Contemporary World Interiors (Introduction)

Contemporary World Interiors, Cover
From Contemporary World Interiors
From Contemporary World Interiors

This is a book about the transition into a new millennium—viewed from the inside out. The interior, whether it consists of one room or multiple rooms, whether open to the outdoors, permeable, or sequestered, gives form to our collective unconscious. The psychological metaphor is deliberate. For even within realm of architecture and design, the contemporary interior has remained largely unexamined as a legitimate index of culture.

By and large, discussions of the interior have been prejudiced by its perception as a container of ephemera.[i] Popular media coverage of the interior as a leaky vessel of trends has reduced a deeply significant aspect of human behavior to little more than shopping lists. Newspapers and shelter magazines must constantly identify “new” trends and products to meet daily, weekly, and monthly deadlines; television and the Internet have accelerated the pace to a matter of hours and days. With rare exceptions, the emphasis on the consumer (and implicitly on the drive to consume) has disproportionately shifted critical perspective away from the ramifications of design on the way we choose to live.

Furthermore, as Joel Sanders argues in his essay “Curtain Wars,” conventional views of the interior are fraught with class bias flowing from its centuries-old association with the trades. Reliant on upholsters, tile-setters, painters, plasterers, and carpenters, the production of the interior is tainted with the stigma of manual labor. Just as insidious, Sanders also observes, is the gender bias attached to the figure of the decorator.[ii] Since the profession’s beginning in the late nineteenth century (Edith Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses was first published in 1897), the public imagination has associated its practice with stereotypes of women and gay men. Undermined and marginalized by social prejudice, it is no wonder that the credibility of the interior as an expression of cultural values has been seriously impaired.

Today, and fortunately for this discussion, the conditions and the light in which we understand culture-at-large have changed. The legacy of the twentieth-century’s progressive social movements, combined with the as yet incalculable effects of twenty-first-century globalization, has imploded the elitist notion of Culture. The distinctions, for example, between “high” culture and “low” culture are dissipating in a more fluid climate characterized by the cross-fertilization that occurs between the two poles. Translated to the realm of interior design, a window has been opened to admit the breezes of iconoclasm and eclecticism.

At the same time that we are witnessing a democratization of design through the agency of retailers from Ikea to Target, designers are canvassing the vernacular to animate their work: witness the use of graffiti in Kapstein Roodnat’s clinic in New York, Pediatrics 2000 (Therapeutic, p. 490). Projects such as Fabio Novembre’s Hotel Vittorio in Florence (Hotels, p. 434) and Dorte Mandrip’s offices for Cell Network in Copenhagen (Offices, p. 138) are marked by productive borrowings between design and decoration, once considered mutually exclusive. And while the fields of architecture and interior design and interior decoration still have different educational protocols and different domains of emphasis, there is evidence of a greater convergence between these formerly segregated realms—one example being the recent interest in wall coverings as a narrative and spatial device.

Another way to think of this emergent synthesis is to substitute the triad of “architecture, design, and decoration” with “modernity, technology and history.” One of the hallmarks of the postmodern era in which we live is our awareness of the role of the past in shaping the present. History is not longer understood as linear, but more like the double helix of DNA, with dominant and recessive genes that continually recombine. After a century of ill-fated social experiments in the “new,” we no longer discount the role of memory. Just as utopian communist regimes attempted to erase custom and tradition, so ultimately did modernism suppress idiosyncrasy and, in the end, personality—notwithstanding the fact that both movements began as well-intentioned social experiments. In the interior, this valorization of memory manifests itself in a renewed interest in ornament, in evidence of craft and materiality, and in spatial complexities, all running parallel to the ongoing project called modernity. No longer does any one aesthetic language dominate, as the International Style did in the years after World War II. In this new inclusive climate, once-alien styles flourish side by side.

For more significantly, we see a new elasticity in typologies. Though this book is organized by type of interior—house, loft, office, restaurant, and so on—the chapters strain to control their borders, particularly once we leave the confines of home. While the residence has seen the least radical changes to its own program, during the past three decades it has become the catalyst for entirely new ways of thinking of spaces once firmly isolated from it—from the secretary’s cubicle to the nurse’s station to the librarian’s reading room. The domestication of such environments is a welcome step in providing more comfort, more reassurance, and more pleasure to domains formerly defined by prohibitions and exclusions. Unquestionably, the changes we see in public spaces are indebted to the civil rights movements of the late 1960s. Those battles fought against barriers of race, class, gender, and physical ability laid the groundwork for a larger climate of hospitality and accommodation.

It is also possible to detect a very different agenda in the popularity of the residential model. The introduction of domestic amenities into commercial spaces can also be construed as part of a wider attempt to put a more acceptable face on the workings of capital. In this view, interior design dons the mask of entertainment in order to conceal the less sanguine aspects of daily life; every interior is fundamentally a stage set. There is nothing new about the charade, nor is it particularly insidious—as the actors are complicit in the game. Indeed, it could be argued that transforming work into play is design’s ultimate task. Danger surfaces, however, when illusion becomes delusion—when design overcompensates for the realities of illness with patronizing sentiment, or when offices become surrogate apartments because of the relentless demands of a 24-7 economy.

