Synaesthesia (Part 3): The Sound of the Focal Point

The client calls it her “story wall.” From a distance, it looks like an organic stone wall. Closer inspection reveals the surface is etched with petroglyphs and fossilized forms. With a wall that reaches 27 foot high and 15 feet across, there is plenty of space in which to etch the requested forms— close to 40!

As the “before” picture shows, my partner and I began with a cinder block and wallboard surface that was framed-in by a fieldstone fireplace base and semi-circular overmantle frame. Our task was to create an organic stone finish that would blend with the fieldstone while remaining a distinctive rock formation. From a distance and to the casual glance, it was to read as unblemished. Only upon closer inspection should the observer begin to identify the symbols etched into the surface. A full discovery of all the images requires a person to sit on the couch placed facing the wall and spend a good bit of time inspecting the surface.

The reason the client called it her “story wall” is because each of the symbols etched into the surface tells a story about an event in the lives of her family—symbols expressive of each child and grandchild, iconic representations of spiritual significance, images from places they had lived or visited and loved, emblems representing vocational commitments, and so on. As the close-up picture on the next page reveals, even the footprints of the home-owners’ beloved, recently deceased dogs were included. (Before their demise, their prints had been embedded in cement blocks. We hung these slabs, then blended them into the surface of the rock formation as we built up the wall surrounding the blocks.)

The wall sits in a log cabin style home in a forested, rural setting. The complete picture, of which the story wall is the focal point, tells the story of a lifetime of love for and ded-ication to the preservation of national forests and natural settings. The daughter, the owner of an art gallery who oversaw the purchase of the picture hanging on the wall, joked that, if her parents ever moved, they would be faced with a difficult task—removing this very personal wall and packing it up to take with them.

AUDITIONING COLOR:  “Okay, Mr. Blue…what have you got to say for yourself?”

In the process of rendering this finish, what aroused my curiosity was the distinctive nature and purpose of the wall; that is, it was to be a focal point, a pivot, a statement that articulates explicitly the meaning that is more subtlety suggested through other aspects of the architectural and interior design of the space.

The project prompted me to begin wondering about the nature of focal points in general. What is distinctive about the focal points of a room? Is this an important distinction for decorative artists to keep in mind as they design finishes?

In The Interior Dimension, Malnar and Vodvarka describe the focal points of a space as a “centralized controlling factor” in the ordering of a designed space (p.46).” Given this role, the focal point of a room is worthy of reflection. Could such reflection inform the design of finishes that might resonate with and amplify the significance of this architectural feature?

To speak of “resonating” and “amplifying” indicates that my thoughts have focused not so much on visual focal points but,  rather, on auditory percep-tion. What might a synaesthetic analysis of the auditory equivalent to the visual focal point reveal about the nature of this important design element? And how might this new insight into these “points” be useful for the design of decorative finishes that either become focal points in their own right—most murals, for instance—or enhance existing focal points—such as a faux marble finish achieves when applied to a slate fireplace?

This article is the third in a series of reflections on the benefits of attending to “synaesthesia” in the design and appreciation of the decorative finishes. Synaesthesia is a form of perception whereby a person is able to have cross-sensory experiences—that is, the ability to see what you hear, smell what you taste, etc. The particular form of synaesthesia which is most commonly invoked, and the one which interests me the most, is that of sight-hearing synaesthesia. As Wassily Kandinsky has demonstrated, both through his “compositions” and his theoretical writings, sight-hearing synaesthesia is particularly compelling in our experience of color.

Whether we realize it or not, most decorative artists make intuitive use of synaesthesia even if they didn’t know the 50-cent word used to define it! Do any of us, for instance, ever make a color recommendation without subjecting the various options to an “audition”? Standing back to look at a sample board taped against a wall of the space for which it is being con-sidered, we listen to hear if the color is too “loud,” too “muted,” too “bril-liant,” and even if it is too “sharp” or too “flat.” But the color of an architectural finish is rarely considered for a solo part. Even when it does play a solo role, we listen to hear whether it “harmonizes” with other colors and design choices in the space. If it screams at us, calling too much attention to itself, we reject it out of hand. If it feels lifeless, we know we’re dealing with a tone-deaf color and politely dismiss it. But if the color and finish are right for the space, its sonorous reverberations can be nearly as intoxicating as the song of the Sirens!

Even the simplest, well-chosen solid color finish can make a room sing (though sometimes one wants a color to hum or even, as is sometimes the case in a children’s room, to laugh out loud. I suspect there are rooms one might even want to yodel! But no, I do not have a picture of a wall finish I’ve created that makes a room yo-del—not yet, anyway!)

