Dec 23, 2009

The 21st Century Interior

In order to finish off my 21st Century Interior project for the year, I have put all of the posts for 2009 together in a single document, edited them lightly and added a short conclusion. Please download here as a PDF for your reading pleasure. Note that if you want to print it out, this document is 65 pages long and contains colored pictures, as well as a full bibliography at the end.

Any comments you have would be gratefully received either here or via email.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful holiday season.

Oct 23, 2009

Tadao Ando: Morimoto Restaurant

In my recent blog entries on the 21st century interior, the issue of theatricality has recurred several times. The intersection between the virtual spaces of the theater or cinema, and the actual spaces of physical interiors, seems both a vital and under-theorized connection with a long and somewhat marginalized history. In the United States, for example, the earliest professional designer, Elsie de Wolfe, began her career as an actor at the beginning of the 20th century; many of the best known designers of the interwar era, such as Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss and Russel Wright, began their careers in theater set design; while designers such as Morris Lapidus continued the theatrical impulse into the postwar era. An understanding of the contemporary interior as a stage set in which inhabitants “perform” social rituals or enact their identities (through seeing and being seen) seems a useful one. Rather than understanding the interior as an empty architectural container, the theatrical interior is an inherently dynamic, mediated environment, always already subject to a human gaze.

Christopher Innes, through a close analysis of the careers of Norman Bel Geddes and Joseph Urban, argues that in the 1920s, Broadway theater was a thoroughly modern medium which influenced not only the fashion and décor of its audience, but impacted upon their social and cultural values too. Bel Geddes and Urban worked on both theater and film sets, as well as on commissions for hotels, restaurants, retail spaces and private homes in the 1920s and 1930s. Innes argues that Bel Geddes’ and Urban’s scenery, lighting schemes, and technological innovations developed in their (virtual) theater projects leaked into their (actual) hotel lobbies, banquet rooms, cabarets, and ball rooms. The virtual Art Deco interiors featured in 1930s Hollywood cinema similarly spread into the actual world of both public and private spaces. This seepage between the theatrical or cinematic set and physical interior spaces continues to the present, as seen in my recent case studies: Naomi Leff’s Rhinelander Mansion for Polo/Ralph Lauren (1986); Philippe Starck’s Royalton Hotel (1988), Paramount Hotel (1990), and Hudson Hotel (2000); OMA/Rem Koolhaas’ Prada Flagship Store (2001); and the two New York restaurants of Karim Rashid, Nooch (2004) and Kurve (2008).

However, within an architectural context, this understanding of the interior as a mediated theatrical space is often suppressed by the continuation of modernist architectural ideals. The inherent conflict can be distilled into to three key dichotomies:

1. The Fake vs the Real. The moral imperative of modernist truth to materials and truth to form is undermined by the artificial materials and forms intended to create effects in the theatrical interior. This divide goes back to the 19th century modernist critique of Victorian designers’ use of faux materials, overly-elaborate forms and eclectic historical references.

2. The Temporal vs the Timeless. Modernist architecture’s drive for establishing timeless, universal designs stands opposed to the ephemeral and contextual nature of theatrical or cinematic sets. More than this, there is an implicit association of the overtly theatrical interior with the temporality of fashion: while stage sets are “dressed”, architectural spaces are ideally naked.

3. The Corporeal vs the Conceptual. The theatrical interior is conventionally associated with the immediate gratification of desire rather than with modernist architecture’s higher rational values. In the theatrical interior, the creation of a mood or an atmosphere which engages with the senses of the audience is valued more highly than an intellectual engagement.

These polemical extremes seem an unlikely introduction to an interior space designed by the contemporary master of authentic materials, abstract geometries and natural forces, Japanese architect Tadao Ando. And yet it is precisely these dichotomies that are played out in his recent New York restaurant, Morimoto.

Tadao Ando: Morimoto

While Ando’s career in Japan began with the founding of his Osaka office in 1969, it was not until the 1980s that he gained international prominence, particularly for his iconic Church of Light (1989) in Osaka, and Church on the Water (1988) on the island of Hokkaido. His architectural influences – cited by both Ando and subsequent critics – include the solidly modernist lineage of Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn, combined with elements of Japanese traditions. Ando’s architecture has been lauded for its use of raw materials (particularly his signature use of concrete), abstract forms, and spare, unadorned interiors. This emphasis on abstraction, the engagement with natural forces (light and shadow, wind and water), and above all his “pure” minimal spaces have been associated by many critics with higher, spiritual values (see, for example, Jin Baek’s recent monograph, Nothingness: Tadao Ando’s Christian Sacred Space). This sense of profundity is no doubt highlighted by the proliferation of black and white photographs of Ando’s spaces, emptied of any human inhabitants. However, Kenneth Frampton, in “Thoughts on Tadao Ando” (written when Ando received the 1995 Pritzker Prize), argued that Ando’s architecture “resists all spectacular apparatus of techno-scientific display, in order to testify to a moment that lies outside the constant threat of commodification.” For Frampton, the solemnity of Ando’s architecture somehow offers redemption from the shallow spectacles of contemporary consumer culture. And yet… ladies and gentlemen, meet Morimoto…

On 10th Avenue, at Chelsea’s industrial edge, a red curtain partially covers a huge arch in the former Nabisco Baking Company’s brick warehouse. Morimoto’s location is not easily accessible, and, in the absence of overt signage, it is not immediately obvious that this is a restaurant (confirming that this is an “in the know” establishment). The red curtain is at once a dramatic opening and an exaggerated reference to traditional Japanese noren, an “open for business” curtain. Behind it are automatic doors which open to a desk/coat check at the edge of a multi-leveled, open space containing varied seating options. There are some long communal tables, as well as semi-private rooms, and, towards the rear are what appear to be low, Japanese-style tables but their accompanying sunken bench chairs give patrons the impression of kneeling down to eat without the discomfort (a concession to Westerners). Another major feature at the back of the space is the display of sushi chefs working away in front of the diners. While the color palette is muted overall, a shimmering wall composed of illuminated plastic water bottles provides a spectacular central focus (see photos above and below).

Concrete stairs going down to a subterranean bar are lined with prominent columns, also immediately recognizable as Ando’s signature concrete, but the columns are purely decorative: they clearly stop before reaching the ceiling. Above, the ceiling appears to be folding ripples of beige fabric, but on closer inspection, it turns out to be solid fiberglass (sprayed onto fabric). Furniture throughout the restaurant, designed by Ross Lovegrove, continues this playful tension between appearance and reality. Some chairs appear to be made of solid concrete, for example, but are made from foam, while other chairs appear light but are solid and heavy. Thus the interior engenders active participation by its inhabitants, whose perceptions are challenged even as they move a chair to sit down. The juxtaposition of Ando’s naked concrete and wood, with Lovegrove’s plastics, fiberglass and other high-tech materials (including the water bottles that comprise the central wall, designed by Lovegrove for Ty Nant) creates a complex sensual experience, but not an authentic engagement with raw materials.

Down the concrete stairs, the subterranean bar space continues the same themes, but the bar itself is particularly noteworthy (see photo above). Its surface contains skeletal leaves embalmed in a plastic resin (which reminded me of Shiro Kuramata’s 1988 Miss Blanche chair, with flowers similarly set into transparent resin), which, when illuminated with a blue light from above, appear as poetic remainders of nature, a further reminder of the completely artificial nature of the space and its experience. The interior as a whole is carefully lit with artificial lights, and there is no engagement with natural light (the few windows are covered with translucent screens). In addition to the lighting, club music adds to an atmosphere that seems closer to a nightclub than an exclusive restaurant.

