Keep the Essence

A lot of my work involves working with existing built spaces, many of them heritage environments. A recurring challenge is to create recognizable links to existing historic detailing while clearly defining a design that is of the here and now. I wrote a previous post about why this is an important best practice in heritage environments, if you missed that one, you might want to read it here. What follows is my attempt to describe the process I use when trying to either re-interpret historical detailing or otherwise put a modern spin on a classic design.


Before any designing can be done, the object or detailing must be thoroughly, deeply understood and appreciated. What is it? What does it stand for? Is there a deeper symbolism or reference at work here? Don’t overlook the emotional response elicited from the user or viewer — these emotional factors could be related to form, or they might be tactile or auditory. Sometimes it’s as simple as the way a door sounds or feels when it closes. The task is to understand these essential qualities which must be retained in a re-interpretation to maintain the feel, look and function of the original, then adding the contemporary which will root the design in the present.


Look hard at the classic and try to eliminate details that don’t directly contribute to the essence of the thing. Sometimes it takes a close examination through squinted eyes to see what is essential and what is not. Depending on the era you’re working with, excessive detailing may have been the order of the day (I’m looking at you, Victorian). This can be a tough call — is all this detail part of the essence of the thing? Maybe try flattening 3D detailing into a simplified graphic background to bring it into the modern era.


Older built things are frequently characterized by lots of joints or connections necessitated by the original building or manufacturing process. Eliminating these begins to nudge the design in a more modern direction. When we replace meticulously pieced together grillwork with simplified laser-cut panels we have immediately moved the design forward in time. Similarly for other joinery details that have highly detailed articulations — find the lines that need to stay and eliminate the rest.


The last step could just as easily be the first step I suppose, but I see it as a stepping back and viewing the thing holistically. Compare the form and silhouette of the new with the old, do they match up? Have important geometrical relationships been lost in the translation? Maybe there was an implied and unifying ellipse within all that detailing that has now been lost. Find a way to put it back in. It’s easy to overlook these subtle things that give a design its bones and structure, but without them, your design will be lacking.


While the above is a good start to reinterpreting classic, there is always a tremendous amount of judgement involved, as with all matters of design. You don’t need to look further than your local big-box building supply store to see a veritable museum of re-interpretations of classic building details that miss the mark pretty badly. What I frequently find with the worst of them is that they skipped the first step — they didn’t bother to understand what it was they were trying to re-create. Don’t make that mistake. If you take the time to understand and keep the essence, you will honour the past and the future.

Like this? More from the Design Process category.

Follow me on Twitter (@intudes) for interesting links and occasional observations.

Subscribe to the RSS feed, and don’t miss another post.