Tag: interiors

Tim Street-Porter and Annie Kelly: an Interview

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[Originally published 4th quarter 2008, in arcCA 08.4, “Interiors + Architecture.”]


La Miniatura, Pasadena, Frank Lloyd Wright. Interior decoration by Annie Kelly. Photography by Tim Street-Porter.

La Miniatura, Pasadena, Frank Lloyd Wright. Interior decoration by Annie Kelly. Photography by Tim Street-Porter.

Annie Kelly writes about design for magazines in the U.S. and abroad, including Vogue Living and English House and Garden. She is also a decorator whose work has been included in Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and Elle Decor. Kelly’s husband, Tim Street-Porter, is an award winning architectural and interior design photographer and author whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and books. His recent books include Modernist Paradise and L.A. Modern, both with Nicolai Ouroussoff. Street-Porter and Kelly have collaborated together on several books, among them Rooms to Inspire: Decorating with America’s Best Designers and Casa San Miguel: Inspired Design and Decorations, with Jorge Almada. Here they are interviewed by John Leighton Chase, Assoc. AIA, Urban Designer for the City of West Hollywood and a member of the arcCA editorial board. Chase is co-editor with Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski of Everyday Urbanism (Monacelli Press), newly revised and updated in 2008.


arcCA: What advice would you give to architects about working with decorators?

AK: The architect should take the time to educate the decorator. The decorator needs to understand what the architect’s influences and ideas are, and there has to be a dialogue. The decorator can sit down with the architect and ask, “What is your favorite furniture, what do you like, what is your aesthetic?” And it’s therefore important for the architect to develop an aesthetic. If the architect can say to a decorator, “I love [a particular designer’s] furniture,” it gives the decorator a starting point. An architect should be fully resolved and able to articulate a vision for the interior. You can then build a really interesting interior based on where the architect is going. If you follow the architecture, the decoration will be right.

For example, Frank Lloyd Wright had never designed any furniture for La Miniatura (his 1923 house for Alice Millard in Pasadena). He wanted to, but Mrs. Milliard was an antiquarian. Even though he had built an earlier house for her, she wanted an eighteenth century Italian Villa. So, when it came to redoing the interior of the house, where do I go? I am not about to buy Alice Millard’s furniture, Venetian furniture to go in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. And there was no money in the client’s budget.

arcCA: The real thing would eat up the budget fairly quickly.

AK: Yes, one footstool would do it.

TS-P: And you’re competing with major museums for it now.

AK: So the solution was to go to the sources of the architect. That was an example. The furniture came out of the east, from his influences.

arcCA: What can architects learn from decorators?

AK: Where architects can really listen to a decorator is how people actually live in the space.

TS-P: For example, clients who need wall space for their art.

AK: Architects should listen to the decorator on where things might be positioned. Because, basically, to live inside a house is about comfort and the way things are arranged. Decorating is not about just coming in and putting pink satin everywhere. I can decorate a house down to the last ashtray without even specifying style. Strange to say, there is a logic about decoration. You could spec everything before you even talk about whether it’s going to be modern or 18th century. There are rules for everything—where you have the side table, the correct height of the bedside table to the height of the mattress. The architect should say, “I want a real interior decorator, not someone who is just going to put tassels on doorknobs.”

A good decorator should be able to accommodate anything an architect suggests—good or bad. And one of the things a skillful decorator realizes is that you can overcome bad architecture. A screen will hide an ugly column. There are, however, a few things that will defeat even the best decorators—those pockmarked ceilings with all those can lights, for one thing.


La Miniatura, Pasadena, Frank Lloyd Wright. Interior decoration by Annie Kelly. Photography by Tim Street-Porter.

La Miniatura, Pasadena, Frank Lloyd Wright. Interior decoration by Annie Kelly. Photography by Tim Street-Porter.

arcCA: Do you think architects generally understand what interior designers do?

