Gritty to Glossy Intro image.

Photo: Chase Jarvis

As a design-build firm in the Northwest, a typical day for us involves everything from conceptual design sketches to fabricating a connection between steel and wood. Because the path of design and construction covers such a wide spectrum of thinking and doing, there are many potential stopping points along the route to considering a designed object “finished.” When and how we choose to declare a design complete is often just as important as the designed object itself. The whereabouts of a project’s final resting point in the continuum between the rough sketch, raw material, worn object or, conversely, immaculate polished work, is not only negotiable—it can determine the very success of the design.

Pealing the clear protective film off a new cell phone reveals a level of finish that is hyper-perfect; it is as if the designed object has never been touched by the human hand. The slightest nick or thumbprint on its flawless, rounded edges would detract from the experience. At the other end of the spectrum is a rusted steel table, reused as a found object. Intentionally held in a raw and crude state for its antiquated qualities, it is enjoyed precisely for its rough texture and weathered coloring. Each object is considered “finished” at a different and contrasting moment, but each has been designed with a deliberate stopping point, and subsequently, each designed object is successful in its own way. Between these extremes there exists an entire range of stopping points when, depending on the object’s purpose and the designer’s intent, an object is considered finished. Stopping points may be determined by budget, by time constraints, by the method of production itself or by the designer’s philosophy. Often these points are intentional and planned, although sometimes they are surprises realized only upon execution of the object. While the refined connections of a Danish chair conform to a precise geometry, the wood itself has a unique grain and character that can only be controlled to a certain extent by the designer. The nature of the wood is imperfect, even if beautifully so, and the quality of the chair is greater precisely because the design is not taken to the level of pure perfection. The design would lose its poetry if each chair was completely identical all the way down to the wood’s grain pattern. It’s the infinite series of stopping points between the gritty and the glossy that compel us.

There is mastery in knowing when to stop designing and call something complete. The very act of stopping adds an additional dimension to the delicate process of design, which can reveal an object’s history or give the viewer a peek at what lies below the surface. The reward for finding this magic point is to give an object soul.

A designer’s decision of when to consider an object complete has far reaching implications. It affects how the object will be used, can dictate the selling price and may even determine whether the product becomes disregarded and disposable or timeless and cherished. All of these issues establish a measuring stick that allows us to analyze the rationale and the poetics of these stopping points. In this issue of ARCADE we’ve selected nine extraordinary designers from a tribe of like-minded thinkers, each exploring a different philosophy of what it means to “finish” a product. Each represents an important place on the continuum between the gritty and the glossy, and each is producing work that fascinates us for this very reason.