As well as with Lovegrove, Ando collaborated on this project with New York designer Stephanie Goto, a former employee of the master of the theatrical restaurant, David Rockwell. But Morimoto’s other influential contributor was its owner, entrepreneur Stephen Starr. Starr began in the entertainment industry in Philadelphia, and currently owns over a dozen restaurants in Philadelphia, New York City and Atlantic City, all characterized by their theatrical atmosphere. Starr’s spectacular dining experiences include not only innovative menus and designer spaces (the first Morimoto restaurant opened in Philadelphia in 2001, was designed by Karim Rashid), but also distinctive designer websites, and in the case of Morimoto, Pentagram-designed graphics. The final player in the Morimoto experience is its namesake, head chef Masaharu Morimoto, best known as an Iron Chef from the television series, and famed for his signature Japanese dishes infused with European flavors or ingredients. Morimoto himself occasionally appears in the restaurant, blurring the boundaries between his (virtual) TV character and an (actual) sushi chef performing for diners at the rear of the restaurant (see photo below: the empty performance space).

This oscillation between the virtual and real is characteristic of Morimoto’s total design, and appears, on the surface at least, to be opposed to the tranquility and solemnity conventionally associated with Ando’s architecture. However, in an article entitled “Thinking in Ma”, Ando wrote that he believed in an architecture that could create “space of dynamic variance, space that pulsates in the gap between reality and fiction, between the rational and the illogical...” The interior space of Morimoto and its designed experience hold the dichotomies listed above – the fake vs. the real, the temporal vs. the timeless, the corporeal vs. the conceptual – in perpetual suspense. Ando concluded his essay with the idea that the Japanese concept “Ma” denotes a place of conflict, and in this way Morimoto operates as a performative stage upon which its inhabitants might actively engage with contradictions.


Ando, Tadao, “Thinking in Ma”, in El Croquis, 44+58, Tadao Ando issues, 2000, p.6.

Amelar, Sarah, “Record Interiors: Tadao Ando Morimoto Restaurant”, Architectural Record, vol. 194, no. 9, September 2006.

Baek, Jin, Nothingness: Tadao Ando’s Christian Sacred Space, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2009.

Heller, Steven, “Missing Component”, Metropolis, April 2008.

Innes, Christopher, Designing Modern America: From Broadway to Main Street, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005

Sparke, Penny, Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration, Acanthus Press, 2005.

The photos of the column, the bar, and the chair are by D.J. Huppatz. The photo of D.J. Huppatz in Morimoto is by the eminent design historian, Katarina Posch.

Sep 30, 2009

Karim Rashid: Nooch, Kurve

Continuing my series on 21st century interiors, this post analyses two New York restaurants designed by Karim Rashid. A prolific designer in the Philippe Starck mold, Rashid established his reputation in furniture and product design during the 1990s, but has since branched out into packaging, fashion and interiors. Like Starck, Rashid has assumed the public persona of a design celebrity (see the Samsung advertisement below), although he has taken his celebrity status to another level, with a media image seamlessly integrated into his design aesthetic (he wears only white suits and or/pink shirts for publicity photos), and the production of several self-promotional manifesto/coffee-table books. For my purposes, Rashid’s interiors embody a trio of early 21st century preoccupations: digital technology, design and celebrity.

Karim Rashid, advertisement for Samsung, July 2007

Rashid was born in Cairo, raised and schooled in Canada, and, after studying industrial design at Carleton University, taught at both RISD and Pratt. He opened his own New York-based design practice in 1993 and soon gained a reputation as a “signature designer” via a distinctive vocabulary of forms and day-glo colors. Rashid’s organic forms were intially associated with similar forms by “blobject” designers such as Marc Newson or architect/designer Greg Lynn. These stylists of digital fluidity were experimenting with the sculptural possibilities opened up by new technologies such as CAD and CAM. Like a contemporary version of streamlined design, the application of a smooth and curvaceous “digital skin” onto existing products was supposed to evoke the new digital era: the 1930s metaphor of speed was replaced by the 1990s metaphor of cyberspace. Much like Raymond Loewy or Norman bel Geddes, Rashid applied the same fluid forms and seamless surfaces to existing products – from chairs to vacuum cleaners – in order to stimulate consumer desire via the resulting digital aura.

Karim Rashid's Chelsea loft

Like Rem Koolhaas, Rashid peppers his manifestos with bite-sized, trademark phrases such as “sensual minimalism” or “techno-organic” in order to define his design ideals. In I Want To Change the World, Rashid portrays himself in the tradition of the designer as visionary, a seer who can interpret the (digital) future for the rest of us mere mortals. Rashid’s blind faith in new technology and rejection of history (despite the 1960s pop references) places his design philosophy squarely in the modernist tradition. But, unlike the early 20th century modernists, for Rashid, democracy is conflated with consumerism, and the individual consumer is the ultimate endpoint of his design logic. Homogenization, he argues, is a threat to individuality. To rise above the poverty of mass produced goods, Rashid proposes variance and niche marketing, but the idea of confirming one’s individuality by buying Rashid-signature designs seems contradictory (see also his Design Your Self: Rethinking the Way You Live, Love, Work and Play). However, Rashid’s digital artifice reflects the values of a certain class of early 21st century design-saavy consumers: cosmopolitan, casual, and moneyed.

Nooch Noodle Bar

Rashid’s first foray into interior design was Morimoto restaurant in Philadelphia (2001), but his first New York interior was Nooch Noodle Bar (2004), a moderately-priced branch of a Singapore-based chain of contemporary Asian noodle shops. Situated in the heart of retrofitted Chelsea, on the corner of 8th Avenue and 17th Street, the entire street frontage of Nooch is a glass façade. The glass is foggy at the top and bottom, then gradually clearer towards the middle, resulting in a long horizontal frame that wraps around the corner of the city block. At night, a neon green glow from below creates an otherworldly atmosphere. From outside, the entrance is marked by an oversized image of a model’s face, which resonates with both the pan-Asian cuisine and the voyeuristic environment within. From inside, the space is sealed from street noise by the constant dance music, so patrons watch a stream of traffic and pedestrians striding along 8th Ave, clutching cellphones or shopping bags, walking dogs or hailing taxis, for the most part oblivious they are on display.

Inside, the small dining space has a capacity of around fifty diners, and comprises Rashid-designed lime-colored chairs and translucent plastic benches, as well as smoothly contoured metallic tables. However, the spongy material of the benches and the table surfaces have not worn well, the bench edges are crumbling and white chips on the tables somewhat spoil the high-tech effect. Another major design element, a spectacular blue, pink and green “noodle” mural on one wall, highlights Rashid’s exploration of virtual space with its complex layers and reflective surface.

The floor pattern, which looks similar to 1960s Op Art, continues up the back wall and into the bathroom. Along with the patterns, the highlight of the bathroom is the ameboid mirror across which run scrolling LED messages that appear as textual fragments such as “sexy underwear” or “naughty girl”. A central bar with Rashid-designed stools makes the restaurant seem casual while a prominent DJ desk, “DJ Kreemy”, a curvaceous blue stand with two turntables and a mixing board set into it, connects the dining experience to nightclub culture. And music is a crucial element in the creation of atmosphere here: the seamless surfaces of the furniture and the continuous patterns are complemented by a seamless musical experience. Like cyberspace, Nooch is insulated from the outside world, but the simultaneous experience of being on display and voyeuristically watching passers-by reflects a contemporary celebrity culture in which the boundaries between private and public are blurred.


Rashid’s more recent restaurant/bar, Kurve (2008), occupies a corner site in the gentrified East Village. A floor-to-ceiling glass façade along 2nd Avenue “kurves” around the corner onto 5th Street where it ends halfway around, with three oval-shaped windows completing the 5th Street façade. Like Nooch, Kurve’s glass facade wraps around the corner, but here the fish bowl effect is more pronounced, particularly at night, when patrons are on display to passers-by due to not only the glass façade, but the interior’s light palette. Like Nooch, Kurve is similarly insulated from the noise and smells of the street outside, and patrons are immersed in a soft and comfortable Rashid-world of organic forms and calm colors.

