Interior design involves an interplay of surfaces, including furniture, walls, flooring, stairways and accessories. The first impression on a visitor is a visual one, with architectural materials chosen for their aesthetic qualities.
However, great design appeals to all of the senses, not just the eyes. One of the most overlooked is the sense of touch. Here is a short journey into the world of tactile design, and the vital role that stone and porcelain play.
The 7 Principles
In 1941, Maitland E. Graves made a declaration. “Line, direction, shape, size, texture, value, and colour: these elements are the materials from which all designs are built.”
It was a simple yet resounding contribution to the philosophy of design. Graves himself is barely remembered. Other than being described as “among the more independent spirits” in a junior arts academy painting competition in the early 1930s, his complete legacy is contained between the covers of just two books of art theory. Only one of these, The Art of Colour and Design, is ever read, and then only rarely.
However, from its pages sprang a set of observations with which every design practitioner in the world is familiar - The 7 Principles of Design:
Of these 7 Principles, texture is arguably the most complex – and the most prized. The prestigious RIBA House of the Year Award is frequently scooped by highly tactile spaces, such as 2015’s memorable Flint House. Commissioned by Lord Rothschild, Flint House takes earthy, natural, local flint as its theme, creating a space that challenges the boundaries between nature and construction.
The building is just one of many dazzling buildings that place texture at the centre of structural design. It is far from the first to be rewarded for the effort.
The ‘Building Handshake’
For Chris Downey, a world-renowned architect who is also blind, the appeal of buildings such as Flint House stems from the fact that the tactile space is equally as important as the visual. For Downey, this is something that most of us take for granted, and which many designers and architects simply forget.
Downey describes the invisible “building handshake”, which refers to the parts of the structure that everybody touches; door handles, railings, mezzanines, countertops, walls, floors. Through touch, design gains a deeper expression. “The act of drawing makes you focus on all the little details and realise how the building is put together,” he explains, “we think about how these things look. We should think about how they fit the body.”
Stone: A Tactile Experience
Stone is a uniquely versatile material for exploring the building handshake. From the cool tactile gleam of a limestone floor to the welcoming softness of marble, the textures of stone have a presence all of their own. One of the reasons that Flint House is so vivid is that flint carries with it the edgy juxtaposition of rough and smooth, harsh and soft.
Porcelain: A Competitor?
Today many designers are turning to porcelain tiles to achieve the visual aesthetic of stone. Porcelain is durable, water resistant, versatile, eco-friendly, and offers an unlimited palette. Porcelain tiles can easily achieve stunning visual effects, but where does this sit with the question of tactile design?
When produced to a high-quality finish, the tactile effects of porcelain are indistinguishable from natural stone.
Today’s manufacturing techniques mean that porcelain tiles are available with a wide array of finishes. The five main choices are:
The first three – polished, honed, and natural – move from a glossy, smooth, granite-like texture, through satin-like marble, to rougher stone. The latter two are designed for practical, non-slip surfaces. This means that porcelain can be used to design well-rounded buildings in which all 7 design principles are considered.
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