Interior World

Susan Yelavich immersed herself in some of the most innovative spaces of the past quarter-century to produce her new book.

Most books on interiors are filled with glossy pictures and little else, making them perfect coffee-table accessories but paltry sustenance for designers. Writer and academic Susan Yelavich bucks that trend with Contemporary World Interiors (Phaidon), the product of five years’ research into the cultural evolution of the spaces we inhabit. Sure, it contains many beautiful photographs—more than 900—but unlike its companions on the coffee table, Yelavich’s book, published this month, draws on hundreds of international projects from the past 25 years to provide a critical and at times provocative survey of the changing interior landscape. Metropolis editorial director Paul Makovsky spoke with the author about the new release, her favorite spaces, and why she thinks the best interiors are still being designed by architects.

So what’s the basic idea behind your new book?
The charge was to look at the different genres of interiors. And the first obvious observation was that the boundaries between these genres are blurring, in much the same way as our notions of public and private space. So commercial and residential are blurring together, but underneath this is a more significant shift. Does the private home become a stage for entertainment? It often does when it is done by a canonical designer. Does the public hospital try to send a message of private comfort? Yes, as in the case of NBBJ’s executive suite for a cardiac-care facility in Cincinnati’s Christ Hospital, lined in a cherrylike wood and featuring a laptop bay for patients or visitors. Although in that case you are basically curing the heart patient in the design language of the office—which implies that this is where people genuinely feel at home. A related example is Dorte Mandrup’s use of beautiful upholstered fabric for pillows in the Cell Network office, in Copenhagen; this is a sign of the company’s acceptance that work is a self-actualizing experience. Conversely, it’s an inducement to work longer hours.

If they give you all the amenities of home, why would you ever want to leave?
Exactly. The chapter on therapeutic spaces, which sounds fairly grim, turned out to be the most interesting to write. Hospitals are really extending their formal and programmatic language to provide better service to the people who work there. NBBJ completely redesigned a nursing station so that the arrangement of services resulted in less traffic for the patient and less chance of injury along the way. At the same time there is the “edutainment” approach—if you want to be crass—of David Rockwell’s Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, in the Bronx, which is like a magician deflecting your attention: it keeps you entertained and distracted. For a pediatric clinic in Upper Manhattan, the Dutch duo Marleen Kaptein and Stijn Roodnat commissioned local graffiti artists to create bright colorful murals in the examination rooms; and a climbing wall on a giant glass facade allows children to climb up and look out. The entertainment is physical, like Rockwell’s, and experiential, but there is also a particularity to the language that suits the neighborhood—because the graffiti artists were local—yet the design is cosmopolitan in its introduction of the Dutch sensibility.

You begin the book by examining residential design, which has had a huge influence on other genres.
Absolutely. At a conference I attended recently, it was obvious that when people discussed the interior in the abstract, they almost automatically referred to the home. The program of the house has changed slightly, but it isn’t as radical as the way therapeutic spaces have changed. For example, if the climate and the client permit, there is an incredible propensity to strip away walls in houses, mostly to create an intimate relationship to the environment. But that austerity is often mitigated by some kind of brise-soleil. So we are very ambivalent about how open or how private we want to be right now. Permeability is a fact of twentieth-century life, and that is reflected in much of the work I saw while researching the book. However, there is also a backlash to that.

In what way?
Well, in the spaces that would traditionally be the most organic—like Ushida Findlay’s Soft and Hairy House, in Japan, or Joseph Holtzman’s residence in Ghent, New York—interior surfaces have been elaborated and rethought. The spaces are a reflection of the clients but also a sensibility that doesn’t want to make too much of the interiority of the home. The interior can be an opportunity for insinuating or reassembling existing design languages. Sometimes structural ornament simply doesn’t allow enough of this, which is why Rem Koolhaas and Petra Blaisse are such an interesting pair. Just look at Koolhaas’s Seattle Central Library facade, where the ornament is structural. Blaisse is much more literal in her introduction of ornamental languages. Her interior incursions, such as in the Casa da Musica project, in Porto, Portugal, are absolutely marvelous.

The other person who deserves a lot of credit for taking these domestic elements and giving them scale is the late Mary Bright. She took feminine notions of the curtain and scaled them up, so that the curtains had stature without losing their intrinsic femininity. It was probably at the same time that Petra was developing her line.

The really innovative interiors that you reference in the book are by architects, such as Shigeru Ban, Kolatan/MacDonald, and Behnisch Architects. What does this say about the field of interior design?
It’s an interesting question. Architects do interiors and they also have collaborators; and in a book like this, where there are so many projects that you’re essentially offering an intelligent haiku about each one, there sadly wasn’t room for full credit lists. So there are silent and unacknowledged partners who actually collaborated on projects where authorship was claimed by the architect. But your bigger question is, Where’s the innovative work by people who aren’t architects?

Practitioners of interior design are working within a different kind of framework, one that is interactive with a client’s taste and isn’t necessarily engaged from the beginning of the process. There are interior designers in the book. Tsao & McKown, for example, did one of my favorite groups of projects—the Robin Hood Foundation public-school libraries.

But Tsao & McKown would never consider themselves interior designers. They’re architects.
They are?

Calvin Tsao is designing the William Beaver House, a 319-unit condo in downtown Manhattan.
I guess you’re right. I think of them as interior designers.

We all do, because they do interiors so well.
I did survey the canonical field of interior design, and found that often it amounted to shopping trips—meaning that there was a sense of assembling a mise-en-scène. It happens a lot in apartments where the architect has the unique constraint of not being able to blow out the exterior walls. One could do a sociology of interior design, but that would be a different book. I absolutely did not want to take on the conflict between the two professions. Parsons [the New School for Design], for example, is now making a definite bid for theorizing the interior in that respect.