Inside, ovaloid shapes abound and the color scheme is distinctively pale pink and white. Light is cleverly diffused, making the interior space light-filled but not overly bright. Pale pink couches line one side, an oval bar sits in the middle of the space, and more formal dining seating comprising white tables and chairs lies on the other side of the bar. Above the couches, three video monitors, also oval shaped, stream random patterns, morphing forms and numbers in a constant abstract datastream. There is an obligatory DJ booth at the rear, and, like Nooch, a seamless soft club mix adds to the hypnotic atmosphere created by the lighting and soft curves throughout. The plastic flooring material, which appears to be similar to that used for childrens' playgrounds, adds to the sense of a cocooned world, safely removed from the dim, dilapidated grittiness of 2nd Avenue outside.

Rashid’s interiors are consistent with his design aesthetic, but move it beyond a single object into a kind of digital gesamtkunstwerk. Rashid (and his studio) also designed the graphics and logos for both restaurants (see images below), including details such as designs for the napkins and chopstick holders. Both Nooch and Kurve are complete, immersive environments that reflect the contemporary experience of cyberspace – safe, non-threatening and detached from the “outside world”. While Rashid’s digital spaces are supposedly universal (without reference to any particular culture, history or specific location), they reflect a certain cosmopolitan class that is mobile, design-conscious and technologically-saavy. And it is not coincidental that both spaces are located in gentrified downtown areas associated with New York’s cultural industries. With the idea of designer “lifestyle” as a discourse of differentiation now firmly entrenched amongst urban middle classes (see my post on Ian Schreger/Philippe Starck), Rashid’s consistent aesthetic and high-tech references clearly appeal to the early 21st century fetishization of digital spaces and the display culture of contemporary celebrity.


Rashid, Karim, Evolution, London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Rashid, Karim, Design Your Self: Rethink the Way You Live, Love, Work and Play, New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Rashid, Karim, I Want to Change the World, London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
“Kurve Designer Karim Rashid Thinks New York Has Some Catching Up to Do”, interview by Sasha Petraske, Grub Street New York (from New York magazine) published online, 8/06/08. There are good images of Kurve included with the interview.

Images of Nooch above by D. J. Huppatz.
More images of Nooch here.

Aug 6, 2009

Miuccia Prada/OMA/Rem Koolhaas: Prada Store

“In every relationship there comes a time when you take that next important step. For some couples that step is meeting the parents, for me it's meeting the Prada.”

- Carrie Bradshaw, Sex in the City, Season 6, 2003.

New York’s Prada flagship store, designed by Rem Koolhaas/OMA, was the subject of much media hype when it opened in December 2001, and has accumulated a wealth of architectural criticism since then. In this post, rather than reviewing the extensive literature devoted to the Prada, I will situate the store within my initial framework for understanding the 21st century interior. That is, while Prada is conventionally understood (in architectural criticism) as a sophisticated high-tech architectural container, how might we understand it as an interior? This requires thinking about its ephemeral nature, how it is inhabited, how it is mediated, and its relationship with the formation of identity (how Carrie, for example, comes to invest parental authority in a clothing store). I will begin with a brief introduction to Prada as a brand, then Koolhaas’ OMA, before an analysis of the flagship store and its significance as a 21st century interior. A comparison between the Prada flagship store and the Ralph Lauren flagship store (analyzed in a previous post) will highlight the differences between the contemporary discourses of architecture and interior design.


Miuccia Prada inherited the Prada family leather goods business in 1978, and, with the help of her husband and business manager Patrizio Bertelli, transformed it into a global fashion brand in under two decades. Usually described as an uncomfortable entrepreneur, Miuccia Prada gained a PhD in political science, was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and trained and performed in mine for several years before embarking on her career in fashion. As creative director at Prada, she designed the classic black nylon handbag in 1985, then expanded into ready-to-wear collections in 1989. Prada’s popularity soared in the 1990s with collections of elegant, understated clothing, characterized by their austerity and innovative materials. Challenging the conspicuous excess associated with 1980s luxury fashion, Prada’s functional “uniform” appealed to the tech-saavy yuppies of the 1990s. Prada’s advertising campaigns, typically featuring simply a Prada-clad model and the logo, followed the same restrained, sophisticated ideal as the clothing.

Prada grew into a billion dollar conglomerate in the late 1990s with corporate acquisitions of labels such as Fendi, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander (all sold since then). In an effort to reach a broader consumer base, Prada also diversified from high fashion clothing to mass produced accessories. With diversification, Prada, like other luxury brands, faced a major challenge in differentiating a luxury commodity from a mass produced one. During the designer decades of the 1980s and 90s, this differentiation could be achieved, at least partially, by the signature of the designer. Critic Nicky Ryan describes this process as fashion’s “transubstantiation” whereby simply a “signature or label could transform ordinary commodities into luxury goods.” (Ryan, p.12) However contrived, calculated and carefully mediated, the personality of the designer served as a key point of differentiation, arousing empathy in an era obsessed with self-expression through consumption. Prada’s brand was understood to be “intelligent”, “political” and “progressive”, like the media image of Miuccia herself. Thus consumers could differentiate between not only luxury goods and mass consumer ones through the identity of their designer, but also between goods authenticated by a cosmopolitan, Milanese political science graduate (Miucci Prada) rather than by a self-made, all-American cowboy (Ralph Lauren).

As well as the designer signature, a designer space became an essential branding component – a physical environment in which consumers could commune with the brand. Just as Ralph Lauren commissioned designer Naomi Leff to design the brand’s Manhattan flagship store in 1986, Miucci Prada commissioned Rem Koolhaas to design Prada’s Manhattan flagship store in 2001. Their respective choice of designers, of course, was not coincidental: Leff had worked with Lauren on previous store designs and knew how to create an appropriately historical ambiance. Koolhaas, on the other hand, was not only a cosmopolitan celebrity architect, but also a Harvard professor with intellectual credentials. While the design of their respective flagship stores appear to be aesthetically worlds apart, both designers created similar experiential environments specifically designed to complement the existing brands. This comparison is considered in more detail below, following a brief introduction to Koolhaas and his design of the store.


The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) was founded in London in 1975 by Koolhaas, and relocated to Rotterdam in 1978. During the 1980s and 90s, OMA became better known for their weighty publications and competition entries than for their small output of built work. Koolhaas published the influential urbanist manifesto Delirious New York in 1978, but the shift into collective production, particularly OMA’s S,M,L,XL (1995), redefined architectural publishing. OMA’s mash up of polemical statements, textual and visual provocations, blurry photographs, maps, statistics, and research data challenged both the graphic language as well as the content of the conventional architectural monograph. Architecture was no longer represented as an autonomous cultural product but converged with the entertainment and fashion industries, appropriating both form and content from them. In 1999, Koolhaas formalized this convergence with the establishment of OMA’s dedicated research, branding and publication studio, AMO.

During the late 1990s, Koolhaas’ Harvard studio also began compiling material for books, starting with The Harvard Guide to Shopping. Echoing Jean Baudrillard’s essays from the previous decade, Koolhaas’ team declared that “everything is shopping” in contemporary consumer culture. In relation to the later Prada commision, two points made in The Harvard Guide to Shopping are worth repeating here: firstly, in his essay “High Architecture”, Daniel Herman noted the failure of “high” (that is modernist) architecture to engage with retail shopping environments. Secondly, Hiromi Hosoya and Markus Schaefer’s essay “Brand Zone” described contemporary flagship stores in which “experiences must be provided, images sustained, myths created. Movement, symbols, sound, and smell all reinforce the stores’ message, which finds its ultimate embodiment in the figure of the designers after whom they are usually named. Increasingly, shopping’s obsession with the individual’s behaviour and perception turns these spaces into engineered synesthetic environments.” (pp.166-68). With all the appropriate intellectual research in place, “high” (that is modernist) architects such as Koolhaas could safely take on shopping. Although the research was completed years before, The Harvard Guide to Shopping was coincidently published only months after the Prada store opened.

