Empty Space: Design’s Mystifying Element


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1 Wouter Dam’s Yellow Sculpture, 13 in. (33 cm) in length, German stoneware, pigments, stains, oxidation fired to cone 6, 2013.

Space is that peculiar element of the visual design process that has the imperceptible effect of shifting the focus away from its shapelessness to the all-encompassing composition of the design itself. This progression at its best can be obscure, vague, and abstract; and, in its most fragile form, tenuous. However, it does seem to have a generative knack for bringing vitality to a design’s dimensional life. Yet I still find myself hard-pressed to pinpoint how the issues of spatial dynamics advance the working forces of design solutions. How can such grace and mystery be explained except vaguely? For what is seemingly an inactive or non-performing part of a design is actually that which makes a design truly functional. Without this intentional interaction with that visual void there is no interconnected dynamic of resolution—no final state of contentment—where all of the work’s design elements come together and exist as a cohesive whole.

Lao Tzu, the philosophical founder of Taoism, addressed the importance of empty space when he equated it to being more useful than the vessel itself. Today whenever the significance of design is talked about, the element of space is often referenced as an afterthought yet it remains the best tool designers have for resolving that vast visual conundrum known as composition. In the same way that environments strongly influence behavior, the arousing magnitude of this basic element of design generates significant aesthetic value while concurrently swaying human sentiment with its psychological presence.

Physical Space
When I enter my studio for example, I don’t just enter a physical space, I also enter a feeling space—a space where my emotions are quickly and easily touched in moving and positive ways. I’m excited by the abundance of natural light and its physical sense of openness, but it is also a place where I feel creatively inspired, not by reason or willpower but by the consequential nature of the space itself. Its atmospheric aura literally invites me in and empowers the very backbone of my artistic intentions. How amazing is this that the nature of a particular space can have such an intimate influence on the life-force of our feelings? I know how design functions and how it influences our perceptions, but I’m still taken aback at how this single design element, called space, has the capacity to shape the personal reality of our existence.

2 Kenneth Baskin’s Tension, (from the Artifact series), 35 in. (89 cm) in length, slab-built white stoneware, glaze, engobe, oxidation fired to cone 6, soda fired to cone 10, 2015.

3 Nick Joerling’s medium bowl with handles, 12 in. (30 cm) in length, wheel-thrown and altered stoneware, fired to cone 10, 2014.

The architectural use of empty space is just one of the ways that many disciplines work with the magical properties of physical space to fulfill a sought-after need or aesthetic achievement. Orchestrating the distance and gaps between various forms or parts of forms is not just the compositional organization of space; it is design in its purest form and at its visual best. This act of integrating and respectfully combining things with the space that surrounds them gives meaning to the spatial integrity of composition. It creates a dynamic whole from otherwise separate parts and brings greater clarity and meaning to expression. It is a holistic endeavor, and as such is a central component of good design. It allows the positive elements of an architectural structure, or a ceramic work of art, to form a natural balance and rhythmic beauty that engages the viewer without deceptive decoration or pretense, which are the weakest allies of design.

Space in Three-Dimensional Artwork
In many ways the very spaces that surround and live within the sculptural object are what give the work its identity. Since space is a key substance of the work’s origin, we (as viewers—through a series of intersubjective connections) are immediately able to recognize form/space relationships that not only stir our passion but shift our perceptions to feel a shared blending of elements that can open out into a compositional oneness.


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4 Eva Hild’s Flare, 24 in. (60 cm) in length, handbuilt white stoneware, fired twice up to 2102°F (1150°C), mixed media. Photo: Anna Sigge.

Nowhere is this exemplified more than in the ceramic art of Wouter Dam. What is intriguingly evident in his work is that which is not clay (the unfilled space) is just as defining and substantive as the supple curves and rhythmic movements of the forms themselves. Likewise, the ceramic art of Eva Hild (equally as dependent on the inclusiveness of space as it is on the splendor of organic form) transforms this coexistence of positive and negative elements into clay works with seemingly spiritual dimensions—simultaneously engaging our emotions while transcending the limits of vision. Space is also a major component of Kenneth Baskin’s sculptures, but in a less subtle way. He uses space to literally amplify the mechanical strength of abstract industrial artifacts and to aesthetically engage in the connective balancing of their machine parts. Nick Joerling, who likes what he calls “blue-collar pots,” creates animated functional pots that step-out as spatial transformers. While the visual energies of his works make references to dance influences and human gestures, their presence brings a new excitement to their surroundings. Together, the respect that these artists have for real space presents positive lessons that we can carry into the design domains of our own work.

Artists who make three-dimensional works have to see space somewhat differently than those who make two-dimensional work. Their space is unoccupied and infinitely limitless in its potential to enrich artwork. Unlike paintings, drawings, and photographs, their pieces are not dimensionally flat and restrictively limited by material borders or frames that set them apart from their surroundings. In many intrinsic ways the elements and principles that give structure and compositional strength to a design apply uniformly to both flat and dimensional objects of art. Yet, while both occupy space, only three-dimensional objects physically interact with it, capitalizing on the rich and varied world of negative space as place. And unreal as this emptiness may seem, aesthetically, it is a three-dimensional entity that has a solid identity all its own. If we pay close attention, we’ll even recognize its presence as the parent of form.

5 Nick Joerling’s platter, 18½ in. (47 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown stoneware, fired to cone 10, 2014.

6 Wouter Dam’s Pink Sculpture, 14 in. (36 cm) in length, German stoneware, pigments, stains, oxidation fired to cone 6, 2013.

7 Kenneth Baskin’s Connected (part of the Industrial Intuitions series) 27 in. (71 cm) in length, press-molded and slab-built white stoneware, saggar-fired to cone 5, oxidation fired to cone 6, steel plate, 2014.

Once you objectively get it figured out, that designing with spatial awareness is subjective, you will have more fun and a new aesthetic freedom from which to explore. For starters don’t forget that all of us are wedged between the skills of our craftsmanship and our visionary passions. No need to change any of that, as its forever evolving, even if the vision of our imagination isn’t yet completely in focus. While standing our ground, we only need to articulate earnest spatial connections and aspire for an intelligent arranging of compositional components that activate the spatial nuances between things. A shared focus on the contrasts between an object’s design elements and the aesthetic/spiritual interventions of its placement into the spaces of our lives, demonstrates a hallmark of good design. If both are done mindfully and done well, the designing of our artwork will yield rewards not just for us but also for those touched by it.

the author Robert Piepenburg is a studio artist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the author of the award-winning book The Spirit of Ceramic Design. For more information, see www.piepenburgstudios.com.

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