and stylistic eclecticism.

While modernism or functionalism has been sharply criticized for becoming as formulaic as the traditions it abandoned, today’s best designers have recaptured individuality while honoring the precedents of the 20th century. No detail is either hidden or celebrated, just thoughtfully considered and utterly appropriate in the hierarchy of a product’s features. The details of design express and support function, without serving a doctrine that insists that practicality trump aesthetics. At the same time, we would do well to remember that the beauty of all natural objects, and many man-made objects, when examined, turns out to be a by-product of function—the helix of a snail’s shell, the structure of a woven material, the materials and contours of a work chair.


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There are as many ways to write about design as there are ways to practice it. We can describe, analyze, compare, judge and classify; propose theories about creativity, form and social function. We can characterize design as a language or a way of thinking. Or, we can consider one key aspect of design, the detail. For while a detail may be small in scale—a button, a stitch, a latch, a molding—the subject is not a trivial one. The design detail carries larger concepts no matter its size. It may be less encompassing than the whole, but its meaning is not less deep. Detail makes design not only intelligible, but also memorable and meaningful. Download No Detail Is Small and explore it in detail.

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