The Prada store’s significance, regardless of its financial or architectural success, was assured in advanced by a heavy promotional blitz before the store’s opening, including a large book and an exhibition of models and plans. Edited by Rem Koolhaas, Jens Hommert and Michael Kubo of OMA/AMO, Projects for Prada Part 1, published by Prada, comprised photographs of models, mock ups of the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco stores (the latter was never built), research data and Koolhaasian proclamations such as “Luxury = Intelligence” or “Luxury = Waste”. We can understand this publicity blitz as specifically modernist by returning to Beatriz Colomina’s take on modernism in Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (in which we could easily substitute Le Corbusier for Koolhaas). Colomina argues that “modern architecture becomes ‘modern’ not simply by using glass, steel, or reinforced concrete, as is usually understood, but precisely by engaging with the new mechanical equipment of the mass media: photography, film, advertising, publicity, publications, and so on.” (p.73) Le Corbusier was consciously engaged in his own historical and intellectual legitimation, as Koolhaas is today, through utilizing the communicative power of the mass media. Thus by the time the Prada store opened, it was already more than a store: it was an historical event.

Meet the Prada

By the late 1990s, the invasion of Soho by retail shopping was almost complete: most art galleries had migrated to Chelsea, while artists had moved on to cheaper pastures. The expansive Guggenheim franchise opened a Soho branch on the corner of Broadway and Prince in 1992, designed by Arata Isozaki, but it struggled and closed in 2001. It was in this same building (the 1882 Rogers Peet Store), in the vaccuum created after the avant-garde community fled, that OMA and Prada founded their New York “Epicenter” store. The Prada store opened in December 2001 with predictable media hype, the staggering cost, upwards of $40 million, was repeated in newspaper and journals. The epicenter store strategy was to create diversity within a single global brand, each store differentiated by its unique design (OMA also designed the LA store, Herzog and de Meuron the Tokyo store). The store itself would help maintain brand exclusivity – there was only one Koolhaas-designed Prada store in the capital of luxury (and of culture), New York.

From the street, large picture windows display the store itself, stimulating curiosity and reminding the consumer that the store’s design is more important than the display of merchandise. Once past the prominent security guard at the entrance, the immediate sensation is a sense of space (the luxury of wasted space in expensive real estate) with a loft-like two storey space. Three key design elements are visible upon entering at ground level – the zebrawood “wave”; the large, circular, transparent elevator, and the (ever-changing) wallpaper mural covering most of one wall. From the Broadway entrance, the wave flows down to the basement area (where the shopping takes place), and rises to the other entrance on Mercer Street (see images of the wave above). Oversize steps on one side are used as display space for merchandise, but double as seats for cultural events when a concealed stage opens out of the wave opposite. Like a choreographed runway show, shoppers sweep down the stairs of the wave to the basement, self-consciously on display from above and below.

The unique glass elevator (see image above), constructed at great expense, takes shoppers down only one floor and is rarely used, adding to the luxury of waste idea. The wallpaper, featuring graphics coordinated by local graphic designer firm 2x4, allows for a constant renewal of the interior, although the graphic material reinforces that this is art (some well-known artists have designed images for this space) or “high” design rather than merely decoration. Continuing the flexibility idea, large industrial cabinets containing clothes hang from the ceiling on a movable tracks (see image below), allowing for different spatial configurations, particular when the space is opened for cultural events. This theatrical articulation of the brand as both luxurious and cultural also appeals to a particular image of New York as the capital of both.

Retail is confined to the basement area, where design also features prominently. The black and white checkerboard marble floor recalls Prada’s main store in Milan, but the main attraction down here is the technological gadgetry. An ephemeral and mediated space is created via LCD screens with streaming images of “aura-related content” that appear amongst the clothes displays (see image below). Some of these are also interactive, with cameras which capture images of the shopper display them, fragmented or delayed on a nearby screen. An LCD triptych consciously evokes a religious communion with the brand, but the nearby fitting rooms were a tourist favourite, with their magic mirrors and switchable glass doors (the latter mostly not working). Technological innovation featured high on the Prada store’s priorities, not only visibly in the store, but with IT innovations such as a global customer database, RFID tags for inventory control or protection from theft, and digital customer loyalty cards that might create a personal “virtual closet”. However, as Greg Lindsay reported in 2004, a quarter of the store’s budget went into IT innovations, but only three years later, “the multimillion-dollar technology spend is starting to look more like tech for tech’s sake rather than an enhancement of the shopping experience”. He detailed the various failures of the IT systems and technological gadgets, such as the fitting room switchable glass, the RFID system, staff PDA devices and the sales and inventory wireless network.

Interior Design vs. Architecture

Finally, in rethinking the Prada flagship store as an interior, it is worth noting the similarities and differences between it and Naomi Leff’s Polo/Ralph Lauren flagship store, Rhinelander Mansion. Both stores were interior projects, retrofitted into existing 19th century structures; both responded to the interior as ephemeral, creating a basic, iconic framework within which changing component parts could reinvigorate the space; and both were designed as “experiential spaces” for staging identity in which customers could become part of the complete, seamless artifice comprising fashion collections, advertising campaigns, graphic styles and the stores themselves. Once considered the essence of fashion, material products such as clothing and accessories were reconceived with these interiors as props within carefully orchestrated narratives of lifestyle and identity. However, there remains a fundamental difference, between the two: the Prada store is architecture.

Following the popular understanding of interior design, Rhinelander revels in its fakery – antique copies sit next to real antiques in a creative restoration – while the Prada revels in modernist “truth” (to materials and to forms). Rhinelander’s hand-crafted historicism seems opposed to Prada’s futuristic technologies. Luxury is equated with “Intelligence” by Koolhaas, and “intelligence”, in turn, is uncritically equated with digital technology. Leff’s Rhinelander Mansion appears (at least on the surface) intuitive and feminine compared to Koolhaas’ intellectual and masculine Prada store, the latter driven by, and legitimated by, academic research. Finally, the populist culture of Ralph Lauren (whose fantasies derived from Hollywood movies) seems opposed to Prada’s self-conscious cultural elitism (avant-garde art, design and architecture). To further this distinction, Prada’s epicenter stores were part of a more general strategy designed to enhance luxury through the association with avant-garde culture, which included establishing the Prada Foundation in 1995, directed by curator Germano Celant. Through conflating its brand identity with that of avant-garde art and architecture and its (assumed) values – progressive, critical, liberal – Prada appealed to a particular cosmopolitan class who might buy into such cultural capital.

Despite these differentiations, the elaborate spectacle of store obscures the realities of mass produced commodities. Just as an empty store is transformed via designer transubstantiation into a cultural space, so to a bag produced for a pittance in Vietnam is transformed into a luxurious commodity. Curiously, the voluminous Koolhaasian research fails to address issues of globalization in relation to the production of Prada’s clothes (Who makes them? Where? How much are they paid? Under what conditions do they work?). Finally, the two stores might be seen as illustrations of the difference between globalization of the 1980s and 1990s – Rhinelander’s aura of tradition, stability and patriotism seem to complement the Reagan-Bush values that accompanied American capitalist expansion, while Prada’s more global associations and appeal (Italian brand, Dutch architect) reflects more recent multinational capitalism and the mobility of a wealthy cosmopolitan class without national allegiances.

See the full Sex in the City clip here, with a bonus hidden video tour of the store and critique.

Selected Bibliography

Alan Brake, “Prada World’s Price Tag”, Architecture, Vol. 91, Issue 3, March 2002.

Joseph Giovannini, “Finally, Prada”, Interior Design, Vol. 73, No. 4, 2002.

Rem Koolhaas, Jens Hommert and Michael Kubo, OMA/AMO, eds. Projects for Prada Part 1, Fondazione Prada Edizioni, 2001.

Rem Koolhaas, Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Sze Tsung Leong, eds., Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Cologne, New York and London: Taschen, 2001.