Even before, Shashi Caan—the former chair of the interior-design department at Parsons—was trying to establish a separate identity between interior design and architecture.
I don’t think there should be any separation. Why would you not take into account anthropology and sociology in such a social realm? It’s the same problem that afflicted craft. With the professionalization of craft over the last century, there was an anxiety about claiming a specific domain and giving stature to that domain, which ended up ghettoizing and narrowing the purview of craft and interior design. The most interesting thinkers—whether they are doctors, lawyers, artists, or designers—are synthetic. So the projects I’m interested in take into account multiple variables. Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church, in Rome, is a good example. He has positioned this highly rationalist church at the end of a neighborhood where the 1970s buildings part for him. It creates an incredibly intimate space having a conversation with the suburban neighborhood of Tor Tre Teste, as well as with Rome, the Vatican, and Baroque history.

Where are we now with office planning? We have seen offices go from the highly customized cubicle and the dot-coms to the dot-gones.
The reality is that most of us are still stuck in cubicles, but there are very interesting approaches to office design out there. Take a conservative institution like the bank in Granada that Alberto Campo Baeza designed. He used a strongly minimalist vocabulary, and yet the inclusion of alabaster walls introduces a decorative element, an element of translucency and shadows of activity.

Should we be happy about the state of civic spaces?
We should be encouraged, particularly when we see courthouses by Richard Meier giving people vistas that are pleasurable when they are in very tense spaces. Schools, of course, have been the most adventurous because they have been the most self-critical pedagogically. The whole reform movement that has been going on in schools, marked by Howard Gardner’s “seven intelligences” and the different ways of learning, has engendered different spaces. Embassies obviously warrant inclusion here because they are advertisements for their countries. And there is a stress on community and on credibility that government institutions have been anxious to impart since they started rejecting symbols of classical hierarchy.

There also has been the commercialization of civic spaces.
Absolutely. The Bilbao effect has permeated the culture, and these public spaces—whether they are libraries or parliament buildings such as Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue’s Scottish Parliament—are definitely intended as civic markers. But we don’t have to worry about the world being populated with Liebskinds and Gehrys. It’s not going to happen.

What do you make of starchitect interiors?
Well, take the Hotel Puerta America, in Madrid, where each floor is done by a different architect—clearly that’s a branding device. More fascinating are brands like Camper and Bulgari, which transform their products into environments. Also, the whole notion of the minihotel, and the bed and breakfast morphing into fashion design—Carla Sozzani’s three-room hotel in Milan and Azzedine Alaïa’s hotel in Paris—is symptomatic of a certain preciousness that obviously is only for the elite. But there is also an implicit skepticism of the institutional aspect of the hotel itself, which is by nature standardized.

And how does green or sustainable design figure in all of this?
Sustainability is now interpreted as the reuse of existing structures, as well as something being technically and materially green. I believe that the sustainability movement is uncomfortable with a narrow definition, since a designer can choose a sustainable material like bamboo, but if a lot of fuel is used to ship it to the location then its status as “green” becomes debatable. One problem in a book like this is that really ascertaining a building’s environmental bona fides requires an in-depth analysis. When you are looking at interiors, sometimes you are looking at the whole structure, but often you are just looking at the interior shell. And I don’t trust these kind of narrow-bandwidth evaluations, such as assessing the credibility of a hemp carpet versus a wool carpet, because you’re not looking at the energy expended completely, or at how much water was consumed. You’re not looking at the materials cost to build it, or whether it has been designed to be un-built.

Did you read any interior design criticism while researching the book?
An important launching point for me was Mario Praz’s An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration (1964), which is not highly theorized but highly idiosyncratic and personal. He talks about the difference between intimate spaces and architectural spaces. It was part of my education to understand literally how the interior evolved—how things like bureaus evolved out of traveling suitcases. Other seminal books included: Joseph Rykwert’s The Villa: From Ancient to Modern; Joe Holtzman’s invaluable Every Room Tells a Story: Tales From the Pages of Nest Magazine; Peter Thornton’s Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior 1620–1920; Tony Vildler’s The Architectural Uncanny; and Rebecca Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant.

Where did you find good criticism on interior design?
One book that I didn’t include in my bibliography but that I’d highly recommend is Mark Taylor and Julieanna Preston’s Intimus, an anthology of writings about interior design. Other than that, it’s pretty slim.
You looked at so many interiors to assemble this book.

Which ones really blew you away?
The London club Sketch was one. It follows the trope of Hotel Puerta America because different designers were involved, but the lines are blurred between them. I was also infatuated with Georges, the restaurant inside the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, with its silver pods that take the banquette to new levels. Sandro Marpillero and Linda Pollak’s Tribeca loft in New York is fabulous, as are the offices of the Dutch insurance company Interpolis, designed by Kho Liang le with a group of eight Dutch designers. Koolhaas’s Casa da Musica, in Porto, touched me on so many levels—from the glass curtain wall literally draped over the building to the use of Portuguese tiles in one of the rehearsal spaces. The Vitra Design Museum interiors work successfully by creating usable alcoves. What else? Kaptein Roodnat’s Pediatrics 2000 clinic embodies such sensitivity and intelligence, as do Dorte Mandrup’s Cell Network interiors, absolutely.

Do you think designers have more opportunities to do really imaginative work today than they did in the past?
Certainly designers have a lot of latitude today; there is a desire for difference, not newness. And the menu of possibilities and languages is vast.

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