AK: No, I think they are terrified of them as a rule, as well they should be. It’s all very well doing the most beautiful building in the world, but unless the interiors are fully formed and thought out in an attractive way, no one will ever see it, because it becomes unpublishable in books and magazines.

TS-P: I have had occasions when I have been photographing a house for an architect who does the architecture but then gives over his control of the interior, and at the same time complains that the interior designer or decorator completely ruined his vision. When you do that, you relinquish something that is very important. John Lautner always claimed that he worked from the inside out, instead of the conventional way of architects working from the outside in. If you are an architect, and you accept that the interior is part of the architecture, you want to retain as much control as you can—in the extreme case, like Richard Meier, who writes it in his contract that the designer must be one he is happy to work with, whom he has control over, a designer who is on his wavelength.

AK: Not every architect has the luxury, however. I think Tim is talking about architects who don’t want to do the interiors. I am not saying that architects should always do their interiors, but at the very least they should choose the designer that they want to work with, who understands their work.

Decorators envy architects, because architects have technical knowledge about things like drains and structures. Consequently, they are able to get away with much more than the decorator. Architects can dazzle the clients with this expertise. Also, clients are much more involved in the finishes of domestic things inside the house than the actual building itself, because that’s what they see and touch every day. Therefore, it can be incredibly complicated when they have to decide among five different finishes for a door handle. The trick is, actually, you don’t let them know there are choices. Because that can make them crazy.

The architect is usually the luckier of the two, and it’s actually less stressful to be an architect from a decorator’s point of view, because as a decorator there are lots of changes. With an architect, admittedly, you get lots of change orders that drive you crazy. But when you are a decorator and have ordered ten thousand dollars worth of furniture on the client’s say-so, and then they change their mind: “Can you send it back?” It’s not the same as architecture: if the client asks for a copper roof and it’s put on the building, the client can’t say, “I didn’t want a copper roof, I’m not paying for a copper roof.”

The actual manufacturing wing of the design business is one of the most grossly inefficient industries in America, and the reason they can get away with it is they have an apologist permanently in front of them in the form of the decorator. The decorator is always there explaining to the client why something’s twelve weeks late. And that’s why clients often dislike their decorators. And it’s not their fault. The manufacturers are allowed to exist because the decorator is always there to smooth things over. Take the decorator away and that part of the industry will be forced to be more efficient, like Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel. Those companies couldn’t stay in business if they were like the companies, let’s say, in the Pacific Design Center, bless their hearts.

When you go into a showroom in the PDC and you select ten fabric samples, you will find—when you have seen all the fabric, and you start writing out your order—that probably only three or four are available. They have been discontinued. And you ask yourself, “Why don’t they take them off the floor?” Or you put the order in, you’ve got client approval, you’ve got the sample. And three weeks later it comes back, “Oh no, we can’t fill your order. Its just been discontinued.” And you think, “Oh, my God.” So you have to go through the whole process again.

arcCA: So you have convinced the client that this is the best thing in the universe. Then you have to go back to them and say, “Well, now we can’t get the best thing. How about the next best thing?”

AK: And does that make you look good? I don’t think so. No wonder clients have trouble with decorators. Decorators are the whipping posts of the design world!



Designing Theatres

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[Originally published 4th quarter 2008, in arcCA 08.4, “Interiors + Architecture.”]


Folsom Lake College Visual and Performing Arts Center, LPA Sacramento, Inc., The Shalleck Collaborative, theatre consultant.

Folsom Lake College Visual and Performing Arts Center, LPA Sacramento, Inc., The Shalleck Collaborative, theatre consultant.


Author Adam Shalleck, AIA, founded The Shalleck Collaborative in San Francisco in 2003, after fifteen years with other leading theatre consultants.


The cocktail party description of what I do as a theatre consultant is “plan and design performing arts theatres and facilities, as well as the technical production systems for them.” There are many elements of service that go into it, but that’s the bullet. The next question is almost always about acoustics, and, well, that’s a complex enough field that it has its own profession, with which we work closely, but we don’t do it in-house. While the architects we work with are at the top of the pyramid, we are specialists who bridge the creative and technical worlds of the performing arts with architecture, engineering, and construction.

