Natalia Ilyin Fights with Modernism

Susan S. Szenasy, Metropolis’s Editor in Chief, engages writer/designer Natalia Ilyin in a conversation about design.

“Modernism—the guts of it, the strength of it, the egotistic beauty of it—carries with it effects we did not expect, and fosters attitudes about ourselves and others that may have been dandy in a utopia but do little good in our world,” writes Natalia Ilyin in Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time, recently released by Metropolis Books.

This is a very personal book—an emotional but reasoned journey through modern times. In the midst of mid-century modernist revivals Ilyin decides to question everything modernism stands for; she challenges its cool, rational, and emotionally-void legacy throughout ten feisty chapters. Like her previous book, Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture, Ilyin’s new book holds the reader’s rapt attention until the very last page. You find yourself looking up a footnote and musing over a caption; sometimes smiling, at times laughing out loud, and at other times feeling strangely catatonic as you try to understand your own struggles with your own modern life.

During the month of January, Natalia will be reading excerpts from Chasing the Perfect at the Häfele showrooms in New York and San Francisco. The New York event, held on January 17th, resulted in a standing-room-only crowd. The San Francisco event will be held Thursday, January 26th at 6:00pm at 151 Vermont Street, suite 9. To meet the author in person, in San Francisco, email [email protected]—and remember to get there early to get a seat!

Susan S. Szenasy, Metropolis’s Editor in Chief, fighting her own modernist demons, engaged Natalia Ilyin in an email conversation.


Susan S. Szenasy: You talk of the stifling nature of Modernist design and its strict rules of expression. What is the one rule of Modernism that irks you the most and why?
Natalia Ilyin: I believe it is the rule of separation. That unspoken rule that the designer must keep up a wall between himself and his client. That that wall is somehow important to integrity.

As I travel across America I often remark, mostly to myself because no one else seems to think this is interesting, that we are an extremely modern country. Despite our Palladian MacMansions and Little House on the Prairie gas stations and banks, most of our public buildings—places where we spend much of our waking hours—are modern and look strangely similar. This pervasive modernity should make me, a die-hard fan of the Bauhaus, feel elated. Yet it has just the opposite effect. Why am I feeling so unhappy about the current state of our built environment?
Because it is boring. Because you have seen it all before. Because it has no relationship to the landscape around it. And because all those straight lines leave nothing for your human mind to catch on to and to feel consoled by. Most of the modernist public buildings in America—if you can make sweeping statements then I shall too—are potchky, mishmashes of modernist aesthetics. “Progressive,” yet going nowhere. Not adding in anything, just rearranging the old elements.

I always feel lonesome in contemporary American public buildings. Am I supposed to? Is the architect silently trying to make me feel distanced and small, not hooked in, not a part of what’s going on there? Could be. Could be a collusion of dominant orders acting for my disenfranchisement. Or maybe they just don’t have time to think things through, need the client, need the money, and slap these things together from big plan books. Have you ever read that MFK Fisher thing about the dining room at the Gare St. Lazar? All architects should read that piece.

Modernist design, in its infancy, was informed by a social mission. I keep hoping, naively perhaps, that we can re-kindle the Modern movement’s missionary zeal to help us deal with 21st century environmental degradation. Is this misplaced idealism?
Yes. Idealism isn’t what it used to be. Susan, listen. The age of ideology has passed. All those isms in the last thirty years have people avoiding pre-constructed notions of how the world should work. My students seem to be trying to figure everything out for themselves. They don’t salute when you say Marx or Gropius. And you know this is a damn good thing. Problem is, there is a lag between getting your facts together and being able to act on them. Thinking things through for yourself takes time. Perhaps what you are seeing is the lag between fact intake and personal action. The problem is that the environmental concerns we have need to be acted on immediately. We don’t have time for mulling. We don’t think we have time. But mulling, personal mulling, is the only way that the real ideas that are going to get us out of the mess will be created.

We need to find a new, more humane and varied language of design—this is very clear from your writings. How do we go about doing this? Where should we start?
Well, you know, we are sort of stuck with the language of modernism. We all speak it, for one thing, and it provides a cohesion, a starting place. Going at modernism with explosives is not going to do much. Molotov cocktails can only get you so far. That’s actually what postmodernism tried before it all became
so damn ironic and lost its teeth. We can use modernism as a starting place. But we need to detach a few suckers from the tree. After its initial Utopian idealism, all very warm and fuzzy, the movement became a series of cults of personality, and we got stuck in this sort of maelstrom of ego and narcissism. Enough, enough. Our brains needed a nice clean left brain system, and we got that in modernism’s basics. But now we need the right brain to kick in: we need to find value in supporting humankind, not just in making statements. All real languages grow and change. And modernism can do that, if we can let go of old notions and open the doors a bit.

I love looking at pictures of minimalist rooms. They have a kind of peaceful astringency that makes me think of monasteries that I dream of retreating to. Is this a sign of some Manhattan disorder or a bad case of Gropiusitis?
Minimalism is such a respite— particularly to the eye(like yours) overrun by email and a great city’s cacophony. The top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is also stunningly beautiful, but I wouldn’t want to have to live up there. Oxygen tanks can ruin the line of a suit.

But that dream of retreat— well, you’ve said it. Minimalism is a dream of retreat from life, a distilling of life to the point that it is not life. I hope someday to have enough money to live simply. But as it is, I always have a bunch of stuff in the garage just in case I have to suddenly whip up a pantsuit or something. Minimalism is a great luxury.

Oddly, if you read Addiction to Perfection, you’ll see a number of points at which minimalism and anorexia are related. A pushing away of chaos, of the mother, of the blood and guts of life in favor of an iron control. A control that can kill you. It’s worth looking into.

Is there an exercise you do—or would like to do— with your students to shake them free of the trap that chasing the perfect leads to?
If I could forestall the mental anguish to which a life-long chasing the perfect can lead, I would be sitting here waiting for the darn Nobel Prize. All I do is ask them to look around them. Really look. It can be like cataract surgery. All those misty shapes suddenly take hard form—the hard forms, the rocks and hard places, of the constructs which mold your life. Take them apart. All those constructs need to be taken apart. Then put them back together in ways that give you room to breathe, in ways that don’t pinch your toes.

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