Rem Koolhaas and Brendan McGetrick, eds., Content, Cologne: Taschen, 2004.

Greg Lindsay, “Prada’s High-Tech Misstep”, Business 2.0, March 2004, online here.

Philip Nobel, “Waiting for Prada”, Interior Design, Vol. 72, No. 4, 2001.

Joan Ockman, “The YES man”, Architecture, Vol. 91, Issue 3, March 2002.

Nicky Ryan, “Prada and the Art of Patronage”, Fashion Theory, Vol. 11, Issue 1, 2007.

Michael Sorkin, “Brand Aid”, Harvard Design Magazine, No. 17, Fall 2002/Winter 2003, online here.

Michael Sorkin, “Riff on Rem: Sorkin’s Take on Multinational Style”, Architectural Record, Vol. 190, No. 1, Jan. 2002.

Carl Swanson, “The Prada Armada: Interview with Miuccia Prada and Rem Koolhaas”, New York Magazine, 16 April 2006, online here.

Jun 11, 2009

Philippe Starck/Ian Schrager: Designer Hotels

My last interior design case study, Naomi Leff/Ralph Lauren’s Rhinelander Mansion, served as a model of retail design as a cinematic experience, its interior spaces seamlessly integrated into Lauren’s sophisticated image-world. In this case study, I will trace the development of Philippe Starck’s New York hotel designs – the Royalton (1988), the Paramount (1990), and the Hudson (2000) – in order to explore further models of the 21st century interior. In partnership with entrepreneur Ian Schrager, Starck popularized the boutique “designer” hotel, creating original destinations that served to differentiate a Schrager/Starck hotel experience from a generic chain hotel stay. Starck’s acute semiotic sensibility redefined the contemporary hotel as an engaging and stimulating experience. Along with Lauren/Leff’s Rhinelander Mansion, the Schrager/Starck hotels exemplify a significant shift from an understanding of the interior as a functional architectural space to the interior as a space for staging experiences, and their impact is still significant twenty years later.

In its contemporary New York manifestation, the boutique designer hotel may be traced back to 1983, when entrepreneurs Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell engaged French designer Andrée Putmann to redesign Morgan’s Hotel. Putmann transformed an existing 1929 building into an informal but luxurious Manhattan destination, marketed via Putmann’s unconventional signature style (see image below). The hotel soon gathered a loyal clientele who appreciated the distinctive sense of place, intimacy and atmosphere. By the 1980s, hotel design had become impersonal, generic and predictable, and Morgan’s offered a sophisticated and original experience for the emerging design-conscious market. This new “lifestyle” market was one that Schrager and Rubell knew well. In 1977, the pair founded the legendary Studio 54, a nightclub renowned for its clientele of rock stars, movie stars, fashion models and “beautiful people”, exactly the kind of clientele who would later patronize their hotel ventures.
With the success of Morgan’s, Schrager and Rubell commissioned Philippe Starck to design the first of his New York trilogy, the Royalton. Not coincidently, Starck had designed nightclubs in Paris in the 1970s, but established a reputation in France as a chic interior designer with his 1984 Parisian café, Café Costes. However, it was Starck’s provocative, witty and conceptual design objects that made him the Andy Warhol of late twentieth century design. Along with other design celebrities of the 1980s and 90s such as Marc Newson and Tom Dixon, Starck transformed the popular status of industrial design from a technocratic, rational profession to a sexy, cultural one, drawing less upon engineering and systems logic and more upon semiotics and surrealism. Starck’s designer furniture and objects, such as his 1990 lemon squeezer, Juicy Salif, became totemic items for the yuppie generation. No longer simply functional, Starck’s furniture and objects were anthropomorphized, characterized by a sense of humor, irrationality and personality. He was thus an inspired choice for the design of distinctive New York hotels: like Putmann, he had French designer cache, but his flamboyant personality and growing celebrity status infused his furniture and interiors with that additional je ne sais quoi.

The Royalton

The Royalton was a rundown midtown hotel, coincidently built during the first Gilded Age (1898). Ninety years later, Starck’s brief was to redesign its interior for a young, globetrotting and design-conscious clientele who were bored with standard five star hotels. From the exterior, there was little to suggest a hotel – underplayed signage and a few subtle cues (such as a snake-like banister) seemed to confirm the idea that you needed to be “in the know” to find the Royalton. Inside, guests entered a long space, a royal-blue rug with a curious snakes and bird motif extending its length. A mahogany-paneled wall on the right was punctuated with shiny horn-shaped light fixtures, while to the left, a sunken lounge area was filled with Starck-designed furniture. Here, Starck’s signature tapered steel legs, and color scheme of white with orange, green and purple highlights, challenged the bland, practical furniture typically found in hotel lobbies.

A line of large, round columns provided rhythm and separation of the lounge area from the guest’s promenade along the blue carpet to the reception desk or elevators (both hidden out of sight). The blue carpeted corridor thus functioned as a kind of “runway” raised above the lounge, with Starck drawing upon the language of the nightclub or fashion show rather than the language of a conventional hotel lobby. Entering the Royalton involved a cinematic experience of traversing the runaway in full view of anyone seated in the lounge below.

Another highlight tucked away to the right of the entrance was a small bar area featuring a circular “private” room with a checkerboard pattern floor and black padded walls (see image above). The bathrooms were also unusual, with the men’s room featuring a long waterfall urinal and communal hand washing facilities (see image below). In the private spaces of the guest rooms, furniture and fittings were also designed by Starck in a similarly idiosyncratic manner. Starck’s fastidious attention to detail included handrails shaped like snakes, and the horn shape repeated on door handles, lamps and vases. The Royalton’s interior was marked by playfulness and surrealism, although of the mysterious and suggestive kind rather than the completely bizarre, and with a subtle sense of hedonism implied by the repeated snakes and horns.
Architectural critic Philip Arcidi noted that the Royalton’s staff were as carefully manicured as Starck’s designer interior: “This is a place where you can imagine yourself enrolled in a coterie of beautiful young people. You can blame that delusion on the staff, arguably the best-looking in any New York hotel. Appearance counts more than anything in getting a job here.” (Arcidi, p.80). The Royalton’s seamless image included not only the designer space and the designer staff but also its clientele. In its heyday during the early 1990s the Royalton was an important space that brought together local and global fashionistas, models, media and advertising executives, movie stars and rock stars. Infamous Vogue editor Anna Wintour was a restaurant regular, as were the Vanity Fair editorial crowd, movie stars such as Julia Roberts and Matt Dillon, and rock stars from Duran Duran to Madonna (see Slomin for further celebrity details).

Like the Rhinelander Mansion, the Royalton was a destination for a particular social group, and being one of the in-crowd was very much part of the appeal for both places. In this case, the in-crowd was culturally literate, with details such as postcards of artworks displayed on little stands in each room, and a library on the ground floor, stocked with glossy art and design books. For the extremely culturally literate, Starck painted the corridors to the rooms in Yves Klein Blue (although how many of the in-crowd would appreciate the reference is worth contemplating). Starck’s spatial design, as well as his sculptural furniture and fittings, appealed to the aesthetic sensibility of the image industry – a hotel was no longer simply an empty box filled with instrumental objects but redefined as an interactive environment, stimulating its inhabitants with expressive details, subliminal suggestions and a dramatic experience.

The Paramount

Starck and Schrager’s next New York hotel venture was the Paramount, completed in 1990 (note: Steve Rubell died in 1989, leaving Schrager to continue to build the lifestyle empire alone). Like the Royalton, the Paramount was an existing hotel, but with 610 rooms on 17 floors, it was much larger. Starck’s brief was to create a more accessible, “budget” designer experience in heart of the Times Square theater district. Additional amenities such as a children’s playroom, a gym, and a guest movie theater, implied a shift in clientele as well as budget – designer lifestyles might appeal to mom and pop tourists as much as to the Royalton’s “beautiful people”.

