What Does "Pure Design" Really Mean?

I received an award from the American Society of Interior Designers, for a master bedroom I created for a Designer Showcase House some years ago. The room was said to be an expression of “pure design”. What did that mean? I wondered. I decided to write about the concept, and would love to share the subsequently published article with you. Though the room itself can use some updating, the concept is timeless.

As someone who has been celebrated for showcasing “pure design”, it’s perhaps unsurprising that over time my philosophies have evolved to center on a passion for what is known as Biophilic design. Why? As I explore below, it turns out that biophilic design, in its simplest form, is the scientific confirmation of many of the concepts, rules, and theories which make up our understanding of “pure design”.

Biophilic design is a practice that integrates our connection to nature and natural systems into our built environments: there are 15 specific patterns that, when implemented properly, are proven to enhance our health, well-being and happiness. Today I am including this preamble, with a few thoughts around the connections between “Pure Design”, and the essence of design excellence reflected in biophilia.

pure design bedroom

Preamble: The Intersection of Pure Design, Biophilic Design and You.

Like all art, the essence of design excellence is balanced, and well-proportioned. The colors used elicit the feelings and emotions you, the client, want to surround yourself with. It might be a calm blue-green in the bedroom, or a vibrant and uplifting yellow-orange in the breakfast room. Textures have meaning, and shapes communicate appropriate subject matter.

Most of all, I believe all you need to do is look outdoors to find perfect design. The repetitiveness of fractal geometries in the waves of a bird bath, or the leaves of a tree. Purples and greens of Lupin. The mystery of the curved path through the forest, and the sense of awe you feel when you walk up a rise and discover from the top a view of an amazing alpine lake at sunset. These biophilic patterns speak to our DNA.

The shapes, textures, and dappling light found in nature can all be created within your own home. Without conscious awareness you can feel how natural materials, organic representations and a particular use of space affects your health and well-being.

We love the sense of refuge and safety, seated in a comfortable chair while experiencing the concept of prospect – looking out a window to a fantastic view. We find comfort surrounded by representations of flowers and foliage. A rock fireplace and hardwood floors feel warm and friendly. The sound of a water sculpture on the Entry table and the aroma of herbs emanating from the garden sill in the kitchen help to anchor us to our sense of “home”.

Designed in layers and incorporating the patterns and principles of biophilic design, a sophisticated and beautiful home allows you to discover, be comforted, be productive and creative. Pure design evolves from nature. We have an inherent, biological need to be connected to nature and natural systems, and when that need is satisfied in tandem with design excellence, pure interior design is the result. As perfectly imperfect as non-Euclidian fractals. As the essence of human beings as nature herself.

Thinking about the concept of “pure design” in this context, you begin to wonder if the term is really more the name of a theory than the design concept of an environment someone would actually want to live in, one that feeds our connection to nature.

Originally Published October, 1996. Designers Illustrated Magazine

Stacey Lapuk, ASID
You begin to wonder if the term is really more the name of a theory than the design concept of an environment someone would actually want to live in.

These days talk within the design establishment invariably includes this term, ‘pure design’. At cafes, showrooms and galleries, the advice, the revelation, the refrain seems to be that design is a matter of purity. “Pure design is truth!” I actually heard someone say once with great reverence. But ask around and you find that few designers agree on a definition of what that truth is.

I first heard the term when I received an award at the annual San Francisco ASID Design Competition. The award was for a design I did of a master bedroom, and was given on the basis of my expression of “pure design”.

Award-winning showcase house.

Ironically, my design was inspired by the exotic influences of the West Indies – hardly a place you’d associate with some definitions of pure design – and reflected the mid-19th century confluence of primarily English and Danish designs. I utilized native materials (mahogany and cypress) and the styles of the islands. The formality of the colonies, married with the ease of island living, created a great opportunity to mix styles and designs from every part of the world. Blending an unusual, antique Persian carpet with metallic wall glazes and wall coverings, introducing a mid-19th century Normandy marriage armoire to contemporary custom dyed silk window fabrics, coordinating a hand-carved mahogany Chippendale canopy bed and night tables with Japanese bronze, Koi lamps crowned with Murano glass were all ways to create depth and history to a room’s design.

Rare turn-of-the-century hibachis become plant stands, and beautiful linens highlight the romance of the bed. Each and every piece is set together in a layered and balanced composition incorporating the disciplines of the Chinese art of Feng Shui.

But what was it about this bedroom that moved Charles Grubmier, past president of the Northern California chapter of ASID, among other judges, to assess it as an environment reflecting the concepts of ‘pure design’? His notion was that “Everything in the room suggested the purest form and brought together all the classical, pure and proven elements of design”.

I was glad that he saw it that way but I had never thought of good design in quite that way.

The essence of design.

Design obviously has rules and the essence of these rules forms the foundation of ‘pure design’. Jerry van Slambrouch, designer, consultant and educator, describes the evolution of the design element as a point, to a dot, becoming a line. Four lines create a plane – add depth and a 3-dimensional form is born. The arrangement of these elements, these details, is pure if its presentation is complete and absolute. Clear, simple and flawless. Where the classic essence is so in harmony with ourselves, our environments and our vision, there is no disruption or discomfort. But how? What moves us to feel so complete in a space?

The Chinese use the concept of Feng Shui, the flow of energy, virtually wind and water. Westerners relate to the selection, placement and juxtaposition of furnishings, color and texture. All in relation to the architecture and function of the environment affecting balance, harmony, repetition and scale. The tools and rules of design since the beginning of time. No matter what the style, to my mind pure design follows the same paragon. From ancient Greek architecture to the furniture design and glass buildings of Le Corbusier. The stupas of India are as beautifully proportioned as the 15th and 16th century ruins of Machu Picchu. Harmony and balance are achieved between the visual and functional. Between the structure and the site in nature.

