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Technique: Design Aesthetic

Technique: Design Aesthetic

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How theatre set design, an eye for detail, and the study of historical traditions and transitions can inform composition in painting and drawing.

by Ray Rizzo

For his class on the history of costume and decor, New York artist and educator Lowell Detweiler has developed a specific approach to the study of interiors. By infusing his lesson plan with his own artistic vision, Detweiler provides a unique perspective and unusual insight that can benefit all artists seeking to deepen their understanding of the environments they create.

Detweiler describes the fundamentals of stage design by generalizing, thereby making his teachings accessible to any artist attempting to tell a story with an image. “Similar to arranging a composition for a painting, in a play you must be selective about what you put on stage because you’re informing people with every element you choose. If you think all rooms are pretty, for example, you’re not actually looking at each room closely. Some rooms are ugly. Impressive, maybe, but aesthetically unappealing. In designing a set, you must ask yourself: Do the people have bad taste or good taste? Are they vulgar or are they dull? If it’s a mansion, perhaps you put a tricycle in the dining room. Rich people have unruly kids, too.

“You want to be informed before you make these compositional design decisions, however,” he says, “and studying history of any kind will give you perspective—and an advantage.”

Detweiler is adamant that understanding, and thus learning to command, an environment results from paying attention to the space’s less obvious details. “A common mistake among my drawing students is that they gravitate towards the shiny elements of a setting but don’t grasp their function. A typical palace is a typical palace, but it is not particularly informative about how the people in it actually live. You don’t want to miss the endless technological advances going on within a domestic scene, either. For instance, someone got the idea to make fireplaces waist-high so that women didn’t have to get on their knees. Someone got the idea for drawers so people don’t always have to take clothes out of the bottom of chests. Someone got the idea to create a standardized work measurement system for the kitchen. The idea of a corridor is a great idea that resulted from the need for privacy.” Each of these examples illustrate the small, and often overlooked, details that must be considered before they can come together to create a compelling and visually stimulating scene or composition.

Fig. 1: Sketch of a
Renaissance Palazzo.
All artwork this
article by Lowell Detweiler.

For the past ten years Detweiler has been compiling his lessons to put into a book. To be included in the book are more than 550 sketches that Detweiler has used to inspire his students to educate themselves on the many subjects that inform design and aesthetic. “The point for me has been to take flat research and make it interesting,” he says.

To do this, Detweiler has blended his academic teachings with the more personal aspects of his own art. Detweiler’s paintings are often emotional and irreverent, and infuse space and composition with a sense of adventure. The influence of his painting style upon his teaching style can be seen in his unique visual design concept, which often displays buildings, rooms, and costumes in multiple time periods and from various perspectives all at once.

In another series of sketches Detweiler shows a single room existing in three historical periods at once.

Fig. 2: Sketch of
a 17th century room.

For instance, in (Fig. 1) Detweiler sketches a Renaissance Palazzo that reveals simultaneously its façade, floor plan, interior, and back wall.

“The point of this is to view the structure as a machine rather than just a set. I want the students to see the building as a sculpture and, by doing so, involve both sides of their brains. There is the creative aspect, but there is also the mechanical aspect, and they must be able to perceive both.”

“These rooms are all about explaining options,” he says. “I am explaining the transitions from the geometric, multi-textured, heavy patterns of the late 17th century to the single-textured rooms of the early 18th century.”

Fig. 3: Sketch of a
design transition
between a 17th century
and an 18th century room.

(Fig. 2) “Mirrors were expensive in the late 1600s. Residents weren’t going to waste the mirror’s reflection, so they angled the mirror out. By the 1720s, however, mirrors were less expensive and it was no longer an issue. Notice, too, that through the transitions the fireplace is slowly getting smaller. Homes in the Middle Ages had these large fireplaces that eventually developed into the smaller French versions, which are similar to what we have today. Also, you see how heavy the window design is in 1650. The volume of the glass is less because big pieces of glass weren’t available and they instead had to combine smaller pieces. Here also are two different ways a table would have been covered – with fitted fabric or with a table carpet. Notice, too, the gilded leather on the wall under the window and the tapestries that hang over the doorways.

“Moving into the 18th century (Fig. 3), we see more brass handles and we see cold
substances such as marble being replaced by warmer substances such as wood. Pretty soon everything is made of wood and furniture is lighter. Also, with wood you see more curves instead of hard corners.”

Fig. 4: Sketch of an
18th century room.

Detweiler’s book, filled with lessons and pointers such as the ones mentioned here, is still in development, but for artists seeking to fortify their critical eyes with historical knowledge of design and function he recommends The Domestic World (Time Life Books, Fairfax, Virginia).

About the Educator
Lowell Detweiler teaches design for stage and film in the graduate program of New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts, in New York City. As a painter, he has exhibited in group shows at, among others, La MaMa Galleria and the Leslie-Lohman Gallery, both in New York City. His set and costume designs have been seen on Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway. Detweiler has also been an assistant designer for various films and television shows, including Saturday Night Live and Square One Television, for which he received an Emmy Award. In 1996 Detweiler received the David Payne-Carter Award for Teaching Excellence.

Ray Rizzo is a writer and performing artist living in Brooklyn with his wife and cat. He is a founder and contributor to the arts and culture website Motherlodge. This is his first contribution to American Artist.

Watch the video: How To Design Good Layouts (August 2022).