Teaching Detailing Through History / Teaching History Through Detailing

Presented by: Peter Greenberg

The paper presents the outcomes of an academic course where lessons about material detailing and the history of modernist design have been combined. By focusing on the material detailing of a historic project - rather than its spatial organization or its strictly historical or stylistic narratives – students can learn important lessons about both the history of design as well as about material assembly for their own studio projects. Twentieth century designers like Mies, Aalto, Lewerentz, Saarinen and Scarpa developed a vocabulary of interior material relationships and assemblies that is still quite relevant to a young generation of designers. As student demystify how materials go together in exemplary ways, they can envision the creative possibilities of material assemblies by applying them in their own contemporary designs. There are two problems being addressed by the paper: first, students do not always see the applicability of the important lessons of history for their own studio work. The traditional method of teaching history as a chronological cascade of styles and dates and names may not be ideal for the preferred hands-on learning styles of most interior design students (Watson). The second problem is that the teaching of detailing can sometimes emphasize pragmatic proficiency rather than creative solutions that omit important possibilities (Ballast, e.g.). While an emphasis on detailing necessarily involves some understanding of technical issues (Ford), it is the expressive content that makes it most significant for the student’s development. Combining detailing and history offers the possibility that students develop a more lasting understanding of both. While historical precedents are generally introduced into the curriculum through broad surveys and precedent analyses that emphasize planning decisions, a concentration on the design detail itself offers several distinct pedagogic advantages. By focusing on the architectural 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 23, Frampton 307). 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. An analysis of the outcomes will be based on evidence of student work from the course, which is an advanced level seminar that has been taught for four years. Specific exercises help to structure a discussion to compare and contrast strategies of assembling materials in historical modernist examples as well as to apply those lessons in new student designs. Analysis exercises include analysis of photography and drawings in print as well as site visits to important case studies; synthetic design exercises demonstrate the integration of the lesson’s application. By using case studies of such high quality, the conversation about the details of historical projects allows for an advanced discussion inviting subtle comparisons and illuminating contrasts. By focusing on the design detail to understand important Modernist spaces, the student of Interior Design is challenged to understand how great designs are made from actual materials, how they are assembled and how they embody design intent. By looking closely at the details of historic case studies, a connection is established between a student’s understanding of constructed material issues, the history of design, and their own studio work.


  • Ballast, David Kent. Interior Construction & Detailing For Designers And Architects. Columbus (OH): McGraw Hill Professional Publications, 2007, 4th ed., print.
  • Ford, Edward R. The Details of Modern Architecture. Cambridge(MA) and London (GB): MIT Press: 1990 (vol 1) & 1996 (vol 2). Print.
  • 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.
  • Watson, Stephanie A. “Learning Styles of Interior Design Students as Assessed by the Gregorc Style Delineator.” Journal of Interior Design, vol. 27, Issue 1, May 2001, pp.12-19. Print.
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