Presented by: Peter Greenberg, AIA, NCIDQ, NCARB, IDEC, LEED AP

For interior design students, especially those who attend schools in urban centers with examples of significant built projects, on-site field studies offer lessons about real construction materials that cannot be replicated in the classroom itself. While an academic course dedicated specifically to interior detailing can offer various methods of instruction and skill development to learn about materials – technical drawings, analyses of published works, synthetic design projects, topical lectures  – it is direct observation of actual buildings that best reinforces the reality of material assembly so essential to being a good designer. Site visits to built master works provide students the opportunity to document how details are made in a kind of x-ray-vision of reverse-engineering-the-real – detective work of what invisible layers hold others layers in place.  Students learn to see in a new way by perceiving not the picturesque overall effect of a project but the technical physical assembly that makes it possible. Through the physicality and immediacy of the work students learn to see as producers of designs rather than as consumers.

The problem being addressed by this paper is that normative educational models for design often emphasize the visuality of an idealized situation based on computer simulations and not the physicality of actual construction (Mitrovic). This approach leads many students to produce designs based on naïve presumptions of what the computer can represent in gravity-free space. The strategy to address this problem is for students to analyze actual material properties through onsite empirical observation – for example, thickness, weight, reflectivity, rigidity and gravity.  These on-site lessons reinforce lessons of materiality in fundamental ways that depth-less CAD material libraries cannot. The focus on material detailing of a built historic project - rather than its organizational or its strictly historical narratives – allows students to directly access design decisions that instrumentally define the character of individual spaces. As students demystify how materials go together in exemplary ways, they envision the creative possibilities of material assemblies in their own designs. The paper will present an analysis of the outcomes (student work) to offer evidence of these conclusions.

While analyses of historical precedents are generally introduced into the curriculum through preliminary exercises preceding the design phase of a project, visiting actual master works and concentrating on the design detail offers several distinct pedagogic advantages. By focusing on the interior details of historical precedent, the academic discussion shifts to issues of architectonic character from questions of spatial organization or the context of historical innovation. A detail is at least as effective a tool to describe the most salient aspects of a scheme as traditional ordering devices like the plan or the parti – and arguably more so to embody issues of spatial character (Frascari, Frampton).  Details also offer the benefit of focusing on materiality and how spaces are actually made, thus making the historical model more relevant for advanced students who benefit from investigations that more directly parallel professional activities. Details thus prioritize the built reality of the precedent over its theoretical construction (Gregotti). Lastly, by asking students to use the sectional detail in field studies, their powers of observation are honed to investigate how real materials comprise actual designs.

The design detail challenges the student of Interior Design to understand how materials are assembled and how they embody design intent. By looking closely at the details of historic precedent, particularly in the field through direct observation and analysis, a connection is established between a student’s understanding of constructed material issues and their own studio work.


  • Frampton, Kenneth. Studies in Tectonic Culture. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1995.  Print.
    Frascari, Marco. “The Tell-the-Tale Detail.”  Via vol. 7. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984:  23-37. Print.
  • Gregotti, Vittorio. “The Exercise of Detailing.” Theorizing a New Agenda for  Architecture : an Anthology of Architectural Theory, 1965-1995. Ed. Kate Nesbitt.  New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996. 494-497. Print.
  • Mitrovic, Branko.  Visuality for Architects: Architectural Creativity and Modern Theories of Perception and Imagination. Charlottesville (VA): University of Virginia Press, 2013. Print.

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