The first article in this series (“Imagine the Room”) introduced the context in which synaesthesia has significance. Accentuating the synaesthetic qualities of a finish, I argued, contributes to the over-arching goal of creating finishes which inspire rooms with liveliness. The second article in this series (“The Sound of One Room Clapping”) describes the nature of synaesthesia itself. In this third article, I will demonstrate how this mode of imaginal perception can be employed to perceive what I will describe as the “still point” of a room. Along the way, I will make suggestions for how the decorative artist might incorporate this understanding in the development of finishes which create or enhance focal-still points in interior spaces.

THE STILL POINT

It is no accident of architecture that the fireplace is the most commonly chosen focal point of a room. When lit, it encourages one to pull up a rock-ing chair or settle into an easy chair and dream. The still points of a room, which ideally correspond to the visual focal points, are just such pools of quietude as emanate from a well-lit fireplace on a cold night. Still points invite respite, contemplation, reverie. They anchor the soul that wants to fill the room. According to Gaston Bachelard’s equation of reverie with dwelling, they encourage the deepest dwelling within a dwelling place.

This capacity of the still point to become the perceptual anchor for dwelling can be explained through an analysis of Wassily Kandinsky’s discussion of the point and its relationship to the line. Because Kandinsky’s analysis is grounded in sight-hearing synaesthesia, it is also ideally suited for my particular concern.

Kandinsky begins his analysis of the point by noting its significance for writing. The period at the end of a sentence is a pause between thoughts. It is no empty silence, though. It is, as we say, a “pregnant pause,” the very birthplace of new thought. This use of the point to function as the period at the end of a sentence reveals something fundamental that is retained when taken out of the context of the written language. The point is a silence that speaks, a stillness that resonates with internal dynamism. It is a pool of quietude that encourages a different kind of sound, a sound that goes inward. This is the voice of reverie and contemplation. This quality of the point as a space of inward dynamism derives from its origin in nature as the seed. “In nature,” writes Kandinsky, “the point is an introverted entity pregnant with possibilities.” (554) This inwardly turned dynamism of the point causes it to become “a tiny world—more or less equally cut off from all sides and almost divorced from its surroundings.” The point stands out, separating itself from its surroundings as distinct.

THE STRONG SILENT TYPE

What does this analysis of the point suggest about the focal points of a room? First, that what we call a focal point is also, from a synaesthetic per-spective, a point of contemplative stillness and silence. As stated, the dynamism of the point is inwardly turned. This is in contrast to the line, which Kandinsky defines as the antithesis of the point. Whereas the line is an outward dynamism of movement, the outer aspect of the point is still.

There is, then, a correspondence between the visually determined focal point of a room and its auditorially determined still point. Just as the focal point arrests visual attention, so also, still points are characterized by, at least outwardly, auditory stillness—that is, silence. At the same time, the still point is inwardly dynamic. Both visually and auditorially, the synaesthetically complex focal-still points of room are united in their desire to invoke auditorial reveries and visual contemplation.

The first implication this has for the decorative artisan is that decorative finishes are ideally suited for facilitating this arresting of attention that the focal-still point of a room is meant to achieve. A slate fireplace, for instance, may be favorably positioned in a room so as to become a focal-still point to which one might draw attention. But slate itself doesn’t draw attention! That’s why homeowners who can afford marble prefer it as a material for fireplaces. And, according to a long tradition, those who cannot afford marble prefer slate—much cheaper than marble, the surface and density of slate resembles marble. A faux marble finish is all that is needed to lift the humble slate fireplace to the status of a focal-still point capable of arresting attention. The quiet depth of marble which accounts for its reverie-invoking capacity is embodied in the contrast between the smooth, solid surface and the swirling, water-like movement that is visible in the inwardly intensifying layers of vein structures and drifts.

Other finishes can accomplish the same task, which is to arrest both the auditory and visual attentiveness of the occupant. But this is not accomplished by a loud voice. Rather, it is accomplished by an intensity that speaks softly—a sacred quality that invokes a hushed tone of voice. To achieve this reverential, reverie-invoking stillness, the focal-still points need to be characterized by richness and grandeur. The decorative finishes are well-suited to creating or enhancing this richness.

But notice, also, that stillness is associated with stability. Why is the mar-ble fireplace such a likely candidate for the focal point of a room? Because it is both aesthetically arresting and expressive of stability. The focal-still point of any room tends to be the most stable element in the room—a grand piano, a substantial piece of furniture, a window with a spectacular view—these all communicate stability.