Some of our work is with architects who have done theatres before, some not. And, of course, there is a varying degree of opportunity to explore the possibilities in depth. But it’s always a unique experience, because it’s a synthesized building type, mixing all the good stuff of architectural practice: public structures for human interaction and a complicated weaving of art, pragmatics, engineering gymnastics, and capital vs. operating dollar and time budgets, which together make for a construction process that is all but simple.

When we work with architects who have not designed a theatre before, the first thing we need to do is give them a perspective beyond their experience as an audience member on the receiving end of the story being told. We draw on that experience and perhaps help them understand it better, but we need to pull back the curtain and describe what goes into telling that story. I advise an architect doing a theatre for the first time—as I advise the contractors, who are almost always first-timers—attend first to what you know least about.

In designing places for live performance, we have technical requirements to meet, but we must go beyond the pragmatics, because we are responsible not only to accommodate how people see and hear; we need to affect how people feel. We want our audience to be bound in a community and taken in by the story. The more human the place, the closer we can get our audience to be touched by art, and the more the reactive energy of the audience comes back to the performers, fueling them. When this purpose of making a human place is ignored, we are treating our audience with disrespect.

I grew up in the profession in a marvelous time when we were being rescued from post-war, distinctly mathematical solutions to theatre design. In the ‘50s through the ‘70s, as many things were being dissected, theatre planning spent a largely dark era focused on the “perfect” theatre, on the sole need of audiences to see and hear, something that could be solved with simple geometric rules derived in plan and section. Often, these geometries were merely extruded into rooms. But, just as dissection is an inquiry unfortunate for the frog, what we were left with had no soul. If a room has no soul, how can it put the audience in a ready state to absorb and reflect the soul that the performers are pouring out?

While seeing and hearing are fundamental, they are themselves artless. Of course we need to see what’s happening and hear it in the way appropriate for its type, but we need to feel it, as well, and that’s where the architecture needs to rise above the formulae and pull it all together—pull us all together. Yet, we designers need to be humble, in much the same way we would approach designing a gallery. When the lights dim, we want the audience to forget where they are.

We use the term intimacy when we talk about the audience experience and the actor-audience relationship. Intimacy depends on how we position people in relation to each other and to the stage, but also on how we scale the room with architectural moments. We know this, because you can be in an auditorium alone with no performance and feel that it is intimate. So, if the room feels intimate even when you are alone in it, it must be that it comes from the built form and our perception of it—from the subtleties of illumination’s effect and the solemnity of silence. Thus, we can achieve spatial intimacy through the management of scale and warmth, and the sculpting of a place.

In an audience, emotion is a contagion that spreads, so we want to have other audience members, if only subtly, as part of one another’s perspective. This is an outcome of the care we take in the curvature of the rows, the sightline target including not only the stage but also some of the audience, and is one of the results of having side boxes at various levels. Certainly, one of the uses of boxes is to define areas for VIP (elevated revenue) seating, but there is more to it. They serve to “people the walls”; they provide the acoustic benefit of introducing surfaces for sound to cue-ball back to the audience sooner than from the side walls; and they scale down what would otherwise be a tall, distant, uninterrupted side wall, providing a surface with their front rail as a necklace and connecting the balcony to the proscenium. The box and balcony fronts form a pair of outstretched arms, starting preferably at the stage, extending on both sides, and giving the audience a big hug. Shape them, detail them, and illuminate them, and they are significant players in sculpting the dominant volume.

We desperately need to make the room feel smaller than it is, whether that is small or large. If it feels smaller, we feel bigger, and vice versa. If we feel small in a giant room, how can we have an impact, or how can a group remain energetic? And if we don’t have an impact, the place is dead. We have other architectural tools in our quiver, like intermediate pony walls among the audience; and we can push proscenium-like forms into the audience to draw you in close. Most importantly, we again illuminate these form-givers so they read more prominently than the outermost walls that ultimately contain the space.

