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    The History of Interior Design


    Painted ornamental elements were often added by Mackintosh's wife, Margaret Macdonald (1865-1933), who, along with her sister Frances (1874-1921), was an active participant in the Arts and Crafts movement and related design activities that were centered in Glasgow in the 1890s.

    It is a curious fact that the Arts and Crafts Movement, despite its aim to bring about a broad reform in Victorian design and taste, only succeeded in influencing a small group of supporters and enthusiasts able to afford its costly productions.

    However, in its rejection of meaningless mass-produced ornamentation, in its emphasis on honesty in the design expression of realities of function, material, and technique, Arts and Crafts pointed toward the future, almost in spite of itself. Its link to Art Nouveau, with its total rejection of historicism, makes it the starting point for all studies of modernism.

    Antoni Gaudi

    In Barcelona, Spain, although there is a variety of work in the Art Nouveau style, the dominant figure of Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) stands out as the inventor of a highly personal vocabulary of flowing curves and unusual decorative details.

    His 1904-6 reconstruction of an older building, Casa Batlló, included a new facade of complex, bone-like forms with a fantastic roof line and, for some apartments, remarkable interiors. Paneled doors are studded with small mirrors of irregular shape; ceilings are of plaster in swirling curved forms.

    Gaudi developed fantastic curving, sometimes bone-like, sometimes wiry forms for furniture designed to be custom made by skilled craftsmen for specific projects. The Guell Park (1905-14) and unfinished Sagrada Familia church (1903-26) exhibit Gaudi's fantastic and highly personal stylistic vocabulary on a major scale.

    Gerrit Rietveld

    The best known De Stijl ("the style") work was produced by Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), whose Schröder House at Utrecht is the most complete realization of the movement's ideas. It is a rectilinear block made up of complex, interpenetrating planes of wall, roof, and projecting decks, with voids filled by glass in metal sash.

    The (upper) main living floor is divided by a system of sliding panels that permit rearrangement to achieve varying degrees of openness. Built-in and movable furniture of Rietveld's design is geometric and abstract in concept. Only primary colors and black are introduced within the generally white and gray tones of most surfaces.

    Because of its few members, short life, and limited accomplishments, De Stijl influence in the development of modernism has been less obvious than that of the pioneers in Germany and France.

    Alvar Aalto

    The most important of the "second-tier" pioneer modernists is the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). Aalto's career began amid the romanticism and Nordic nationalism of Lars Sonck and Eliel Saarinen, with its links to Neoclassicism and Jugendstil movements of the late 19th century.

    Americans were able to see an Aalto design at first hand at the New York World's Fair of 1939. The box-like interior space of the Finnish exhibit was made remarkably interesting by the introduction of flowing, free-form walls. A wall of wood strips leaned out over the main exhibit space that screened additional exhibit space on an upper level.

    A balcony restaurant with provision for film projection from a startling suspended free-form projection booth completed the exhibit. In spite of its small size and somewhat obscure location at the fair, Aalto's design attracted highly favorable critical comment.

    Pierre Chareau

    Pierre Chareau (1883-1950) is best known for his 1928-32 Maison de Verre (House of Glass) in Paris that made use of steel framing and large areas of glass block and plate glass.

    His furniture designs included both chairs of rich woods and heavy upholstery and simple folding seating with metal framing and wicker seats and backs, suggesting a move from Art Deco to the International Style.

    Philip Johnson

    In 1949, aware of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth house, Philip Johnson designed his own house at New Canaan, Connecticut, as an all glass-walled box with only a small cylindrical brick enclosure to house a bathroom and to provide a location for a fireplace.

    The kitchen was a counter with lift tops giving access to equipment. The furniture was all of Mies's design, using brown leather on chrome frameworks, while major works of art introduced a variety of less rigorous forms into the space. The red tiles of the floor and the outward view into surrounding greenery establish color.

    This "Glass House" has become a famous example of the possibilities of an open plan carried to its logical, extreme conclusion.

    Walter Gropius

    The direct influence of International Style modernism increased hugely when several of the European leaders of the movement arrived in the United States.

    Walter Gropius was the architect of his own house at Lincoln, Massachusetts (1937). A fine example of International Style design, it has a typical flat roof, large glass areas, and such details as an entrance shelter supported by tubular columns, an external spiral stair, and generous use of glass block.

    The white walls are, surprisingly, not of concrete or stucco but of the tongue-and-groove wood boards typical of vernacular New England building. The interiors are of elegant simplicity and display many pieces of furniture by various members of the modern movement. The house is now landmarked and open to visitors.

    Herman Hertzberger

    In The Netherlands, Herman Hertzberger followed Aldo Van Eyck's call for occupant participation in the organization of interiors. Hertzberger (born 1932) employed similar ideas for the office building of Centraal Beheer (1973), an insurance company at Apeldoorn.

    The building is made up of modular units stacked in rectilinear but irregular patterns. The interior space is, as a result, a complex of small spaces where the individual workers are encouraged to arrange furniture, equipment, and personal accessories in any desired way. The resulting clutter is surprisingly humane, quite unlike the uniform order that is the effect of so many office projects.

    Charles Eames

    Better known as the designer of the Eames chair (1940-1), Charles Eames's own house was an early example of the direction known as "hi-tech" in its use of metal and glass. Exposed open-web joists support the roof, while the exterior walls are made up of glass and solid panels in standard industrial window and structural elements.

    The Eames House, built from standard industrially produced parts, has also often been cited as a demonstration of the way in which technologically based design could produce interior spaces of great beauty, even for residential uses.

    Best of all, of course, is visiting the spaces that are of interest. While time and expense will limit such visits for most readers, seeing examples that are closer to hand will fill out the limits of any book and offer a richer experience of the realities of interior space.

    John Pile was professor of design at the renowned Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, for most of his teaching career. He is the author of twelve books on furniture, color, drafting, office planning, and other aspects of interior design.

    This article is excerpted from The History of Interior Design copyright © 2000, and is available from John Wiley & Sons and



    ArchWeek Image

    Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1924.
    Photo: Courtesy Centraal Museum Utrecht/© DACS, 2000

    ArchWeek Image

    Alvar Aalto, Finnish Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1939.
    Photo: Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki

    ArchWeek Image

    Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet, Dalsace House (Maison de Verre), Paris, 1928-32.
    Photo: Courtesy Tim Benton © Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris

    ArchWeek Image

    Philip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949.
    Photo: © Norman McGrath, New York

    ArchWeek Image

    Interior of Gropius House.
    Photo: Paul Davis, gift of Walter Gropius. Courtesy the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University.

    ArchWeek Image

    Herman Hertzberger, Centraal Beheer, Apeldoorm, The Netherlands, 1973.
    Photo: Courtesy John Wiley & Sons

    ArchWeek Image

    Charles Eames, Eames House and studio, Santa Monica, California, 1949.
    Photo: Tim Street-Porter, Elizabeth Whiting & Associates, London

    ArchWeek Image

    A History of Interior Design, by John Pile, published by John Wiley & Sons.
    Photo: Tadao Ando Architect & Associates © Shinkenchiku-sha


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