John Cowen

John Cowen

User Experience • Design • Creativity

Beauty and the Beast


I'm a big fan of Grand Designs and much as I like the idea of starting my own self-build project someday, I've watched enough episodes to know I'd only really want to do it with a huge contingency in the bank.

What's been really interesting to watch recently has been the BBC show The House that £100k Built, where, as the title suggests, we see people building ambitious houses on very modest budgets.

What I've found particularly interesting is the consultant architect's enthusiasm for 'low grade' finishing materials. Here 'low grade' doesn't mean low quality - it's simply a means of re-evaluating our assumptions about where materials can be used and what is and isn't attractive in your home.

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OSB is a particular example of this. OSB is cheap, but durable. It was created as a building material that would be concealed behind plasterboard and never designed to be an attractive surface finish.

The show however shows lots of examples of innovative designers using it as a final surface. A lot of people are not going to be convinced it does give an attractive finish (and I'm on the fence myself here) - but it's fascinating to see this development in aesthetic tastes.

A decade ago these low grade surfaces probably wouldn't have been suggested by architects as having any aesthetic value. But, probably in part as a reaction against conservative high-end finishes - and in part as a necessary re-evaluation of perception due to economic necessity, our perception of the material and it's aesthetic have changed. Or, at least, are changing.

I don't know if there's a genuine link between an interest in low-grade materials used in construction and the new trend for flat design online. More likely it's coincidence, but it will be interesting to see if we're moving into a phase of self-imposed aesthetic austerity. It would be great for society at large if we can teach ourselves to see the beauty in the most simple and un-refined objects as it would help pull us back from our long-term habit of consumption and always wanting more.

More likely I think is it being a sign of designers becoming bored and it being natural instinct to disrupt the conventional and introduce new ideas to challenge peoples perceptions and aesthetic language. And this is the argument for not running consumer surveys before starting a design process. A consumer survey is never going to show a desire for something that, at that point, would be perceived as ugly. It needs an inspired designer to see the potential in a challenging design scheme that might take a bit of time to be accepted into the mainstream but, when it is, will be taken up more passionately because it is genuinely innovative and relevant to our time and place in society.

You made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading.

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