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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