As I mentioned, we have the fortune to work with related professionals who consult in acoustics. The ones we enjoy most are those who sit at the table and assert that, although in schematic design they will provide some geometric acoustic criteria diagrams, for heavens sake, don’t build them! Again, theatres don’t come to life if they are two-dimensional diagrams of reflective surfaces that become the too-literal basis for a room. This living room should change as you move about it.

Lastly, I need to warn you that we are in need of what can be a substantial piece of the budget to provide the engineering infrastructure and systems that are largely backstage, in order to make the theatre magic go. It’s the table in the operating room: without it, we can’t do what we set out to. All live performance theatres are places where people make things so that a story can be told. To mount a production is a highly collaborative and accelerated planning-conceiving-design-construction-opening effort, on top of the director’s and performers’ interpretation of the script or score. Theatres need the tools to efficiently support the art and to have the most creative flexibility possible. They cannot be hampered by obstacles that cause the expense of unnecessary time—because, in theatre, time is money, and also time is time: if operations can happen faster, we can do more and better theatre.

Shanghai Cultural Square, STUDIOS Architecture with team 7 international; The Shalleck Collaborative, theatre consultant

Shanghai Cultural Square, STUDIOS Architecture with team 7 international; The Shalleck Collaborative, theatre consultant.



Challenging Whitewash

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[Originally published 4th quarter 2008, in arcCA 08.4, “Interiors + Architecture.”]


Red Envelope, San Francisco, Hunstman Architectural Group. The Board Room doubles as a new product display area. The brand red was intentionally applied to make a powerful statement. Photography by David Wakely.

Red Envelope, San Francisco, Hunstman Architectural Group. The Board Room doubles as a new product display area. The brand red was intentionally applied to make a powerful statement. Photography by David Wakely.

Author Jill Pilaroscia, founder of Colour Studio, consults for diverse global companies and is a fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants. She continues to research the psychological, biological, and visual ergonomic factors of color. Her thesis, Color in the Manufacturing Environment, analyzed the impact of color in both carpet and furniture manufacturing facilities.


When he accepted the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1984, Richard Meier said, “White is my favorite color.… White conventionally has always been seen as a symbol of perfection, of purity and clarity.” Meier’s preference is hardly an uncommon one among architects since the dawn of modernism, but it overlooks the powerful role that color can play in architecture.

Once, almost all buildings were constructed of materials that had inherent color, and the resulting palette—the terra cotta of bricks, the cream of limestone, the greens of the landscape, the blues of sky and water—was a natural part of the architect’s understanding. Today, designers have more options: they can leave materials in their natural state or apply paint or stain as a descriptive element to enrich structures with greater significance.

Color has the ability to trigger responses, memories, and reactions, both conscious and subconscious, and they differ from person to person. Individual subjective color preferences are based on memories. A positive experience in a blue room as a child can lead to a lifelong preference for blue. The idea of a perfect hue that always works, or of a formula of color relationships that is foolproof, is a fallacy. Perhaps this is why architects so often overlook color.

Nevertheless, despite the subjective aspects of color perception, skilled colorists around the world have developed sophisticated approaches to choosing the right hues. Some consider light the most influential factor; some cite geographic location, culture, or climate; some favor historic and archeological criteria; some work with styles and trends; and some rely on scientific studies.

Although any of these perspectives can yield a successful color solution on its own, the first person to rigorously synthesize a variety of approaches to color was Frank Mahnke, president of the International Association of Colour Consultants/Designers. In his 1996 book, Color, Environment and Human Response: The Beneficial Use of Color in the Architectural Environment, Mahnke defined an objective process for applying color in an individual environment. His approach includes six psychodynamic criteria: biological responses to color, the influence of fashion styles and trends, cultural and geographic considerations, associations and conscious symbolism, the collective unconscious (which stores our innate responses to color), and subjective personal color biases.