Therefore, pure design is perhaps the essence out of which grows all styles. There’s rhythm to the implementation of the classic elements in a variety of forms. The repetition of mullions on a building, or the panes of glass and steel that are relieved by the punctuation of circles (actually the down lights in the interior ceiling) of a towering skyscraper, pattern on fabric, the impact of artwork and sculpture.

Defining the rules.

We’re all taught about these elements, but without a thorough understanding of the objectives or the creativity we’ve been trained to access, we’re often so busy trying to ‘make it work’ that we lose the essence, the simplicity and the power of pure design.

With this understanding, however, we can stretch the rules. We can bend our vision to accommodate new ideas and inspirations. Our imaginations have a structure in which they can be realized. Eclecticism may imply impurity – but for the use of continuity and dominance. If the canvas, the architecture of a particular pattern of color is pure design, then a continuity is created to anchor this mixture of styles and designs.

In my master bedroom, for example, the balance of light is created with the use of a metallic, to address the architecture where windows are found only on one side of the room. Contemporary artwork is anchored to antique carpets through the use of color and shape. There’s a continuity, a shared relationship between all the room’s elements. There’s no question upon entering the space, how to move in the room, which elements are dominant, and where the focal point(s) exists.

Some may argue that only strict adherence to one ‘style’ is pure. The Renaissance room, or the Arts and Crafts house. Imagine a Bauhaus structure with Louis XI furnishings. How would Frank lloyd Wright have felt with a plastic-mold machine in one of his living rooms? (Well, was the machine, itself, hand-crafted?) An extremely minimal design, though incorporating the classic elements of proportion, may be quite strong and certainly functional. But it may be so severe that without the fluidity of one’s movements through the space, softening the lines and structure, it remains disconnected to time or timelessness. It must be able to stand as its own, complete within itself, expressing whatever time period, or style, sense of balance and ease it needs.

Now imagine the Bauhaus structure with a few Arts and Crafts pieces. The import placed on the artist’s role, and the value of sound structure of the Arts and Crafts form part of the foundation of the Bauhaus movement. This is continuity. Add appropriate Louis XI designs whose curves can help to settle the strength of line. As a whole, would this not be pure design?

Our unique responses.

There remains an individual human response to design. Some may be perfectly comfortable in an environment of one dimension. Completely one style or another. But we always have a history, a variety of experiences that come together to form a purity that is ours. There is a great difference between simplicity and a one-dimensional design. If the essence is more than the sum of its parts, we may have formed a pure design.

We, as professional designers, are trained to see, to cut to this essence and purity. Clients want our vision. They want us to help them collect all the elements of design, and interpret them within their vision, express them through their needs, and stretch their imaginations with a mutual commitment to the best solution . Of line and shape, weight and color. Of usefulness and appropriateness. When it’s right, when it feels wonderful to walk into a space and it functions as it nees to, that is pure design.

The process of infusing the classic elements of scale, texture and light with the personality and history of one’s clients. Producing creative expressions of themselves and timeless design and long-lasting satisfaction, that is pure design.

To contribute to the pleasure, health and well being of our clients, we include in our arsenal of tools and rules our clients’ needs, dreams (and budgets!), from which we create. Pure design means exploring the essence of our clients’ perceptions. Does the client want a purely functional space or one that’s so beautiful and precious that it’s only to be looked at, and this completely fulfills the room’s function?

How can we live in an environment that is most aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, yet provides for all of our needs and functions? Are we sacrificing good design to accommodate our excessively stuffed lives? Do we not function most creatively and productively when we’re enveloped in pure design, and completely connected to our surroundings, alive and an integral part of our environment?

Natural design.

Just as pure design incorporates continuity and a connection to the whole, so do our lifestyles need to remain anchored, and connected to the design of our lives. Otherwise, we are floating around surrounded by things with no meaning or substance. There is always a reason, and sometimes, when we stop thinking and analyzing, when we simply are, it all makes sense. As Claude Debussy expressed it, “Music is the space between the notes”.

Pure design is where and when we experience an environment. The essence, purity and simplicity of pure design are a designer’s art. We can create the structure with which to connect our clients to their environments, with what is important to them in the way they live their lives. We have the knowledge and experience of what will work, how to stretch the rules and what will feel most alive. We need to be trusted to do our jobs, both as artists and as collaborators. In this way, our clients will get from us the best we have to offer.

Look around. Nature is constantly showing us pure design. Major shifts in weather and other natural occurrences are reminders that we live in a constant state of flux. We’re continually adjusting, constantly re-centering our world to remain balanced and in harmony within ourselves, our environments, and with each other.

Stacey Lapuk, ASID

Stacey Lapuk, ASID is celebrating her 30th year with her firm. Named “One of America’s Ten Designers To Watch” by Design Times Magazine, one of the “Top 100 Interior Designer in North America” by Blink Art Resources, and the winner of multiple national design awards.  Her goal is simple: To co-create with her clients the home of their dreams with responsive and comprehensive solutions, and timeless, beautiful results. 

Her full service firm attracts clients desiring the finest workmanship, materials and custom design. Facets of work include partnering with architects on new construction, remodels, kitchen design and bath design, color consultation, custom furniture, flooring, area carpets, wall and window treatments, lighting design, art procurement and antique acquisition. Service areas include but not limited to Marin County, San Francisco, Napa, Sonoma, Ross, Kentfield, Belvedere, Tiburon, San Rafael, and Pacific Heights.