Jan 29, 2009

The 21st Century Interior

The interior is a fluid and often disputed territory claimed by architects, interior designers and decorators. In his provocative essay, “Curtain Wars: Architects, Decorators, and the 20th-Century Domestic Interior”, Joel Sanders traces the 20th century “battle” for the interior by professionals from interior decoration, interior design and architecture, concluding with the idea that these once rigid boundaries seem to have collapsed in the early 21st century. While the disciplinary boundaries may have collapsed, the way we think about the interior itself has also changed. While a common-sense definition of the interior as a contained or enclosed space seems straightforward, the interior is more elusive than this initial definition suggests.

I want to begin this series of posts on the 21st century interior with three propositions that might challenge this initial definition. Firstly, the interior is inherently ephemeral, as people are constantly moving objects around in interior spaces, changing the way the space is configured and thus how it operates. Secondly, the interior is in a constant state of flux due to its inhabitation by humans – that is, the interior is in some respect inseparable from the people who inhabit it. Finally, our initial definition of the interior is further destabilized by the saturation of media culture and digital technologies, which affects our understanding of the interior in two ways – in the way physical spaces are reproduced and circulate as either two dimensional photographic or virtual (digital) images, and in the way our use of mobile digital devices change our perception of space.

The Interior: Beyond the Container

To date, the few available histories of the interior have treated it as a subset of architecture, whereby enclosed spaces designed by well-known architects, interior designers, decorators or design firms, are analyzed as coherent, stable objects for study. For example, this sense of the interior as a contained architectural space is emphasized by design historian John Pile in the introduction to his pioneering book, A History of Interior Design: “interior design is inextricably linked to architecture and can only be studied within an architectural context” (Pile, 2005: 11) Pile’s narrative of exemplary architectural containers from the caves at Lascaux to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, is accompanied by images of furniture and objects typically found within them.

More recently, Susan Yelavich, in the introduction to her book, Contemporary World Interiors, highlights the lack of critical attention given to interior design compared to architecture or other design disciplines. She writes: “discussions of the interior have been prejudiced by its perception as a container of ephemera” (Yelavich, 2007: 1). The book itself comprises a survey of exemplary contemporary interior spaces organized according to loose typologies: “The House”, “The Loft”, “The Office”, and so on. Most of these spaces were designed by well-known designers, architects or design firms, and Yelavich makes no distinction between disciplines. This suggests that we may be beyond the point where the interior is considered simply a subset of architecture, and that the boundaries between disciplines in the 21st century are more fluid than in the last century.

Although differently organized to Pile’s book, Yelavich’s range of contemporary spaces contains images of empty architectural containers largely devoid of people. While there is some attempt in both books to provide a little social context, many of the important social questions (Who uses these spaces? When? Why? How do they affect their inhabitants? How do they relate to their socio-economic context?) remain unanswered. Given the interior’s condition of instability noted above, it is worth extracting the interior from this particular architectural context – less for the sake of disputing disciplinary territories, and more in order to expand our understanding of the interior as something other than a decorated architectural container.

John Pawson, Calvin Klein store, New York, 1995

The Interior: Space of Inhabitation

If we are to think about the interior as more than an architectural container, we must firstly acknowledge that it is also a space of human habitation. In his book, A Philosophy of Interior Design, Stanley Abercrombie argues that while architectural histories tend to focus on the facades of buildings (the exterior), to understand the containers within (the interior), requires a different experience: “We do not merely pass them on the street; we inhabit them. When we enter a building, we cease being merely its observer; we become its content.” (Abercrombie, 1990: 3) Importantly, the interior is defined by Abercrombie as inseparable from the people who inhabit it, so an interior history that simply catalogues and analyzes empty architectural containers seems inadequate.

Despite Abercrombie’s point about inhabitation, a brief flip through any recent book or magazine on interior design (or architecture for that matter) will reveal scant evidence of human habitation. In photographs of contemporary interiors, the absence of people (and their ephemera) is remarkable. If we follow Abercrombie’s idea, the interior is not an empty, designer container, but a space that is always marked by human habitation. Even when a house is empty, someone has left a pair of dirty socks on the floor or dishes in the sink; even when the office is empty, someone has left a coffee mug or a stack of papers on the desk. The interior is always contaminated by traces of human presence.

The Interior: A Dynamic Process

In the 21st century, our understanding of the interior is predominantly a visual one. This is no doubt compounded by a media culture in which the first time we “see” an interior space is often as a glossy color photograph in a magazine, book, brochure or website. This mediation of the interior by a flat, two dimensional image gives us a limited understanding of the space. For design historian and theorist Suzie Attiwill, this flattening of three dimensional space into a two dimensional image suppresses the interior’s temporal aspect: “Interior design histories have … ignored temporality in the design of interiors through a focus on objects and built space as static form.” (Attiwill, 2004: 6) Given our history of interiors is based on two dimensional images, our interaction with the temporal aspect of the interior is lost. What is also lost is the range of sensory phenomena beyond the visual – the sounds and smells (or lack thereof), the touch and weight of materials. By including these additional aspects of the interior – the temporal and the phenomenological – into an interior history, we can start to understand how the interior is more than simply an architectural container.

Histories of the interior thus far tend towards a mummification of spaces as empty containers, their ephemera frozen as in a museum’s period room. Even when considering contemporary interiors in books, magazines or websites, our contemporary culture of the spectacle privileges visual perception, suppressing the rich phenomenological experience when we interact with a space. The fixity of photographs tends to reinforce the idea of the interior as an “ideal” or pure space comprising a series of abstract forms, lines, color and objects such as furniture and fixtures. It may well be easier to admire a pure empty container, and such spaces uncontaminated by inhabitation are certainly easier to catalogue, classify (according to style or function) and analyze as data.

Finally, beyond an architectural container filled with ephemera, the interior is also a dynamic space. It is dynamic in at least four senses: in the sense of people flowing in and out; in its interactions with the surrounding context; in its interactions with media culture (the circulation of images); and in its interactions with new technologies (which includes the virtual realm from CCTV cameras to cellphones or mobile listening devices that alter our perception of space). These dynamic aspects of the interior suggest that issues such as how we interact with and experience spaces seem more vital than simply cataloguing styles or functions of architectural containers. In this way, we may begin to consider how the interior affects psychological states or plays a role in shaping individual or collective identities through projections of lifestyles, class, gender or social values.

Philippe Starck, Hudson Hotel bar, New York, 1999.

Contemporary New York Interiors

My starting point for this series on interiors was a graduate course I taught at Pratt Institute between 2005 and 2007 which focused specifically on contemporary interiors in New York. For the series of case studies which I hope to post over coming months, I aim to examine some of the complexities of the interior sketched above through the analysis of concrete examples drawn from those classes. However, any discussions of the interior inevitably reach the issue of accessibility and all of the case studies to follow are spaces that are publicly accessible spaces that I have actually experienced and spent time in. This necessarily limits the study to a narrow range of interiors. Despite the arguments about images of empty architectural containers above, the case studies will mostly be accompanied by images of these spaces as empty architectural containers, again given the difficulty gaining permission to photograph them.

In some sense this project has already begun on this blog, with my analyses of The Myrtle Avenue Style, the section on designer interiors in the Meatpacking District post, the Starchitect Condos post, and the section on the Frank Gehry/G Tech- designed Issey Miyake store in Portrait of the Architect as an Artist. For those interested readers, I will include bibliographies for further reference, and if anyone has further ideas or readings please let me know – comments are most welcome. Finally, in advance, many thanks to all of my students from Pratt Institute’s Interior Design program who, through their research, discussion and enthusiasm, helped both stimulate and formulate many of the ideas to follow.


Abercrombie, Stanley, A Philosophy of Interior Design, New York, Harper and Row, 1990.

Attiwill, Suzie, “Towards an Interior History”,
IDEA (Interior Design/Interior Architecture Educators Association journal), Brisbane, QUT Publishing, 2004. Download the journal here.

Pile, John,
A History of Interior Design, John Wiley and Sons, New Jersey, 2005 (second edition)

Sanders, Joel, “Curtain Wars: Architects, Decorators, and the 20th-Century Domestic Interior”,
Harvard Design Magazine, Number 16, Winter/Spring 2002. Online here.

Yelavich, Susan,
Contemporary World Interiors, Phaidon, London, 2007.

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