Like the Royalton, guests at the Paramount were greeted with typical understated Starck cues on the exterior. In the vestibule space between the street and the lobby, they were greeted by fresh red roses set into a marble wall (see image above). Once inside, guests found themselves in the spectacular volume of the Paramount’s lobby. In an aptly theatrical touch, the lobby’s main feature was a monumental staircase that ascended to a mezzanine level above. The off-center staircase was spot lit and framed by a platinum-leafed wall behind, providing a glamorous focal point that recalled a Deco-era Hollywood film set. As at the Royalton, Starck’s creation of a theatrical experience and the sense of looking and being looked at were “paramount”.

In the lobby’s center was a giant checkerboard rug upon which sat an assortment of designer furniture. This central lounge area comprised temporary perches for waiting to meet someone, check in or out, rather than a socializing space like the Royalton’s lounge. But unlike the Royalton’s all-Starck original furniture and fittings, here, Starck played the role of a curator by mixing an eclectic array of furniture forms, materials and colors –sofas by Jean-Michel Frank, upholstered chairs by Marco Zanuso, a wooden chair by Antoni Gaudi and even Marc Newson’s chaise lounge. This could be seen as Starck’s homage to historical and contemporary sources, but equally an acknowledgement of the growing appreciation of designer furniture by collectors, museums and Starck’s design-literate clientele.

The hotel’s rooms, though tiny (a standard room was 12 feet by 14 feet), featured white walls, ceilings and blinds to make the spaces seem larger. As well as a Starck-designed side chair, table and overhead lamp, the guest room’s main feature was an oversized print for a headboard. In a gilt frame, the giant reproduction of Vermeer’s painting “The Lacemaker” provided a playful and memorable experience, a maternal figure watching over guests as they slept (although this is the image most photographed, other rooms contained reproductions of alternative Vermeer portraits). With the oversized figure above each bed, Starck was engaging the inhabitant in a voyeuristic game, and curiosity aroused by the gaze is a key to his designer environments. For Starck, the creation of a particular hotel experience was described thus: “Being away from home is disorienting for hotel guests, but after settling them down, we want to give them pleasure with mental and visual jokes. If people look closely, they can discover the secret life and relationship between objects.” (Morgan, p.58-59). In both the lobby and in the Paramount’s guest rooms, Starck created seductive yet conceptual environments in which objects interact with each other and with the inhabitants, engaging the senses of the inhabitants as well as their imaginations.

The Hudson

The final Starck/Schrager New York hotel, the Hudson, was completed in 2000, and in many ways represents the culmination of Starck’s New York trilogy. As with the previous two hotels, the Hudson project involved retrofitting – in this case, the 1928 American Women’s Association clubhouse and hostel was converted into a 1000 room hotel. The New York designer hotel formula became clearer at the Hudson – minimal private sleeping spaces yet maximal public spaces. With an average 150 square feet for a queen-sized room, the dimensions of the private spaces were tiny. However, conceived as a kind of “urban resort”, the Hudson offered facilities including a basketball court, a volleyball court, a bowling alley, a boxing ring and an Olympic-sized pool. The attention lavished on the public spaces was spectacular, suggesting a lifestyle where private rooms are for sleeping only, and lifestyle living takes place in full public view.

Just off Columbus Circle, the brick building’s exterior was downplayed, with no signage but instead a curious blank façade punctuated by a luminous yellow door, a strip above and a row of small windows. The guest’s journey into the Hudson began as if entering a science-fiction film, up steep escalators through a neon yellow tunnel. At the top, the guest entered what looked like some kind of conservatory, with dark wooden floors and exposed brick covered in ivy. Ahead, a sixty-six foot long solid oak reception counter carved with Art Nouveau-inspired forms sat below a glittering Ingo Maurer chandelier fitted with hologram bulbs. Beyond the reception area, the designer public spaces included a library, the bar, the courtyard garden and a restaurant.

Perhaps the most impressive of these were the bar and the library. The glamorous bar featured illuminated floor tiles, a ceiling fresco by Francesco Clemente, and between the two, Starck’s ultimate collection of designer furniture – Louis XV armchairs covered with fluorescent fabrics mixed it with Jurgen Bey’s Tree Trunk Bench, Starck’s own ghostly Louis chairs met a host of other design classics (see image below). Starck’s eclectic designer furniture in a nightclub atmosphere with suitably designer staff and designer prices certainly made for an experience. No less full of Starckian visual puns, the library featured a large pool table over which a hung an oversize domed lamp by Ingo Maurer, while walls of bookshelves were stocked with both real and obviously fake books. On the wall, large photographic portraits by Jean-Baptiste Mondino depicted cows wearing fashionable hats by Chanel and Dior – both a sly reference to mad cow’s disease of the time, and perhaps also a playful Starck pun on the clientele. In both spaces, Starck’s play with scale, visual puns and the semiotic language of interiors (such as his playful references to the Victorian-era library as a “masculine” space for retiring after dinner), created a sophisticated designer environment.

Starck’s objects in both spaces functioned less as practical furniture and fittings and more as interfaces for communication, both constructing spaces and giving them particular characteristics. Design critics Pascale Sassagnau and Christophe Pillet argue that Starck’s objects (and we could add his spaces) comprise “scenographies”: “Starck’s ‘scenographies’ of objects share with the spaces of science fiction a feeling of strangeness which derives from the de-personalization of their environment… In Philippe Starck’s work the gaze becomes the major function, by displacement of the field of signification. The staging of the gaze gives objects fictive development possibilities because it is the instrument of all projections and identifications.” (Cassagnau and Pillet p.11) Starck’s interior spaces as “scenographies” are exemplified by the Royalton’s runway, the Paramount’s staircase, and the Hudson’s illuminated bar and library – all built up layers of signification and engaged with the fantasies of their inhabitants. His “staging of the gaze” in his New York hotels was both stimulating and disorientating, the designer experience essential for the construction of particular identities.


If the Schrager/Starck hotels created unique destinations as a challenge to the generic hotel chain experience, it seems ironic that Starck-designed hotels multiplied through the 1990s and beyond, including Miami’s Delano Hotel (1995), Los Angeles’ Mondrian Hotel (1996), London’s St Martin’s Lane Hotel (1999) and Sanderson Hotel (2000), Hong Kong’s Jia (2004), and most recently, the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills (2008, see image below). As designer hotels became mainstream with the turning of the new century, part of the Schrager/Starck legacy has been imitation by the competition – Starwood Hotels and Resorts hired architects Ricardo Bofill and Charles Gwathmey to design boutique hotels for their W Hotel chain, for example. And Schrager himself added another New York destination in 2007 in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel – the pseudo gothic and “bohemian” Gramercy Park Hotel. Most recently, and perhaps most ironically, Schrager has entered into a partnership with Marriott International to create Empire Hotels, a new global chain of boutique hotels.

Finally, despite this legacy, the fate of the first two Schrager/Starck hotels in New York is worthy of brief reflection. In 2007, the Royalton was redesigned and completely de-Starckified, a move which raised both a brief protest in the design press and the question of interior design heritage – should historically significant interior spaces be preserved? It seems that in New York, while architecture (defined as the exterior façade of buildings) is important enough to be landmarked for preservation, interiors are not (there are only a handful of officially landmarked interiors in the city). There was less media attention when the Paramount was also de-Starckified this year, with Starck’s distinctive guest room furniture and fixtures (including the Vermeer on the headboard), replaced by standard hotel furniture and a prominent flat-screen TV. While both the Royalton and Paramount were significant interiors, it seems their de-Starckification confirms the transitory nature of the 21st century interior. Beyond simply a change in taste, the fate of Starck’s interiors also confirms that the experience he and Schrager orchestrated twenty years ago no longer fits with the aspirations and fantasies of a new generation.


Arcidi, Philip, “Hotel Hauteur: Two Models from Manhattan: The Royalton and the Paramount”, Progressive Architecture, Vol. 74, No.2, Feb. 1993.

