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Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 6 (April-May, 1949)

H. J. B. Coe's Talk on Design — A Report

page 12

H. J. B. Coe's Talk on Design
A Report

It was satisfactory and exciting. He spoke on design from his point of view as an art teacher and painter, and it was a real thrill to some of us to hear how his views, particularly on the essentially architectural question of space, were similar to the ideas we, over a period of years over T-squares and coffee-cups, had been wrangling and twisting and battering into shape. Because his approach to design, was unfamiliar to most of us, his talk can be summarized in a few Coe-loqualisms:—

There is a clear distinction between structural design (design of structures) and aesthetic design.

Aesthetic design cannot be taught but must be experienced.

Culture acquired through experience has very deep roots.

In the degenerate period of any culture or civilization the designer is the victim of fashion and tradition. (In the last phase tradition becomes mere sterile imitation.)

Since the Renaissance, education has become primarily imitative, e.g.

  • This is how you write a poem

  • This is how you paint a picture

  • This is how you build a house.

The Result:

  • A poem is written

  • A picture is painted

  • A house is built.

The Analysis:

  • We have technical perfection—but

  • We have just another poem

  • just another picture

  • just another house.

Creatively speaking a student of design is not encouraged to stand on his own feet. He is perambulated so that he does not need to walk and by being conscientious, he graduates to a bath chair which is conscientiously pushed around by the public.

What is aesthetic design? It is the name we give to an inherent sense of rightness. Function, when it is the result of economy and perfect mechanics, can be visually pleasing; thus aesthetic functionalism is achieved.

Two-Dimensional Design—the importance of the “shape of the shape” and the shape of the spaces left over, e.g., The Map—a nautical map puts emphasis on the shape of the sea, as distinct from the shape of the land. Thus when certain shapes are important the function of their background is to repel visually. Mr. Coe suggested that this is also the function of wallpaper and stage sets, and the intention of much modern painting.


Space cannot be adequately symbolized in a plan, elevation or even a perspective. (In perspective important shapes are likely to become background.)

Space is not completely visual.

Space has to be experienced.

Space can be articulated.

Without articulation a building becomes the piecing together of hollow bodies or cells.

Articulated space can be an exhilarating experience.

Mr. Coe outlined a programme he arranged with sixth form boys. The method was to consider the complete design of a house in relation to its site in purely abstract terms—all questions of structure, function or technique being entirely avoided. To make it easier to do this, the “house” was understood as a “shape”; a room as a “zone” within the shape; a wall became a “plane”; a window a “transparent plane.” For this purpose a 1/4in. to a foot scale model of his steeply sloping 1/4-acre section was made, including accurate models to scale of all trees, etc. On this model an abstract “shape” was designed and placed in relation to the site and its surroundings. Suitable textures were then chosen as being appropriate to the shape and to the nature of the environment. Then the shape was divided internally into zones—articulated space, without functional considerations, and each zone designed in detail.

The boys kept up their interest right through, and made all decisions throughout after careful thought. Mr. Coe's contention was that “unless they decide for themselves they aren't being taught.” His aim in his training is to “develop an aesthetic background” and to assist each child to find for itself aesthetic standards. He concluded with a long overdue resubmission of the idea of “I know what I like” (for long enough a butt for intellectual sneers) provided that there is at least some aesthetic experience at back of the remark.

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