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.

Jan 8, 2009

Sharon Mesmer: Annoying Diabetic Bitch

In the closing years of the Bush era, poetry from the Flarf collective emerged as one of the most challenging creative responses to contemporary American culture. The era’s key themes – 9/11 and the subsequent wars, the ongoing occupation of Iraq, the rise of the religious right, tensions over immigration, and the conspicuous consumption of the credit bubble economy – have littered Flarf poetry over the past few years. Poets such as K. Silem Mohammad, Nada Gordon, Gary Sullivan, Drew Gardner, Sharon Mesmer, and others have actively taken up the challenge of creating a literature of critical engagement in a culture characterized by the almost complete pervasiveness of mediated communication (recently dominated by the internet, but also TV and radio). Diving headfirst into the information flows, Flarf poets have surfaced with a practice that operates like the literary equivalent of burlesque: the pastiche of “serious” content mashed up with kitsch, the corrosive parody, the teasing humor, the glittering costumes and play with identities, and the essentially performative nature of burlesque are consistent with much Flarf poetry.

Burlesque’s intention was rarely to shock (in the 20th century avant-garde sense), but rather to titillate and seduce, while at the same time overturning and challenging social norms. While it may not be possible to shock a literary audience anymore, the extreme Flarf of Sharon Mesmer’s recent book, Annoying Diabetic Bitch, may prove challenging (at least in this burlesque sense) to some readers. In Mesmer’s hands, the earnest lyrical voice of confessional first-person poetry has degenerated into scatological language, garbled gibberish, inane conversation and insults as she mines the excesses of conventionally unpoetic realms such as online chat rooms, spam and celebrity gossip websites for material. While lacking in earnest gravity and narrative continuity, the voices Mesmer employs are nonetheless compelling and at times, the dialogue she employs reads like a series of warped comedy skits – her reading at the Flarf Festival 06 and the audience reaction here really capture the sense of a Flarf poem as a kind of burlesque performance.

Characterized by abrupt changes in voice and register, Mesmer’s poetry is composed from within a culture of extreme distraction. She creates a strangely artificial zone inhabited by characters derived from chat room handles such as “SmarmyMan” and “Fckme69” or pop cultural figures such as the Olsen twins, and the use of words and phrases such as “like, totally”, “crazy ass” and “go figure”. The characteristically Flarfy juxtapositions of “serious” political or philosophical content with frivolity or banality serve to undermine any attempt to establish a clear polemical position. Conventional literary criticism (such as this essay) and close reading techniques seem only marginally useful in coming to grips with the Flarf of Annoying Diabetic Bitch. Indeed, as Mesmer points out in the poem “Why I Love Literary Criticism”, “literary criticism is extremely boring, whilst a squid superconducting quantum interference devices is exciting.”) The latter squid may well serve as a handy metaphor for a Flarf poet: conducting (in both senses of the word) interference devices within the streams of contemporary media culture.

In the book’s Postscript, Mesmer describes how some of the poems were composed using the results of Google searches in which she entered odd word combinations into the search engine. This technique appears most obviously in poems such as “Ass Vagina”, a poem that reads like a kind of pornographic spam salad, beginning: “Free Lindsay Jessica Carmen topless puss ass butt vagina 100% free”. The mash-up of porn search tag phrases is pushed into absurdity with subsequent reiterations and mixes in later lines, such as: “Hairy preggo men teen orgy Greenville manufacturing district with endangered hairy ass teen rappers 100% free”. Again, the performative nature of the repetition of key terms (“ass”, “hairy”, “100% free”) continually undermined by unrelated material makes for a hilarious live reading experience (see here). Mirroring internet searching, language shifts horizontally in these poems, skimming across the surface of meaning. Perhaps Mesmer’s poetry thus cynically performs the absence of transcendence in contemporary American culture (other than the excitement of being pulled along the information stream by a superconducting squid).