Barbaran, Regina and Stephen Robert Frankel, “Far Out Inns”, Metropolis, Vol. 10, No. 4, November 1990.

Bernstein, Fred A., “Remembering the Royalton”, Interior Design, 9/17/2007, online here.

Cassagnau, Pascale and Christophe Pillet, Beef, Bretillot/Valette, Matali Crasset, Patrick Jouin, Jean-Marie Massaud: Starck’s Kids?, Editions dis Voir, Paris 1999.

Cohen, Edie Lee, “Paramount”, Interior Design, December 1990.

de Vleeschouwer, Olivier, New Hotel Design, Paris: Telleri, 1998.

Morgan, Conway Lloyd, Starck, New York: Universe, 1999.

Rawsthorn, Alice, “Fire and Ice”, ID Magazine, March-April 1996.

Stein, Karen D., “Repeat Performance”, Architectural Record, Vol. 179, No. 1, Jan 1991.

Slomin, Jeffrey, “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Black Book, 27 January 2008. Online here.

Photos and plans of the Hudson at Architectural Record, online here.

The post-Starck Royalton interiors featured in Metropolis, December 2007, online here.

Apr 15, 2009

Ralph Lauren/Naomi Leff: Rhinelander Mansion

If the contemporary interior, as I proposed in my introductory post, is no longer simply an architectural container, but a kind of stage set for experiencing narratives of identity and lifestyle, then there is no better place to begin my case studies than
Rhinelander Mansion. Prominently positioned on Madison Avenue, the Polo/Ralph Lauren flagship store is both emblematic of New York’s Second Gilded Age that I discussed in the last post, and also a definitive example of concepts that are important for understanding the 21st century interior (at least in an American context). Rhinelander Mansion is also an unlikely example to begin a discussion about the contemporary interior for several reasons: firstly, it is easy to dismiss the project as mere decoration (versus an architectural definition of design); secondly, the design is aesthetically “historical” and lacks obvious high-tech symbols of “progress” that might mark it as “contemporary”; and thirdly, the Ralph Lauren brand and the store’s populist appeal are probably unappealing for most academics and critics (that is, it is not “avant-garde” in any conventional sense).

However, Rhinelander Mansion certainly deserves to be included in any discussion of exemplary contemporary interiors for another set of reasons: firstly, its longevity. The store has survived with the same design for over twenty years, which, given the size, location (in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world), and the high-turnover nature of retail interiors, is impressive in itself. Secondly, Rhinelander Mansion integrates interior design with set design (drawing upon both theater and cinema) to a new level, creating a distinctive experience for its inhabitants. Thirdly, the broader synthesis of the interior with Lauren’s advertising and branding makes the space a physical manifestation of the Ralph Lauren mythologies: the Mansion is a space that realizes collective dreams. Beyond the conventional understanding of the interior as a contained architectural space, these reasons suggest a broader psychological, sociological and anthropological understanding of the contemporary interior. To begin with, I will introduce the Mansion itself, next examine Lauren’s development of the mythologies that inform the design, then sketch out the role of the designer, Naomi Leff, and finally, tie these aspects together.

Rhinelander Mansion

Designed by Naomi Leff and completed in 1986, Rhinelander Mansion is the pinnacle of the Ralph Lauren image-world. While in the first Gilded Age, nouveau riche Americans modelled their lifestyles on European aristocrats, in the Second, Lauren returned to this collective aspiration with his fashion collections and advertising campaigns, until finally making the dream manifest with his flagship store. The five storey Rhinelander Mansion was originally commissioned in 1898 by Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo. Occupying a corner block, the limestone townhouse was inspired by the chateaux of the Loire Valley, although its eclectic mix of European Renaissance and Gothic forms and elaborately carved ornamentation situate it squarely in the New York Beaux Arts tradition. The location, the external aesthetic and the direct historical reference to the earlier Gilded Age were all important to Lauren, who purchased the property in 1984. Even before the interior design process had begun, the site itself had pedigree. While the exterior is suitably impressive, inside, the experience begins.

Upon entering, the first thing that struck me was the huge bouquet of flowers on a heavy wooden table. Then a Lauren-attired man offered me a glass of water on a silver tray: I was clearly playing the role of the master of the manor returning home, my attendant servants discreetly hovering in the background. This aristocratic fantasy was completed by the warm mahogany wall panelling and the monumental staircase, accentuated by hand-carved balustrades and lined with gilt-framed portraits, that lay ahead. The immediate impression was less a retail store and more the parlor of an English country house or gentleman’s club – every detail underlined the ideals of tradition, wealth and stability. Above the entrance hung a huge Waterford chandelier on the intricately carved plaster ceiling, and to the right a sideboard featuring Art Deco glass panels of polo players. The adjacent rooms were filled with props – polo mallets, riding accessories, gilt-framed paintings, worn brown luggage, large overstuffed leather armchairs, old photographs and walking sticks – as much as with clothes racks of Lauren ties and sweaters.

The Mansion looks lived-in, the antique carpets worn but not shabby, the luggage well travelled, the patina of “history” coating every detail. Though grand, the scale of the store is residential, and the experience of inhabiting the Lauren image-world seems more important than retail sales, with the clothes themselves integrated seamlessly into the installation. Menswear features amongst the props on the ground floor, and continues upstairs below lower ceilings but similarly intricate plasterwork and amongst a similar array of props. Polo is a recurring theme, with mallets, balls, helmets hung on the walls and placed on shelves and on the floor, but other “gentleman’s pursuits” are referenced through oars or a cricket bat. On the third floor, the palette is lighter for the women’s wear collection, while the fourth floor contains models rooms displaying the latest Ralph Lauren Living collections. These are changed regularly, but on the occasions I have visited, I have seen a “Western” collection and a “Jamaican” collection, both of which included a model bedroom set featuring Lauren designs. While the first two floors and the grand staircase are certainly the most spectacular spaces of the Mansion, the attention to detail throughout the store is consistent and comprehensive, the design enveloping the inhabitant in a complete environment.

Ralph Lauren: Lifestyle Living

At this point, it is worth briefly reviewing Ralph Lauren’s development of his lifestyle marketing, as it both informs and complements the Mansion’s design. Lauren was born in the Bronx as Ralph Lifshitz in 1939 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. After graduating high school, he began selling suits at Brooks Brothers, a stockist of Ivy League menswear. In 1967 he began designing neckties and named his brand “Polo”. Polo evoked a certain European style: masculine, sporty but simultaneously aristocratic and elite. Lauren’s ties were more than just ties: through clever advertising and branding, they quickly became status symbols that sold at twice the price of ordinary ties. “In 1970”, writes fashion critic Teri Agins, “Lauren convinced Bloomingdale’s to put all his ties, suits, dress shirts, and raincoats together in his own special little boutique. Lauren designed this outpost to feel like a gentleman’s club, with mahogany panelling and brass fixtures.” (Agins, p.87) From almost the beginning of his branding empire, Lauren’s clothing was intimately linked to a physical stage set that could reinforce certain lifestyle aspirations, namely, the aura of tradition for nouveaux riches who have none.

From humble neckties, Lauren’s collections expanded in the 1970s until he settled on themed collections based on a set of archetypal figures – sportswear for gentleman athletes who played tennis or polo and went rowing or yachting; blazers, ties and school crests for the Ivy League college graduate; and the nonchalant elegance of his English aristocratic collections. Lauren soon branched out into women’s wear, then further themes with his cowboy collection in 1978, and in the early 1980s, an “American folk” and a “safari” collection. Circumventing the Parisian haut couture guild system, Lauren developed his themed collections for a mass market from the very beginning. The themes themselves were particularly nostalgic – historical references lent them an aura of authenticity and honesty – and particularly American, with the emphasis on individuals, non-conformists and outsiders such as the cowboy, the aristocrat, the gentleman amateur and the adventurer on safari. And if Lauren’s image-world was both nostalgic and patriotic, it was not derived from any shared remembering but rather from a cinematic remembering, the imagery derived from Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, High Noon or Merchant Ivory films rather than from real historical events or figures.

