What is style? This is a really great question.
The challenge being that style is easy to detect, but difficult to define. The writer Richard Nordquist when writing about style in literature, stated that style “is narrowly interpreted as those figures that ornament discourse; broadly, as representing a manifestation of the person”. This truth is present in the concept of style no matter the discipline we apply it to. There are many ways to approach the discussion of what is style. I find it important to break down the topic into the personal expression of style and the collective language of style. Both concepts are distinct, but interconnected. As individual creatives we can have a personal style, but not necessarily belong to a larger movement that defines a place and time. However, those larger movements inescapably inform our professional creative expression. When speaking of an individual’s design voice whether in architecture, art or interior design we often use the word style to mean a perceptible consistency in the use of design elements which runs through a body of work. At its core, personal style is the uncovering of the inner mind in the process of creating. It is the unique voice of the author manifested into form and place. As designers and artists we are involved in the task of exposing our inner selves in the act of creation. We fold ourselves inside out onto the canvas. Through that act we create a personal voice and inevitably reflect the styles we inherit in our cultural environment. In the broader sense, style is the aggregate of innovative collaboration. It is the reason we can discern the difference between a ninth century Viking ship and a 12th century Chinese junk. Design is bound by the struggle between choice and how we respond to the limitations presented by materials, form and function.
When I began to think about style in an attempt to break the elements that constitute a design language, my thoughts took me back to the first times humans engaged in the task of creative expression. Back to the first hominids who crafted weapons and tools. Hominids who crafted tools responded to all of the same forces and constraints that modern creatives and makers face. They had to express preferences for certain stones because of their functionality. Each carver must have either developed their own style or adopted the style of a more accomplished tool maker. When we think of tool making, we categorize it as a technology rather than an art form. It is an act of creation driven by need rather than desire. Crafting dwells in the practical needs of the society where art is the creation of something with seemingly no intrinsic use, but simply engages the mind in discourse or pleasure. However, the parts of the brain that are used to imagine a tool are the same that are utilized to imagine and create art. I consider the process of discriminate selection as akin to the first word in the sentences that becomes the prose of style. In its most distilled essence, the mere act of creation, whether as a personal endeavor or a collective task, is the genesis that will in time develop into a recognizable pattern. Those patterns are what we refer to as style. Style emerges from the continuum of these creative forces and the exchange between culture and the individual designer. To define style one needs to understand that style as personal expression and as a marker of a culture movement are not isolated conditions, but rather the continuation of a story that has its genesis in those very first tool makers. Style is part of the collective human story.
In architecture we separate the concept of Style and Vernacular. However, I can not with confidence separate the two. To me all forms of creative expression are intertwined. Design and architecture live in the junction between the functional and the artistic. Style emerges from the convergence where creative forces, functional necessity, and the constraints of form, function and materials. “Style” is considered the intentional architectural language that develops organically or intentionally over time and can be marked by a uniform utilization of ornamentation and a preference for a particular form. Style is what elevates the discourse of the mundane and the pedestrian. Vernacular is not considered a style in itself, but rather the development of native and perhaps unskilled construction forms. However, architectural style as we know it today cannot have existed without architectural vernacular. When humans began to create an architectural language through use of materials and forms style inescapably emerged. We can not relegate style to just adornments or the aesthetic choices made to decorate forms. This becomes an academic exercise in abstraction and fails to consider the development of articulate forms and creative expression in the absence of academic training. For what is academic training but the structured instruction in skill and knowledge that has been developed over millennia by those untrained craftsmen who through trial and error found the language of design. Traditional and unconventional forms come from architectural vernacular, they can’t come from any other source. They are taken from the collective design of a people, culture or place.
Every era and every culture develops a common language that can be defined as style. This happens either through an organic collective process or as a result of a few pioneers that through personal style steer a cultural movement. Just as this is so in the larger arena of culture, it is also true in the individual expression of style. The work of the artist and architectural designers who rebel against the established language and define the “new” become the foder for our own personal inspiration. It is a well worn cliche to say that nothing is original. But, this cliche holds an absolute truth. As designers, we reinvent, we repurpose, recombine and readapt the ideas of the past. We borrow elements from other designers, artist, and nature. We take them out of context, and put them in new settings. Our craft is defined by the foundation that has been laid by our predecessors. We stand on the shoulders of giants, as well as the nameless and unrecognised makers and craftsmen who through trial and error have developed the form and the materials that define our built environment. We can only bring a different tone to what is an already existing collaborative musical ensemble. We can add a note or change a phrasing within the composition, but can never start from scratch. We can look at the origins of mid-century modern or the International and Bauhaus style which were reactions to the elaborate neoclassicism and romanticism that dominated Europe and the U.S. at the turn of the century. All three styles of architecture stripped down the ornamentation. The international style dramatically changed the ratio of solid to void in the architectural form. But the presence of the forms found in Art Nouveau were readily detectable. The repetition of detail and in some cases the imposing architectural massing was highly reminiscent of classical architecture. These new emerging styles did not happen in a vacuum. Frank Lloyd Wright’s, who had a much more individualistic manner, borrowed from traditional japanese, egyptian, and mayan design. The great designers draw from the past and use what they love, what obsesses them and bring that to the dialogue of design.
Developing a personal style requires the skill of taking what others have done, deriving inspiration, and reassembling it in an unexpected way. As designers in our early efforts, we tend to emulate the vocabulary of an architect or designer that we admire. I do not consider this borrowing or plagiarism, but instead an apprenticeship, a distance learning exercise. In order to emulate we have to deconstruct. The deconstruction is key to understanding the method. Once method is achieved we can incorporate our own mind into the work. Like Jazz musicians, we cut the process into pieces and insert our own sensibility into the gaps. With time, we learn to author the composition in a new key. As we grow, we get better at the practice of recombining the borrowed components.
In my personal expression all the experiences I’ve lived are part of the conscious and subliminal influences on my work. I was born in Cuba, at the age of nine my family moved to Spain and later to the U.S. I have lived in Miami, New York and have traveled broadly. All of these experiences inform my sense of style. However, because each of my chosen disciplines has it’s set of unique constraints my style manifests differently for each. I have always been interested in the contrast of nature and the built environment, bringing opposing textures together to create a conversation. As an artist , color plays a big role in my designs and my paintings. Nature, memory and color are my entry points for my work. They allow me to leave my fingerprint, while still creating a unique and personal space for each client. In my art and design, I work with the theme of memory. Exploring how memory defines the individual. Even when our memories are gone, the impact of the related experiences on our personality is permanent. I often work with clients to bring their most salient memories of the spaces that surrounded them as children into their current homes. The translation of memories creates a multi dimensional experience in a room. Over time the consistent use of texture and color has helped my architectural projects develop a consistent voice. To develop our own voice, we need to find the element that most interests us about art or design. Is it massing, form, color? Always keeping in mind what has been inherited from our predecessors. Steal with intentionality. Bring those things that obsess you, those things that preoccupy your design mind and find a way to incorporate them into each project. That is the path that will guide you to uncovering your unique style.