7 Seminal Spaces

Some of our best interior designers take a walk through their favorite rooms—past and present—showing us the moves behind the magic.

What makes a room inspiring? We think one of the crucial ingredients behind the creation of great space is the skillful mastery of scale. Great interior design makes big rooms seem strangely intimate and small ones mysteriously large. It’s a kind of perceptual trick done with the aid of light, proportion, texture, materials, and color. In an attempt to dissect this multilayered process, we asked eight renowned interior designers to pick their favorite rooms and tell us what makes these spaces special. We had only one stipulation: they couldn’t pick a room they had created. As you’ll see, the choices are all over the map aesthetically—a wonderful departure for us and a graphic feast for the eyes—but once you attach a designer’s pick with his or her work, all sorts of links between past and present become intriguingly apparent.

Jamie Drake on
The Amber Room at the Catherine Palace
St. Petersburg, Russia

Designed By
Andreas Schlüter
Restored 2003

This room is a complete ­fantasy—totally one of a kind—­unbelievably, painstakingly detailed and luxurious. The way the light comes in and plays on these amber nuggets that have been fitted together into a baroque jigsaw puzzle is fantastic. And as antique as it is, it strikes me that it is also modern. I could relate it to, say, the work of Chuck Close because it’s kind of pixelated. It’s like taking architectural motifs and details that we know, such as ogee moldings and even the essence of faux bois, and breaking them down into individual cells of amber and then fitting them together. It certainly tempts you to touch the walls, but you’re not allowed to. And the walls aren’t flat; they’re an undulated, somewhat rocky surface. There’s also a little door in the palace that leads to a boutique where you can buy amber objects. And the magicians that re-created and restored the room are available for commission. I would certainly aspire to create a room that over-the-top but at the same time controlled. Maybe someday…
—As told to Paul Makovsky

Kitty Hawks on
Grand Central Terminal’s Main Concourse
New York

Designed By
Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stern
Restored in 1998

I don’t think there’s one day that I have walked from the train into the main terminal that my breath isn’t taken away because of the scale, the light that comes through the windows, the color of the ceiling, and the stars and the signs of the zodiac. I find it one of the most magical rooms ever because the scale is grand but somehow it feels very intimate. People say, “I’ll meet you at the information desk at Grand Central”—you don’t have to give directions. It’s so perfectly designed that you find your way to its heart without having to read the signs. When you look at the proportioning of the stone columns and the masonry when it springs to that beautiful vault, it almost has the scale of the exterior of a great classical building. It’s really classy. When it was built, someone really took the care to make it generous and special. The main lesson is that when you’re designing for something that a human being has to use, you keep that at the most human scale. When you buy a ticket or ask directions or ask what train you have to catch, those particular areas are scaled very humanly—they’re almost residential.
—As told to Michael Silverberg

George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg on the
Fornasetti Guest Apartment
Milan, Italy

Designed By
Piero Fornasetti
Redesigned in 2003
by Barnaba and Betony Fornasetti

Fornasetti’s interior goes completely and blindly against the Modernist philosophy we studied in school, and that’s what drew us to it. In our own interiors, we always take a rational form and then apply another layer that touches on many of the themes Fornasetti explored—illusion and two-dimensional architecture on three-dimensional forms. As designers we shy away from the word decoration, but there’s a level of decoration that comes with wit and whimsy and that changes our perception of what things should be. You can see this layering effect in the hallway (right), where the stairway reflected in the mirror creates the illusion of another framed interior. The cream-colored wall and the loden wall behind it serve to pull you through the space. Another aspect to his ornamentation was his collaboration with other architects and designers. He decorated furniture by Gio Ponti and china from the Italian ceramic manufacturer Richard Ginori, manipulating their surfaces and transforming them. In a sense we do that in our own work, creating forms and asking artists and crafts­people to add things to the room and to the objects inside.

George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg’s Alternate Selection—
The Farnsworth House
Plano, Illinois

Designed By
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

One of the reasons why we chose the Farnsworth House was because it spoke to Mies van der Rohe’s relationship to nature and aligning a structure and its interior to the nature outside. Well, that’s all very true from one perspective, but we actually see it as an incredible intervention into the site. It’s a complete contrast to nature. Why, for instance, paint it white? For us, too, the Farnsworth house is one of the most rigorous pieces of architecture, in terms of developing two-dimensional spaces and understanding how proportions work and what vistas mean.

