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  From the Familiar to the Strange


By Alex Brown




If the design issues of furniture have been worked on over and over again, what else is there to do? How can we say (design) the same thing in a different way. In a previous lecture, it was suggested that there were two possible ways to start a design project:


a)       By designing From Function to Image (Functionalism)


b)       By designing From Image to Function. (Formalism)


The second approach  seems to be more useful. It did three things:


1.        Produced a form very quickly that can be developed into a usable piece of furniture  (well   almost!). To which you can then apply fuctional/ergonomic controls.

2.       Usually produced an interesting shape.

3.       Stayed in touch with the overall concept more easily and didn't get lost in the functional  details.


There is a third possibility (lets call it Option c)) which looks at the whole idea of creativity in design and of trying to generate new ideas all the time (always a difficult business). Instead of trying to generate a completely original concept every time, it is possible to take something that we are already familiar with and change it some way.




Take an existing and familiar object and distort it to produce a new image. This has the time management advantage that you don't have to invent the object from scratch. It is already available. All you have to do is ALTER IT in some way.


There is another (psychological) advantage to this: People don't usually like, understand or appreciate objects that are totally unfamiliar. They like new things, but they also want something they can recognize in the middle of all that newness. Approach c) gives them both.


Basically what we will do is to suggest new ways of looking at the same object by distorting some of its characteristics. The object will be both the same and different. This gives it a certain visual power.  The 'sameness' will give it a clear meaning, while the 'difference' will give it renewed interest and character.




How can this be done?  


a)       By size..............change the scale                   

b)       By colour............strange or multiple colouring

c)       By shape.............Distorting some or all of the shape

d)       By deconstruction....Slicing or exploding the object

e)       By Surrealism........inserting some alien object within it.

f)        By material..........unexpected materials


These different attributes of objects can be manipulated to achieve the one end of making a familiar object unfamiliar. The world of POP ART has continually used the most ordinary objects (Coke battles, cult images, comic strips) and by changing the size, number or colour has completely altered its familiar image. What has been achieved? A whole new experience has been generated out of the most ordinary and familiar material. That experience is Art. The same creative effects can be produced in Design.




That is, distortion by SIZE. You expect certain objects to be a certain size. What happens if they are not? It would look strange if a dining table was the size of a house or was designed small enough to fit a doll's house. During their lives people build up certain EXPECTATIONS about objects. Size is one of those expectations.


If, in one way, the object is familiar, yet at another it is grotesque, weird and strange, the object will acquire a certain aesthetic and visual power.


Radically increasing or decreasing the size of all or a part of an object can achieve this. Eg. a small table with massive legs. A chair with enormous armrests but standard size seat. Why is the seat so small and the back so large?  A door which looks too small to enter, and so on.


Obviously things have to work in some way. A door has to be big enough to let people get through. A chair has to allow people to sit on it, also true. Distorting some of the dimensions of the object in order to make it strange, GIVE IT A NEW VISUAL POWER. Scaling up or scaling down elements -produces a clash of expectations.




The same table painted blue or green or red or pink with purple spots or yellow and red stripes or splashes of dark green and purple or all white or all black or legs yellow and seat blue or back red, seat black, one leg yellow, one leg pink, one leg green and one leg silver or the seat painted with invisible paint ...............and so on.


Which is the `real' table? The answer or course is, none of them or all of them. The table would be  perceived differently for each colour combination. Although the table might be quite ordinary, some of these unusual (crazy) combinations would make it look very strange.


If all the walls, floor, ceiling, furniture, textiles and lighting for a particular space were all coloured RED apart from one single glittering stainless steel table, a definite ambience would be created and particularly if all the elements therein were very familiar period pieces. So too the table in that situation would take on an extremely powerful character. The same though different power could be achieved if the colour were BLUE.


Familiar..................................but strange (mad perhaps).


Paint is a way to make things look very different, very cheaply! Colour gets an immediate reaction from people. The more radical the colour scheme, the more dramatic the reaction.




