Many pioneers of Modernist design have remarked upon the significance of detail, both within their work and design as a whole. In general, they are addressing the need to resolve a design down to the smallest elements with the same attention and rigour as when addressing the overall impression of the object – as an integral part of the design process, not as an afterthought. This attitude, of course, was part and parcel with a broader set of Modernist concerns that included the rationalisation of function and manufacture, the prioritisation of considerations of practical use and the radical avoidance of superfluous, decorative elements.

On the surface, many contemporary objects appear to embody the principles of this now historic programme, their overall impression being one of refinement and functionality. Under scrutiny, however, the details that comprise the object often turn out to offer no improvement, either in use, manufacture or construction. As calculated visual cues of functionality, attention to detail has become severed from actual function, often, indeed, resulting in more complicated or illogical solutions that actively undermine functionality. Perversely, then, such an abstraction of detail from the conditions of use and manufacture returns design to the sphere of the merely decorative that it was meant to oppose.

Rather than looking at the world to gain insights to improve and refine a solution, many designers instead take the object for a starting point, with detail itself providing the premise. In this way, the idea of detail has begun to serve as a kind of aesthetic safe space for irrationality and personal expression.

This is not the result of a conscious process, but rather a transformation in the conditions under which designers work. The need for professional visibility in a crowded field is mirrored by that for product visibility in a saturated market. The self-conscious articulation of detail has become a means to impart a sense of authorship and singularity, that is to say, branding, whilst remaining within the terms of the prevailing design narrative of reduction and simplicity.

It takes courage to resist these externally determined imperatives and trust the process, traditionally established, of finding solutions to problems internal to the spheres of manufacture and use. But even if the necessity of designers to market themselves through their work is accepted, solutions will inevitably vary from individual to individual, each having their own take on what is ‘correct’. Despite market pressures, designers should trust in their decision making and intuition to give a genuine account of themselves, not to mention more resolved and useful outputs for the consumer.