While Lauren’s thematic visions became more complete and expansive through the 1970s and 80s, an important turning point came in 1979 when Lauren and photographer Bruce Weber began collaborating on an innovative style of fashion advertising (see image above). Rather than single model shoots in studio settings, Weber created long spreads for magazines, up to twenty pages, with little or no text, shooting non-models or non-actors in appropriate locations. Weber’s cinematic lifestyle imaging was described by Lauren thus:

“The advertising campaigns became the movies in print. It wasn’t about seeing a man or woman posing against an anonymous backdrop, but seeing him or her in a life doing something you could relate to or dream about. When you see a good movie, old or new, you become a part of it; you have a dream. What I wanted to do with my ads was what I did with my collections – make people dream and aspire. Bruce understood.” (Lauren on Lauren, p. 134)

For mass market America of the 1980s, Lauren and Weber’s cinematic images of an “authentic” life, lived as an individual with wealth to enjoy leisure time must have struck a chord, as Lauren’s business grew into a multimillion dollar empire (Lauren himself became a billionaire, at least on paper, when the company went public in 1997). The promise was social status through consuming a shirt or a sweater, inclusion as an actor in a fantasy lifestyle, an escape from the contemporary world of work or the banality of suburban living. Lauren himself starred in his own advertisements (see image below), a living embodiment of the self-creation myth, inhabiting his own fantasy world of the American West on his Colorado ranch or in his colonial bungalow in Jamaica: the boy from the Bronx self-made through style. While the cinematic advertising campaigns provided the initial imaging, for Lauren, the image-world ultimately needed a physical environment to fulfil the dream.

Naomi Leff

The designer for Lauren’s flagship Manhattan store was Naomi Leff, whose background is worth sketching briefly in order to understand the Mansion from the designer’s perspective. In an interesting coincidence, only a year before Lauren, Leff was also born in the Bronx. She graduated from SUNY at Cortland in 1960 with a degree in education and sociology before entering the Masters program in sociology (a background which may well have contributed to her particular understanding of interior design). In 1966, Leff began studies at the New York School of Interior Design and in 1973 studied interior design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. She worked for an architectural firm, John Carl Warnecke and Associates, from 1973 to 1975, and then began working at Bloomingdale’s under the legendary designer Barbara D’Arcy. Perhaps not coincidently, Lauren began at Bloomingdales in the 1960s, during which time the store “rode the wave of a youth rebellion, a sexual revolution, and a revolution of rising incomes and aspirations” (Zukin, p.128-29). D’Arcy’s contribution to Bloomingdale’s new lifestyle marketing was the development of a series of model rooms in the late 1960s and early 70s. More than simply furniture displays, these were complete environments or installations that contributed to Bloomingdale’s renowned “retail as theater” approach (some examples here).

Leff began her own firm in 1980 and her first big break came in 1982 when she was commissioned to design a showroom for Ralph Lauren Home (see image above). Situated within the JP Stevens building on 6th Avenue, and possibly modelled on Bloomingdale’s earlier model rooms, Leff created a scene from a log cabin ideal of America, presenting Lauren’s homewares in a context dripping with nostalgia for the pioneering West. This first Lauren commission this led to numerous subsequent commissions from him, including the Rhinelander Mansion and other Polo Ralph Lauren stores in Beverley Hills and Philadelphia, as well as international stores and Lauren’s private Double RL Ranch in Colorado (see image below). While Rhinelander Mansion remains Leff’s best known work, she also designed private homes for celebrities Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Steven Spielberg, and David Geffen. Leff’s design of the A/X Armani Exchange in Soho in 1992 and development of Armani’s brand belie the idea of a signature style but instead underscore Leff’s understanding of the relationship between design and lifestyle marketing.

As a designer, Leff had an appreciation for quality craftsmanship, a keen eye for detail and, as Steven Spielberg commented, “one of the best color senses of anyone I’ve met. She’d make a fine cinematographer.” (Stephens, p.164) And cinematic may well be the best way to describe her approach to the Rhinelander Mansion project. When Lauren signed the deal on the property in 1984, the building was completely dilapidated with much of the interior beyond repair. Leff described it as an “archaeological” project: “Only one ceiling was in good condition. The rest of the building would have to be recreated from a splinter of mahogany panelling here, a scrap of carved plaster there.” (Kornbluth, p.140) It was less a renovation project and more of a recreation project with Leff employing master wood carvers, plasterers and carpenters to create the ceilings, mahogany staircase and panelling largely from scratch. At the same time, an army of buyers spread out over Europe and the US buying antiques – consistent period or authenticity did not necessarily matter, so long as the props looked authentic. With a committed client with an appreciation for detail and deep pockets, this was a dream commission for any designer. While the original budget was $5 million, Lauren finally admitted to a blow out to $14 million, although his staff estimated the Mansion cost over $35 million (Gross p. 249).

The Mythological Interior

With the Rhinelander Mansion, Leff and Lauren created a profoundly mythological space. In it, objects (whether for sale or not) function like props that contribute symbolic meaning, each polo mallet or sweater entangled within threads of the overarching narratives. In contrast, an earlier generation of modernist designers strived to create neutral spaces filled with functional objects devoid of such symbolic meanings or theatrical effects. Florence Knoll’s corporate interiors of 1960s, for example, were based on highly controlled, rational systems and utilized high-tech materials. The “irrational” Mansion also challenges other modernist ideals, such as the division between real and fake: some of its props are “real” antiques, such as the Art Deco glass panels taken from the Polo Lounge of New York’s Westbury Hotel, while others are contemporary reproductions, such as the staircase, modelled after the one in London’s Connaught Hotel. Consistent historical or geographical “truths” are also challenged, as Leff’s assortment of antiques, furniture and props hail from various historical periods and places (although all are ultimately consistent with Lauren’s brand). Clearly, the divisions between then real and the copy do not matter in this simulacrum of an aristocratic lifestyle.

In historical terms, we could locate the Mansion within the broader discussion of 1980s architectural postmodernism. Thus we could situate Leff’s design alongside, for example, Hans Hollein’s theatrical interiors, the reinstatement of historical and symbolic forms in both the writings and the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, or the historicism of Robert Graves’ architecture and furniture design. But it is only when we shift focus away from a definition of interior design as the creation of architectural containers to the creation of spaces that shape identities and express the aspirations of particular individuals or social groups that we can begin to understand the significance and complexity of a space like Rhinelander Mansion. In this sense, Leff’s design is perhaps better situated within the tradition of interior “decorators”, a line extending back through Dorothy Draper to Elsie de Wolfe, designers who also understood how the interior might shape its inhabitants’ identity and how cultural values are embedded within interior spaces.

Design, as both Lauren and Leff well understood, is as much about stimulating desire as it is about creating functional spaces. Tapping into the fantasies of middle class Americans required an anthropological or sociological understanding of mythologies already existing in popular consciousness. These mythologies – the refined aristocratic lifestyle, the rugged cowboy lifestyle – were absorbed by middle America through means such as Hollywood cinema, then reinforced by Lauren and Weber’s advertising campaigns and finally found a physical embodiment in the Mansion. The cinematic approach to the retail experience of Leff and Lauren was explained by sales staff who described being trained as actors: “This isn’t retail, it’s theater,” Charles Fagan, who started out selling sweaters and ended up managing the store, told a journalist. “We present our clothes in lifestyle. They’re all little movies. At the mansion, you get lost in different worlds.” (Gross, p.251) Just as the staff feel like actors, so too the customers – acting within Leff’s set in their own variations of Lauren’s mythological movies. Beyond marking a particular time in late 20th century design, the Mansion’s longevity suggests that both this cinematic experience and the collective fantasies it manifests are far from historical, and Leff and Lauren’s exemplary artifice set the stage for an understanding of the 21st century interior.


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