In these instances, design relinquishes its potential to transform daily life in favor of what amounts to little more than a facile re-branding of space, or worse, an act of deceit. The projects selected here make the case for a range of best practices. Looked at together, they describe the traits (but not the trends) of the contemporary interior. And since, with few exceptions, all of the spaces considered have been realized, this international survey can be construed as a kind of pulse-taking. The interiors have been curated to illuminate ideas that are enduring and to identify potential areas of change. These selections are offered with a desire to ameliorate the limitations of design criticism so acutely diagnosed by architectural historian Kenneth Frampton when he observed:

Despite the vast influence media has on the world . . . we are still subject to a lack of information with regard to world culture . . . Thus, while we are momentarily informed on Japan, we hardly know anything about India, Australia or South Africa; while we are au courant on Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany, we know less about current practice in Scandinavia.[iii]

In response, this book attempts to be Catholic in its purview, not by framing design culture in terms of Spain or Scandinavia or Australia but by charting the changes to interiors through countries and across nationalities.  Furthermore, instead of offering sociological portraits—for example, of shopping spaces, which would of necessity include phenomena like Starbucks and big-box retail—Contemporary World Interiors sets its sights on the achievements that can be said to flow from design.  If there is a perceptible bias, it is decidedly toward spaces like Herzog & de Meuron’s Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Culture, p. 315) or Marcel Wanders’ Lute Suites in Amsterdam (Hotels, pp. 436037)—those that make an art out of hybridity, that don’t simply mix and match periods but borrow from various episodes in design and re-filter them through a contemporary lens. The selection offered here favors those who still find wisdom in Renaissance chronicler Baldassare Castiglione’s advice:

He who does not avoid . . . antique expressions, except in the rarest instances, makes no less serious a mistake than he who in his desire to imitate times past continues to eat acorns after wheat has become available.[iv

Today, designers no longer have to choose between a modernist or postmodernism diet. While it is tempting to use the postmodern style—the inflated classicism of the 1980s—as the whipping boy for the acorn-variety of historicism, surely designers would not be as open-minded today were it not for those first excursions into the Pandora’s box of style. Likewise modernism survives, indeed, thrives, if somewhat less restrictively, as an ideology of restraint.

Today, the appetite for the new has been replaced by the desire for the different and unexpected. In a time when virtually every style is equally available, form is secondary to formal relationships and to narratives of use. Consequently, each chapter asks, What is this space today? What is the house, the office, the hotel, the museum? How do we think about them? What do they say about us?

It is very likely that one hundred years from now the answers and the categories for a book such as this one will be quite different. The loft is susceptible to change not only because it depends on a finite resource (vacated industrial space) but also because the sources of its identity—the studio, the gallery, the museum—are themselves no longer tethered to a formal canon of the empty box. Hotels, under the ever-heightening conditions of globalization, show signs of morphing into houses, campgrounds, and galleries.  Spaces designed to heal are already superceding those designed to quarantine. As people live longer, all of these spaces will take on different features to accommodate what it means to be human when a lifetime spans four or more generations.

Interiors are, after all, narratives about ourselves, whether we use them self-consciously as such or not. A recent study of our relationship to interiors by the international design consultancy IDEO divides people into “storytellers” (those who decorate), “functionalists” (those who warehouse their possessions), and “campers” (those on the move who barely unpack).[v]  But even warehousing—perhaps, especially warehousing, whether patients, possessions, or equipment—tells a story about how we think of ourselves. The mistake is to see the interior as a mere container of behaviors or tastes.  It participates in those behaviors and tastes. The task ahead is to read them carefully.[vi]



[i] The two most thoughtful texts on the subject—Mario Praz’s An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration and Peter Thornton’s Authentic Décor—stop in the early years of the 20th century. These two resources are unusual for their analytical perspective. Praz is the more poetic of the two authors, attributing metaphysical properties to the interior that the contemporary reader will find unsubstantiated but nonetheless provocative. Thornton brings a more conventional art historical methodology to the subject.

Praz, Mario. An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration from Pompeii to Art Nouveau. (First published in the U.S. by George Braziller, 1964; London: Thames and Hudson, 1987).

Thornton, Peter. The Domestic Interior, 1630-1920. First published in the UK in 1984, by George Weiden & Nicholson; (London: Seven Dials, Cassell & co., 2000).

[ii] Sanders, Joel. “Curtain Wars,” Harvard Design Magazine, Winter/Spring 2002, 14.

[iii] Frampton, Kenneth. “Community Builder,” Design Book Review 44/45 (San Francisco: California College of the Arts and Crafts, Winter/Spring 2001), 84.[iv] Castiglione was the author of The Book of the Courtier, the quintessential Renaissance book of manners. The quote was excerpted from:

Cleugh, James. The Divine Aretino. (New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1966), 200-1. First published in UK by Anthony Blond, Ltd., 1965.

[v] Fred Dust, head of IDEO’s Smart Space practice, shared these characterizations, conceptualized by IDEO for an American housing developer, in a lecture entitled ‘Tales of the City,” at Parsons The New School fof Design, September 20, 2005).

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