Another reason why we chose this house is because of its relevance to responsible building today. Mies didn’t work with air-conditioning at all; he relied on cross ventilation, using the door portals and a couple of copper-tinted windows. It’s definitely not perfect—there were some shades that maybe he didn’t detail that well—but Mies took into consideration various aspects of the site. He apparently was mindful of the old maple trees adjacent to the house that were going to provide shade. When you look back on it today, we can learn a few things from the Farnsworth House—what to do and what not to do.
—As told to Belinda Lanks

Lauren Rottet on
Donald Judd’s Artillery Sheds
Marfa, Texas

Designed By
Donald Judd

These buildings are cast in place with wood molds that make beautiful planks in the concrete. But Judd re­designed them, opening them up with a lot of glass and redoing the barrel-vaulted roofs in aluminum. The original structures are extremely rhythmic and very organized in terms of their concrete columns, ceiling, floor, and this repetitious grid. In-cred­ibly straightforward and simple, they dominate the landscape, even though they’re low, because there is nothing else out there. What’s amazing is that you can view the buildings from a distance, and as you approach you start to see inside but you also see completely through them to his big concrete sculptures out in the landscape. Also, as you look at the fifty pieces he has in each building—they’re polished aluminum and just tall enough that you can look down on them—they reflect the sky. If it’s a sunny day, they’re very vibrant. If it’s a cloudy day, they’re more gray. When you go inside, you feel like you’re outside because of the reflection of the sky. From outside, you feel like you’re inside the buildings because you’re seeing through them. It’s this incredible, beautiful, nebulous feeling, like a painting—it’s a composition that Judd made as a piece of art.
—As told to Kristi Cameron

David Rockwell on
Palau de la Música Catalana
Barcelona, Spain

Designed By
Lluís Domènech i Montaner

I was studying at the AA in 1977 and went to Barcelona to look at all the Gaudí stuff, but then came across this theater and was just knocked out by it. As a student I saw several concerts there. It’s the most amazing place to hear music. And from the street, from the slightly more subdued exterior through to the lobby, with its split stair, and up to the balconies, it is in some ways counterintuitive to what you’d expect from a concert hall. It’s very choreographed, like the Paris opera house, but the use of natural light here is astonishing. These glass curtains on both sides of the hall appear to continue inside, with this magnificent tiled skylight. I was amazed by the combination of tradition and traditional craftsmanship fused with a kind of modern point of view. I also love the fact that there’s no view of the performance that doesn’t include other audience members. And as someone who’s interested in collaboration, I’m now aware of how many significant craftsmen and artists from the period Domènech brought in and what an extraordinary feat that was. The theater really creates a live community space that’s extraordinary, detailed, over-the-top, and surprising in all the right ways.
—As told to Martin C. Pedersen

Shawn Hausman on
Roden Crater
The Painted Desert, Arizona

Designed By
James Turrell

I had never been to Roden and did not know what to expect. We came from Sedona, a long drive down dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, and then suddenly we saw the crater in the distance on the flat desert plain. Once you get there you walk down this tunnel on this slow incline and see what looks like a keyhole on the opposite end. Moving closer, you realize there’s a circle cut out of the ceiling. The shape appears to change, like an optical illusion, and the sound is incredible. I’m fond of entrances. A lot of the public space I’ve done is about that moment of arrival. There is also a room in the center of the crater where you look up to the sky. It’s very visceral. It’s a room that’s all about being in it. It felt very spiritual to me, and I don’t mean that from a complicated place. I’ve been to Machu Picchu, to temples that were spiritual in ancient ways, but this was modern and still had that feel. Roden is a man-made object created to let you view what nature does with light—that beautiful, uncontrollable, ever changing ­phenomenon.
—As told to Jade Chang

Clive Wilkinson on the
Drottningholm Palace Theatre
Stockholm, Sweden

Designed By
Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz

I was sixteen years old and on a coach tour around Scandinavia with my ­family. We had this great French guide who had all sorts of dirt on Scandinavian history. He said the Drottningholm Palace Theatre was created by Queen Louisa Ulrika of Prussia in 1766; when she married into the Swedish monarchy they desper­ately needed some social ­credibility—they were a barbaric bunch. Unreformed Vikings, the only things they enjoyed were hunting and killing. Of course, as soon as she died, they closed it up and went back to hunting and killing. When I saw it in the 1970s, it was a piece of archaic history that had been forgotten. There was this exceptionally deep stage; the interior was made of papier-mâché, stucco, and trompe l’oeil painting. It was pure fantasy but also had what was then the latest technology from Italy: sliding screens, triangular wings on each side that rotated and could create new scenography in fifteen seconds, a wave-making machine, a lightning machine, a thunder machine, a smoke machine, and even a floating-chair machine to create a god-on-the-clouds effect. It had a big impression on me because it was such a perfect microcosm of the world: the human endeavor to make theater, the notion that architecture can be a form of theater, a serious backdrop to the drama of life.
—As told to Jade Chang

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: December 2007

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