The Mihir Chronicles

Elements Of Design | Rowena Reed Kostellow And The Structure Of Visual Relationships by Gail Greet Hannah

October 20, 2022

I. Brief Summary

Rowena Reed Kostellow taught industrial design at Pratt Institute for more than fifty years. She deeply studied and analyzed abstract visual relationships between volumes in 3D space. For her form truly mattered. She calls out learning institutions that don't do enough on dedicating to developing an eye and hand for form, but over-indexing on learning tools. She had a huge influence on her students. This book is a tribute by her students so is filled with reflections on learning memories from her. This book taught me to see shapes and its relationship to its environment (space) more broadly.

II. Big Ideas

  • With the development of advanced mass production in the early 20th century the need for industrial design education became apparent.
  • Theory:
    • Miss Reed believed any serious students can be taught how to make good forms.
    • Subjective vs Objective feedback:
      • By reducing the basics to objective principals, critiques are about making the elements “work,” not about what they “say.” Personal value judgements about what the content “feels like,” are reserved for other discussions, thus separating subjective or political arguments from objective critique about developing the form. The goal is to teach designers to take advantage of the way people “read” objects.
    • Most people have an easier time reading the symbolic signs and literal messages but don’t consciously see the abstract relationships of forms, colors, and textures–the media and structure of the communication–that carry the meaning and convey real sensual feelings.
    • The founders of America’s design education said Industrial design is concerned with 3 things: form, function, and production. They understood that the 3 were interdependent. They believed that they could be more detached and scientific about design, instead of invoking traditional rules or personal taste. Visual experience could be analyzed through seeing abstract relationships. In one of her classes, Miss Reed spoke about how “the abstract relationships express the relation of the parts to the whole apart from any concrete or material embodiment. They reflect the direct visual experience of the thing, how forms and spaces and movements “speak” to one another.”
    • Learning the exercises is like practicing scales on the piano; it helps you express yourself better. Although they made many
    connections to music, they acknowledge that most of a human beings sense of their environment is through sight. Miss Reed said it is “the designer’s first responsibility–to find and develop the visual solutions for living in our environment.” - Learning how to see and manipulate abstract forms can be applied to any design situation. She said, “The goal was to supply students not with disjointed bits of information but rather with an organized approach to the mechanics of design and the necessary inner discipline to carry out assigned problems.... to develop an understanding of the elements of design, of structure, of the organizational forces which control them, and an ability to apply this knowledge to a variety of situations in designing for self-expression or for industry.” Graphics, product design, furniture, interior design, exhibition, architecture, planning and even fashion designers could benefit from the program.
  • Program:
    • Part 1: Foundation
      • Exercises:
        • Problem 1: Rectilinear volumes
        • Problem 2: Curvilinear volumes
        • Problem 3 Rectilinear and Curvilinear
        • Problem 4: Composition of Fragments
        • Problem 5: Planar Construction
        • Problem 6: Lines in Space
      • Beginning on the first day of school, students work with the simplest forms arranging three gray plastilene clay rectangular forms in space, then they use curved volumes, move on to mixing up curved and rectilinear, rearrange fragments of plutonic forms, build spaces from curved planes, and finally exercises with curved lines in space.
      • There are only a couple of rules. Symmetry should be avoided in the exercises because the solutions are too easy. Good 3-D design objects “read” equally from every angle. Compositions are based on organizing 3 relationships between the DOMINANT, SUBDOMINANT, and SUBORDINATE parts. Students learn to see the implied axis of forms and to work the relationships.
    • Part 2: Advanced Studies in Form
      • Exercises:
        • Problem 1: Construction
        • Problem 2: Convexity
        • Problem 3: Concavity
      • Later in the second year, students construct compositions from planes, carve concave shapes, and build convex forms. Projects begin as 3-D sketches made from cardboard or clay, but may be transformed and scaled into small sculptural projects carved from salt blocks (from agriculture suppliers) or cast in plaster or fabricated from lead or plastic.
      • Advanced studies in form starts with basic exercises to combine primitive shapes into three-dimensional designs, which slowly build up into more complex tasks.
    • Part 3: Studies in Space
      • Exercises:
        • Problem 1: Abstract Analysis
        • Problem 2: Space Design
      • The maturing student has gained the skills to address abstract analysis of complex relationships and space design, first arranging plans inside foamcore boxes to activate the space in the box. The in the second problem, they design more evocative spaces and places. Although some students push these exercises toward more functional objects, the goal is to excise their eyes and their hands with abstract vision. By expanding their talent and creativity, when they are confronted by real problems and practical restrictions, they step back, analyze the situation and create beautiful and powerful 3-D visual relationships.
      • For a balanced relationship, volumes have to complete each other. And while small forms come together with more dramatic larger shapes, each of them has its weight and is important.
    • Part 4: Development
      • Now problems begin to mix in practical conditions with abstract form studies. Students learn to apply expressive skills to real world needs–like ergonomic or production requirements–without having the restraints dominate decisions and the creative process (they do that in other classes). They make models from appropriate materials and colors. Problems can become student’s senior thesis projects. The resulting libraries, music shops, radios, power tools, vehicles, and sanctuaries are always less than practical but very beautiful!

III. Quotes

  • Pure, unadulterated beauty should be the goal of civilization!
  • Industrial design is about exactly what is there. The forms of industrial design are direct support for experience: they shape the conduct of our days: they structure the experience of being alive now.
  • Our goal is the training of a designer so familiar with the principles of abstraction that he automatically thinks of a visual problem in terms of organized relationships and then feels free to study other aspects of the problem, or to confer with specialists in related fields. He is a designer who can, visually, cross boundaries and suggest new forms for new materials or new techniques.
  • Miss Reed always told us that “Unity is the visual glue that holds everything together. You know that you have achieved it when all the visual relationships within the design are organized in such exquisite dependent relationship that every element supports and strengthens every other and any minor change would upset the perfect balance and tension.
  • She had a gift for friendship and nurtured long-term, personal relationships with many of her former students. They phoned at all hours, and came and went from her apartment, driving her to and from Pratt, taking her to lunch and dinner. They escorted her on her travels and slept on her couch when they came to town. They ran errands, helped her sort through piles of papers and slides, and brought her out to the country for weekends after she gave up her own country home.
  • Teaching is a marvelous adventure—like having a huge laboratory in which to carry out experiments.
  • Of course, a product is no good to anyone unless the function is properly worked out. The object should express what it is very directly, but it is possible for a design to express what it is and also be a beautiful object in its own right. We introduce the student to an ordered sequence of purely visual experiences by which an artist may develop his understanding and his recognition of the abstract elements in any design situation. Our goal is the training of a designer so familiar with the principles of abstraction that he automatically thinks of a visual problem in terms of organized relationships and then feels free to study other aspects of the problem or to confer with specialists in related fields. He is a designer who can visually cross boundaries and suggest new forms for new materials or new techniques.
  • Like a piano teacher, she made you do the exercises over and over so many times that you lost all your tricks. — Tucker Viemeister