The Great Divide?
Recent years have seen a bridging of the void between architecture and interiors
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 3/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Perhaps too many of my miniature cardboard constructions from architecture school at the University of California, Berkeley, were slathered in deep-toned acrylic paint or moody metallic pigments. Professors voiced yet more alarm at my urge to specify furniture and invent light fixtures. In one brutal desk-side critique, my least favorite instructor announced that I'd never be an architect. Ultimately, no one was particularly surprised when I skipped the licensing exam to become a design journalist who dabbles in giving decor advice to friends. "Decorating is an impulse," agrees Calvin Tsao, an Interior Design Hall of Fame member who's also president of the Architectural League of New York.
Somewhere between the sensual love of embellishment and the intellectual quest for structure and even purity, interior design combines the best of both. The most intrepid among us glide through fields as diverse as lighting, textiles, and digital imaging. As jacks-of-all-trades, we're actually realizing a vision dating back 100 years or more.
In the early 20th century, the Bauhaus was only the latest institution—after the Wiener Werkstätte, after William Morris, Christopher Dresser, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh—to suggest that a better world was a completely designed one. It would be a place where the door hinges were as fine as the flatware. And neither would get that way by accident. Godlike figures who had received a multidisciplinary design education would dictate things right down to the skirting on the sofa (or the lack thereof).
Modernism was far from rooted in the U.S. when Philip Johnson returned from Germany promoting the Bauhaus aesthetic, bringing home the boxy architecture but leaving its political foundation behind. "He never stopped believing that the aesthetic dimension was the only admissible measure by which architectural quality could be judged," biographer Franz Schulze has written. "Social, economic, political, and moral values mattered not at all."
Architecture was widely considered men's work, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were heroes in Johnson's world. Women, such as Albert Hadley's partner, Sister Parish, were not. "Let's face it," Hadley says. "When I was growing up, men didn't aspire to be decorators." And Johnson was never terribly interested in contributions that women might make, whatever the profession. (He should have known better, of course. His cousin Theodate Pope Riddle was one of the first women architects registered in Connecticut, and that was in 1910.)
Given how completely Johnson set the architectural agenda in the U.S., his chauvinism is likely to have widened the rift between architecture and the rest. Behind the scenes, Johnson employed his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, as a sort of fantasy bachelor pad to cultivate protégés, known collectively as the Kids—though they might just as easily have been called the Boys, since there weren't really any females in the bunch. Interior Design Hall of Famer William Sofield recalls a pool party on the property, with a hand-picked bouquet of boys from his Princeton University class.
It's tempting to see architects and decorators as locked in a turf war at mid-century and beyond, divided by prestige issues and sexual preference. "Professionally, we've been hampered by boundaries we created ourselves," Tsao says. But interior design programs, as taught at New York's Parsons School of Design, had already begun offering a third, more flexible way. Decorators got more respect, architects more freedom.
Meanwhile, other factors started to chip away at the attitudes Johnson had helped perpetuate, allowing the interiors discipline to develop. Newly powerful corporations created a demand for campuses such as the ones Eero Saarinen & Associates designed for the General Motors Corporation and John Deere and Company. Architects embraced the selection of colors and finishes as opportunities to nudge the bottom line upward.
Surprisingly, the Kids themselves became interested in interiors. Robert A.M. Stern and Frank Gehry created collections of furnishings that could be used to dress up architectural projects. Designtex was among the first companies to market postmodernist products using architects' identities, assembling superstars Aldo Rossi, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown for a suitably stoic portrait reproduced in ads for the 1991 Portfolio fabric line.
Also stirring the pot was the steady rise in women's enrollment in architecture schools, starting in the 1960's, and some of those graduates have achieved stature as partners in husband-wife firms. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, for example, paid particular attention to interiors at New York's American Folk Art Museum, where tiny vitrines, displaying miniature objects in mid-flight, wrap around a stair fitted with colorful translucent fiberglass panels. Laurinda Spear and Bernardo Fort-Brescia, now celebrating the 30th anniversary of Arquitectonica, have always done interiors, such as the 1977 "pink house." In 2004, the firm launched a dedicated interiors division, complete with logo.
Among Eero Saarinen's spiritual heirs, the eponymous founder of Deborah Berke & Partners Architects and Annabelle Selldorf of Selldorf Architects are also members of the Interior Design Hall of Fame, selling clients not only buildings but the furniture to fill them, too. For Deborah Berke, the process was gradual: A New York loft that appeared on the cover of this magazine in 1998 is avowedly architectural in the extreme; last year's 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, looks almost plush by comparison. Selldorf used furniture from her Vica line to furnish the model apartment at New York's Urban Glass House condominium, on which she collaborated with Johnson's successor firm.
Only at age 90 did Johnson pose for the cover of Out magazine. Younger generations seem less inhibited. As Tsao says, "I'm out and proud about my decorating."
"It's about being comfortable with expressing the sensual part of you," says Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz, who has two master's degrees in architecture. In his case, that has translated into feathered lamp shades for a gay couple and a satin-covered acrylic chair for Lenny Kravitz. "Nowadays," Noriega-Ortiz adds, "my straight male clients are into decorating, because they've seen it on TV."
In fact, widespread acceptance makes the issue seem less relevant. Note the rise of flamboyantly original projects by the likes of Jonathan Adler on the one hand, Patrick Jouin on the other. Jouin's Mix restaurant in Las Vegas might recall Bauhaus ideals of total design, although strands of fabulously delicate glass bubbles descending from the ceiling seem more MGM musical than Mies van der Rohe.
Philip Johnson & Associates actually brought its own brand of buoyancy to Mies with the Four Seasons in New York. Even more than the Glass House, this restaurant displays all the essentials that Interior Design has come to embrace. Start with the architectural rigor of the Seagram Building's window details, layered beneath Johnson's swagged chains riffled by the ventilation system. The palette, though restrained, is nevertheless indulgent, thanks to boatloads of figured marble and burnished walnut. The pool room's table layout has the logic of an architectural drawing, while a slightly ominous sculpture of glinting brass rods holds pride of place over the bar. It was all there at the opening in 1959—right down to the bespoke flatware credited to Garth Huxtable and his wife, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise.