Mar 6, 2009

21st Century New York Interiors

While my introduction set up an initial framework for analyzing contemporary interiors, this post will sketch out the broader social, political and economic context within which my subsequent case studies will sit. The New York examples to follow are at once specific, in that they are situated in a particular city and were designed in a particular time period, but they may also provide some general categories or ideas for engaging with contemporary interiors elsewhere. As any discussion of 21st century interiors will inevitably begin in the late 20th century, so I will begin my case studies in the mid-1980s. I’ve habitually referred to New York design from the 1980s to the present as “design of the Second Gilded Age”. With significant political and economic shifts in the last year or so, it may not be too presumptuous to argue that the Second Gilded Age, spanning the mid-1980s to 2008, has ended. While the first date marks the beginning of New York’s ascendancy to global economic prominence, the latter date marks the end of both the Bush era and the Wall Street era.

Billboard on the Plaza, 5th Avenue, 2006

The Second Gilded Age

New York almost went bankrupt in the 1970s, a decade also characterized by high crime rates, racial tension, unemployment and homelessness. Although these carried over into the next decade, a boom on Wall Street fueled the speculative real estate market and unemployment figures fell, and a new era of restrained optimism began in the early 1980s. The city began a resurgence which would result in New York claiming its position as the prominent global financial hub of the late 20th century (with London and Tokyo as the other two key hubs). Federally, the 1980s were the Reagan era (1981-89), while in New York; the 1980s were the Koch era (1978-1989). In general, the 1980s were an era where economic “reform” meant cuts to public expenditure (subsidized housing, welfare, education, health) and cuts to individual and corporate taxes, leading to an increase in personal wealth for some while the gap between wealthy and poor grew. The city actively campaigned to bring back corporate business, and, aided by tax exemptions, midtown construction began booming again, exemplified by large corporate towers such as the AT&T Headquarters (1984), Trump Tower (1983) and IBM building (1983).

While politics and tax breaks were partially responsible for New York’s resurgence, the flowering of a new economic mode, referred to as the post-industrial or informational economy, was perhaps more important. Geographer David Harvey characterized this shift to a “post-industrial” society as one driven by “flexible accumulation”. The premise is that from the 1960s to the 1980s, there was a fundamental shift in the economy of Western countries, from an industrial economy, based on increasing production of goods, to a post-industrial or informational economy, based on the production of services and information. While this shift was driven by new technologies and systems such as the computer and its networking abilities, it was also driven by more flexibility in the economy. Decentralization by large corporations resulted in a dispersal of production process and increased specialization, while mass production was increasingly replaced by batch production and niche marketing. There was also a consolidation of high-level service industries in core cities such as New York, with decentralization dispersing corporations across the globe (from the 1980s, production increasingly moved off-shore). During the 1980s and 1990s, New York asserted its position within this new economy as the preeminent core city, gathering together institutions and individuals responsible for controlling the specialized finance and services for increasingly global corporations.

Adam Tihany, Le Cirque 2000, Madison Avenue, 1997

Due to a bull run on Wall St, particularly from new technology stocks, New York during the 1980s became the epicenter of the “greed is good” mentality (see Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street”). A new generation of young people eager to make money from the economic boom were drawn to the city. These young urban professionals were known as “Yuppies” and typically worked either in finance and related industries, or as professionals such as lawyers, accountants or doctors. Yuppies were characterized by their conspicuous consumption – spending their money on designer fashion, furnishings, and consumer goods, as well as dining out and nightclubbing at designer spaces. The yuppie lifestyle of New York’s Second Gilded Age was graphically illustrated in Brett Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, in which the characters are defined solely by the brand-name designer goods they consume.

The First Gilded Age

The parallels with the city’s original Gilded Age a hundred years earlier are worth highlighting briefly, as socio-economic conditions and design ideals are similar in both eras. After the depression of 1873, the 1880s and 90s was an age of unprecedented prosperity in New York, and is often referred to as the Gilded Age. While millionaires made immense fortunes and paraded their wealth with luxurious architecture, design and fashion, the other half of New York struggled in poverty, with poor wages and living conditions. The generation of the Vanderbilts, Morgans and Goulds amassed their fortunes from the industrial economy and its related services – railroads, mining, manufacturing, department stores, real estate and finance. By the end of the 19th century, New York was the undisputed center of American finance, business, law, publishing and entertainment: the core city of the first Gilded Age.

The most popular architectural style of the late 19th century in New York is generally referred to as the Beaux Arts Style, after the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where many American architects of that generation were educated. It is an eclectic style, incorporating neoclassicism from Greek and Roman models, but combined with Renaissance forms from Italian palazzos or French chateaux. Architects such as McKim, Mead, White and Richard Morris Hunt designed mansions and social spaces for the city’s elite, while interior design firms such as the Herter Brothers (Gustave and Christian) and Tiffany’s created luxurious interiors. Though eclectic, the Gilded Age designers took inspiration from European models, from J.P. Morgan’s Renaissance palace (now the J.P. Morgan Library) to William K. Vanderbilt’s 5th Avenue French Chateau, the city’s elite modeled themselves on the merchant princes of Renaissance Italy or on the French or English aristocracy. For cultural producers and patrons of the era, art and architecture were seen as a means to provide civic unity in Gilded Age New York, despite the increasing disparity of wealth (hence, for example, the growth of civic institutions such as the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum).

Sarah Tomerlin Lee, Helmsley Palace Hotel, 1980

In the Second Gilded Age of the 1980s and 90s, financial and real estate speculators became wealthier (in relative terms) than anyone since the last Gilded Age. Fueled by the post-industrial economy and the globalization of financial services, figures such as Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg represented the city’s new wealthy elite. However, as in the First Gilded Age, the city depended on services provided by a growing population of working poor comprising the former industrial blue-collar workforce, racial minorities and immigrants. While the wealthy patrons and cultural producers in the First Gilded Age believed in fostering civic unity, in the Second Gilded Age such virtues were replaced by an ideal of personal wealth as an end in itself. Trump Tower seems emblematic of this ideal: its public areas are dedicated to consumption, prominently featuring merchandise associated with the cult of Trump.

Not coincidentally, many of original Gilded Age spaces were either renovated or recreated in the Second Gilded Age. In a “resurrection” of the earlier era, projects such as Sarah Tomerlin Lee’s interiors for the 1980 Helmsley Palace Hotel included a newly designed hotel “integrated” into McKim Mead and White’s 1884 Villard Houses via recreation furniture and decorative schemes (see image above). Similarly, Julia Monk’s $100 million restoration of the St Regis Hotel in 1991 (originally built for J.J. Astor in 1904), included both restoration and replication (see image below). While Monk retained original marble floors and refurbished ceilings and plasterwork in some of the public spaces, guestrooms were gutted and modernized with the latest fittings. Rather than strictly accurate historical restorations, these self-conscious references to the earlier Gilded Age were eclectic in their mix of historical styling and modern amenities in a parallel way to the Beaux Arts designers’ eclectic mix of European aristocratic styling and modern amenities of the late 19th century.

Julia Monk, lobby of the St Regis Hotel, redesigned 1991

Spaces for the Nouveaux Riches

In design and architecture, the 1980s and 90s were characterized by a high turnover of styles, often lumped together under the term postmodernism. Aesthetically, postmodernism was associated with a return to historical references, symbolism, color, decoration and ornament, as well as a renewed interest in vernacular culture. With the shift to a post-industrial society, there was an emphasis on constantly changing styles and tastes in order to ensure ever more rapid consumption. In contrast to modernism’s embrace of “truth”, universality and timelessness, postmodernism embraced artifice and the ephemeral. Perhaps postmodern design was also aligned with the new financial models, the wealth of which was similarly based on artifice and the ephemeral, as we are now discovering.

Philippe Starck, lobby of the Paramount Hotel, 1991

For New York’s nouveaux riches, there was a boom in luxury restaurants, nightclubs and bars, fashion boutiques, designer hotels, and private apartment renovations. Design provided a means through which a new generation could differentiate themselves. Designer fashion, designer restaurants, designer nightclubs and designer furniture were all increasingly linked to personal identity. Interior spaces were no longer simply functional architectural boxes or aesthetic containers but were experiences within narratives of identity and lifestyle. Stage sets for yuppies, designer interiors of the Second Gilded Age were situated at the intersection of aesthetics, branding, new technologies and social organization. Artifice became a collective given in spaces such as Ralph Lauren’s flagship store, Rhinelander Mansion, the minimalist white cube of John Pawson’s Calvin Klein store or Philippe Starck’s playful designer hotels. If eclecticism was the defining aesthetic of the era, there was also a sense of continuity. However, this continuity was not based on a universal aesthetic or even a democratic sensibility (as was the ideal of an earlier modernist generation), but the continuity was experienced between these physical interiors and the artificial, virtual world of advertising, magazines, TV and cinema.


Ellis, Brett Easton, American Psycho, London: Picador, 1991.

Frisa, Maria Luisa, Mario Lupano and Stefano Tonchi, eds.,
Total Living: Art, Fashion, Design, Architecture, Communication, Milan and New York: Charta, 2002.

Harvey, David,
The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Moody, Kim,
From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present, New York: New Press, 2007.

Stern, Robert A.M., Thomas Mellins and David Fishman,
New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age, New York: The Monticello Press, 1999.

Stern, Robert A.M., David Fishman and Jacob Tilove,
New York 2000: Architecture and Urbanism from the Bicentennial to the Millennium, New York: The Monticello Press, 2006.