Distortion of the shape contradicts peoples expectations.


If I take a chair and drop a 16 tonne weight on it, I will have changed its shape. I can still sit on it and to some extent it still looks something like a chair, but.......


Imagine an ordinary piece of furniture made of rubber, what are the possibilities? It can be stretched into different shapes. It can be bent or folded back on itself. It can be compressed or squashed. Some bits can stay the same while other bits are distorted. Some parts can be compressed while other parts can be stretched. And so on. This is true of all elements in design, including walls, floors. ceilings etc. Emphasizing or distorting one part of an otherwise 'normal' element generates visual power, interest and intensity. Shock is a fact of expectations contradicted.


Whatever shape we make of this piece it still (to some extent) looks like or suggests the original. There is still something familiar about it and yet something so radical.


The brain tries to hold these two ideas in place at the same time. Doing this creates a tension and this is an aesthetic (artistic) experience. This is what designers are for.




Take a video of an exploding chair. Freeze (or `pause') the film as the parts begin to separate from one another. The chair has changed its shape.  Run the film forward a bit more. The parts are further away from each other. The chair has changed  its shape again.


Imagine that one could design the chair as it is at any given point in the exploding process. The parts of the chair would be entirely separate from each other. One can still recognize the parts but  the brain tries to put them together into a single image. (Very difficult and again it produces a kind of tension).


Or, imagine taking a very large knife and slicing through an ordinary table.


Then pull the parts away from each other diagonally. Freeze the parts in that position.


You have designed a new dining table by deconstructing an existing one. And, You have designed a new chair by exploding an existing one.


You are forcing people to think about ordinary peices of furniture by destroying the familiar relation between its parts. That is DECONSTRUCTION.




When two very different objects are put close together, the brain tries to find the connection between the two. It tries to `see' them as a single image. It tries to figure out the meaning of this combination.


There may not be any meaning. So, the brain occilates (swings) between one and the other trying to connect them in some way. A visual tension results when the combination cannot be figured out. Eg:


a)     Take ordinary sofa. Pierce it with a very large flagpole.


b)       Or, mount the sofa on car wheels. Attach a steering wheel as well (just for fun).


c)       Place the sofa inside a large picture frame and put a full-size maniquin laid out on it as if  asleep. A notice attached to the picture frame says:" Ssssh. Quiet please". Crazy though  they may be, and sometimes funny, the result of combinations like this is confusion and tension. At least it is interesting and provocative. It is SURREALISM.


SURREALISM tries to disrupt reality by contradicting it.


The Surrealist painter Salvador Dali (Spanish) painted a picture showing a soft watch. One that looked as if it had melted and was dripping over a ledge. A melting watch??


Things can be simpler than that: imagine for instance:


A chair is a chair is a chair. What happens if we turn it upside down and require people to sit between its upturned legs? Do people expect this kind of thing? Is this real?  of course, its just a different reality.




A dining table whose surface is stretched nylon. (Like a trampoline). Certain surfaces we expect to be smooth. But if we want to experiment and/or contradict peoples expectations, we can reverse the textures people expect.


Take the old-fashioned padded sofa. The seat and back could become smooth lacquered timber, shaped to look as if its padded. The smooth shiny timber of the legs or frame could become soft and heavily-padded fabric.


The smooth glass coffee table takes on a rough texture or its flat surface can be broken up into fragments on different planes. Ribbed surfaces (Geiger's Alien set design) can replace the endless smoothness and lack of texture of furniture items. And so on.


The issue as always is:


Take a familiar object and make it unfamiliar.




Are the techniques described above tricks or gimmicks? Yes they are. They are also legitimate psychological and perceptual devices for getting through the CREATIVE BLOCK. For designing and making something different - something that triggers emotion. Something that says that a definite statement has been made - a clear cut identity has been established.


The marketing edge for interior designers is - ultimately - the image. It is this which creates the high profile necessary to get one's existance across to the market and its potential customers.





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