Decorative finishes that are applied to focal-still points of rooms should reverberate this same quality of stability. Leave the airy color-washes and faint stipple finishes for the creation of atmospheric ambiance. The focal-still point of a room demands something more substantial. Think of “the strong, silent type”—that’s the quality one wants to infuse in a focal-still point. What does “the strong silent type” communicate? Stability. That is why materials such as stone and hardwoods are so often incorporated into the creation of focal-still points.

My client’s fireplace wall with its fieldstone-framed “story wall” em-bedded inside it is a perfect example of both stillness and stability. The wall is arresting. It dominates the room. But it is also a stillness that is substantial. This wall is not going any place! It is staying right where it is. (To enhance this feature, we applied an additional layer of structolite in the building-up of our surface. Its sole purpose was to add bulk so the organic stone formation would equal to is fieldstone surround in bulk and heft.) It would have been ridiculous to fill the center space inside the fieldstone frame with anything less substantive than another kind of rock formation. Anything else would have caved in on itself.

THE SILENCE THAT SPEAKS

We dwell deepest when we dwell in silence. That’s what the experience of sitting by the fireplace, engaged in deep reverie, teaches us. We learn a similar truth through the kind of dwelling we achieve in intimate rela-tionships. Two people who can enter into a deep silence together achieve a kind of communion-in-silence that is a source of deep nourishment. Such silence is not emptiness. It is not the silence of people who have nothing to say to one another; rather, it is a silence in which there is an inwardly turned communion, a deepening fullness. The focal-still points of a room should be characterized by this quality. Rather than being loud, they should communicate depth. As a guideline for designing decorative fin-ishes to become or to enhance focal-still points, this means the finishes should have complexity and depth. Multi-layered coloring that is silent on the surface, but which is translucent enough to reveal inward layering of coloration can achieve this effect. This is why, for instance, grand pianos are finished in black lacquer. The depth of the blackness is suggestive of depth of mystery. And one rarely looks at a grand piano and imaginatively “hears” chopsticks being played. What one imagines, when seeing a grand piano in the corner of a room, is something of greater depth and significance. Any quality that suggests contemplative depth is a quality which is enhanced by a decorative finish.

My client’s fireplace wall is a good example of this kind of silence. On the surface, the wall is silent—in fact, it is “stone deaf.” But closer inspection reveals etchings. Deeper in-spection reveals personal signifi-cance in the etchings. Story upon story reverberates within the space of this seemingly stone-deaf wall. And if one digs deeper to contemplate the symbolic significance of the wall in relation to the entire architectural space and its setting for the lives of its occupants, yet another layer of symbolic contemplation is unveiled.

SOLITARY STILLNESS

The silence of the focal-still points of a room bespeaks a solitude that is not so much isolating as self-sufficient. As Kandinsky describes it, “The point burrows into the surface and establishes itself for all time. Thus, it is inwardly the most concise con-stant assertion, which is made briefly, firmly, and quickly.” (547) The implication is that the focal-still points of a room should be concise, “to the point” and self-contained. Focal-still points need to be set apart from the rest of the room. Even if space does not allow for this, it can be achieved by design choices which set it apart in other respects. From an auditory perspective, they are solo voices.

A decorative finish that is applied solely to the focal point can achieve this separation. Especially if it is a complex finish suggestive of con-templative depth, such a finish caus- es the stillness to be unified, integrated and solitary.

My client’s fireplace wall achieves this solo-voice quality in several ways. First, the inwardly directed energy of the frame itself has the effect of caus-ing the wall to draw inward rather than to make an appeal to the rest of the room to confirm its identity. This inward directedness is similarly communicated by the containment of the wall’s dynamism within the fieldstone frame. The coloring of the rock formation so as to harmonize with the fieldstone base and frame communicate an integration of the solid rock formation and the fieldstone surround. Finally, the compactness of the design, which is both ordered and random, are suggestive of an integrated whole that is set apart from the rest of the room while simultaneously informing the room with its symbolic reverberations of the style and meaning of the articulated space. This wall functions well as a focal-still point with its silent, inwardly turned solo voice that “speaks volumes” through its silence. We do not merely look at rooms; we dwell in them. So why is so much of our interior design terminology oriented solely toward visual perception? Interior design of architectural space must be as full-bodied as our experience of it is. Synaesthetic perception, as I have demonstrated in redefining focal points as focal-still points, can achieve this complexity. The decorative artist who develops this capacity for synaesthetic perception will achieve greater complexity and dynamism in the finishes he or she develops. Pretty soon, one begins to hear the walls sing…and maybe, someday, one might coax one into yodeling.

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