The Austrian fin-de-siècle modernist Adolf Loos wrote a satirical sketch about the controlling architect that remains a sharp cautionary for architects today. To recap: An architect visits the home he has designed for a client who is nervous that the architect might find something awry. The client feels relieved, however, that he is at least wearing the bedroom slippers the architect designed for him. Loos delivers the punchline: “Of course,” thundered the architect, “but for the bedroom! They completely disrupt the mood here with those two impossible spots of color. Can’t you see that?”
The attitude that only the architect has a feeling for what’s right for a space that he or she designed persists to this day and has become an especial hindrance, particularly when it comes to interior design projects where so much, if not everything, is going to be subjected to uses and layers of accumulated stuff well beyond the purview of the creator’s vision.
It is high time to get over the Gesamtkunstwerk frame of mind, and bring to interiors some of the collaborative zeal now invigorating architects’ relationships with engineers and landscape designers. Many larger firms have interior design departments, but how closely do the architecture and interiors staffs really work? Is reviewing a variety of suggestions really collaborating?
Recently, at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, it was very clear that architects and interior designers do not often travel together to look at what’s new in furniture or furnishings, a joint effort that could improve a project’s success in terms of comfort-guaranteed style, integrated technologies, and comprehensive sustainability. Not to mention, the chances for a more sophisticated color palette, perhaps the easiest piece for an architect obliviously to misconstrue. “As soon as people get educated, they get scared of color,” bemoaned Alexander Girard, an architect who loved nothing better than offsetting something minimal with a splash of extravagance in form and color. The recently opened Miller House in Indianapolis wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is without that input.
Not that hyperbolic contrasts are the all-purpose solution. But something has to move architects beyond the Gran Confort as specification of last resort whenever an important seating arrangement is required. It cannot be that there are no other choices; the alternatives out there are legion. It feels more as if the architects themselves do not have the confidence to try something beyond certified classics.
One of the driving strategies in architecture today is research, whether it’s into climate change, material explorations, or digital feats of derring-do. That same curiosity needs to be brought to bear on interior design knowledge, not in order to create total works of art, nor to impose a spurious sense of order to a necessarily flexible space, but rather so that architects can be seen as engaging fully in the complete spectrum of design processes. Architects want to be taken more seriously as problem solvers, but first they need to be trusted with the spaces that people care about the most: the rooms where they live.