Mesmer teasingly offers up mashups of incredibly inane, unsophisticated language and banal declarations, almost as if to challenge our expectations of what poetic language is or should be. Beyond the literary provocation, she is also highlighting the flippant superficiality of much online culture – the exaggerated whining of blog culture appears in numerous poems, the self-centered and superficial voices of “I am Beautiful” take vain declarations to extremes (“I also have a beautiful soul, to go with my body”), and the repetitive insults of “Annoying Diabetic Bitch” and its companion piece, “Fine Hormony Bitch”, reflect the online culture of discussion board flaming:

You annoying diabetic bitch.
You anorexic bulimic diabetic bitch.
You dumb annoying talentless diabetic bitch, eat some diabeties.
You and your bitch monster diabetic junkhead father,
and your diabetic cat, your pathetic diabetic cat that eats birds

A poem such as “I Wuv Bumblebees” pushes this inanity envelope to the extreme, opening with a series of variations and extensions on the phrase “I Wuv Bumblebees” and continuing:

I wuv kittycats and I have three cats.
No – ha! – seriously, I wuv bumblebees more
and I think you’re a deadly bumblebee crack whore
(oh, I meant “fucking legend”).

Mesmer’s parody of such online banter exposes cracks in the culture of banality, bursting at certain points into violent confrontational language as the wuvable bumblebee suddenly becomes a “deadly bumblebee crack whore”. While titillated by the transformative bumblebee, the reader is ultimately left frustrated, as the final lines serve to deflate any rhythmic sense or continuity of the bumblebee theme:

And you only have to insert “Flight of the Bumblebee” to produce
duotone balls, pink and white,
and anal beads of purple.
I’m sick of this.
Let’s go pirate gaming at Brickfest.

Cruising through the datascapes of distraction horizontally from bumblebees to anal beads, Mesmer ends her “search poem” with a signature abrupt and illogical change of course: an invitation to attend a Lego convention. Like the form, Mesmer’s content is also “irrational”, sliding horizontally across contexts as it gains and sheds meaning in a literary equivalent of channel or web surfing.

As with other recent Flarf volumes (see my previous reviews here and here), contemporary political realities are prominent in Annoying Diabetic Bitch. The collusion of the religious right and recent American imperialism are highlighted in the poem “My Jesus in Lint Form”:

My Jesus in lint form taught me
About taking barbarism to new levels,
Levels heretofore perceived only in metaphors
Of demon legions in a post-Dutch world.

But the most scathing parodies are reserved for the commander in chief, who Mesmer has performing thus in “I Am A Very Confident Little Fellow”:

When I do my flight suit sausage strut
On the deck of the frigate, flippin’ the bird
The grunts all know I have the primo cunt
And a whole butt-load of dung-sniffin’ butt monkeys.

While the sacred icon of the presidential figure is dragged through the scatological mud-pit several times in the book, the various voices Mesmer inhabit reflect varying political positions (presumably apart from her own). In the poem “I Know That Babies Feel Just As Nervous and Confused As You Do”, for example, she pushes a contemporary anti-immigration voice to extremes to expose its inherent racism: “I’m not all left-wing and shit, but I know the Religious Right can be easily replaced by a baby with a Pez dispenser … And you know what else I know? That America is becoming another Europe where the birth rate is so low the continent is now overpopulated by immigrants from Muslim countries, and that’s why I’m urging white people to have babies because most immigrants show up here with bad fucking attitude problems. Same with their babies.”

With the end of the Bush era only weeks away, perhaps the parodies of Annoying Diabetic Bitch already seem dated. In the not too distant future, critics may look back on this poetry as a cynical response to a particular era in American culture that has passed. However, there is much in Mesmer’s book that indicates productive future possibilities as well: the stinging comic parodies, the inhabitation of various online voices and the engagement with the particular languages and modes of contemporary communication. Finally, Flarf’s convincing convergence of literature, performance and communications technology (both as a means to build literary communities and as a data mine for both content and form) has created a 21st century poetry that is both entertaining and critically engaged.

Further reading

An interview with Sharon Mesmer
Sharon Mesmer’s blog