In addition to Mahnke’s work, color theorist Johannes Itten identified seven color contrasts critical to color application. He defined how to enhance edges where colors meet, how to apply colors to vault space, and how to create tonic and vigorous or serene and sublime color contrasts.

And science demonstrates how color can influence our senses of time, temperature, taste, smell, weight, and distance.

Each project is unique, and no project will have the same program and criteria for color selections. Yet the cross-disciplinary method offers great flexibility in a variety of situations.


San Mateo County Courthouse All colors increase in chromatic intensity as they rise toward the sixty foot apex of the dome. Photography by Dennis Anderson.

San Mateo County Courthouse All colors increase in chromatic intensity as they rise toward the sixty foot apex of the dome. Photography by Dennis Anderson.

Restoration and Theory

In historic restoration and rehabilitation projects, photographs of the original color scheme often exist and can be used to guide color selection. In some cases, however, little record of the original colors exists. After the 1904 stained glass dome of the San Mateo County Courthouse was meticulously removed for restoration, officials noted that the recently completed, seven-year restoration of the California State Capitol dome in Sacramento had applied a polychromatic color scheme. The county wanted a noteworthy landmark, as well, and investigated a similar approach.

The colors in the interiors had not been documented before the dome was removed, and the temporary, bright blue tarp installed three stories above the ground floor—to shield courthouse occupants from falling glass—tinted the light in the space, making it even more difficult to visualize appropriate color choices. The interior walls had been maintained using two cream colors for years. The city lacked a budget for forensic paint analysis.

A cross-disciplinary approach was the only course, drawing on research into historic pigments available to the West Coast market in the early 1900s and combining those findings with color science theory and a focus on visual ergonomics. In order to match a red found in the building’s stained glass, a primary red was used to visually mix with yellow light to create a red orange. To vault the dome, a highly chromatic blue was required to prevent it from mixing with the yellow light and turning green. The colors increase in brightness and intensity as they rise from the first floor up to the center of the 60-foot dome, a technique that fools the eye into thinking they are all of equal brilliance. The success of the project helped support the civic significance of the building, and the project received numerous restoration awards.


Red Envelope, San Francisco, Huntsman Architectural Group. Photography by David Wakely.

Red Envelope, San Francisco, Huntsman Architectural Group. Photography by David Wakely.

Brand, Identity, and Color Response

Color is a powerful component of branding efforts for many companies—which can sometimes complicate matters when it comes to designing a corporate office. The key is to apply the brand color judiciously, so that it stands out without dominating a space and supports the needs of workers and visitors. When San Francisco gift company Red Envelope decided to expand in order to house its growing staff, it was clear that red would have to be an integral part of the architectural program. Red carries positive associations: it is primal, powerful, and dynamic. Yet it can also suggest blood, rage, fire, and death.

The initial color design used red everywhere, buffered by bright white. Environmental studies and research have shown, however, that one unrelieved color will become boring and monotonous, whether it is red, beige, or white. Furthermore, designing environments for multiple users who perform different tasks requires a balanced palette. Members of the creative team need different stimuli in their space than the CEO and CFO do, and those in the customer service center in particular need to remain calm and relaxed. No single hue could work for everyone. The color palette ultimately consisted of a well-balanced palette of hot and cool hues tailored to meet basic human needs.


Monterey Bay Aquarium, EHDD Architecture. Royal blue on the large entry wall is visible from a distance, signaling the entrance to the Museum. To encourage visitors to explore the shop, red wraps the exterior of the focal walls. Photography © Peter Aaron/Esto.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, EHDD Architecture. Royal blue on the large entry wall is visible from a distance, signaling the entrance to the Museum. To encourage visitors to explore the shop, red wraps the exterior of the focal walls. Photography © Peter Aaron/Esto.

Wayfinding and Focusing Attention

Color can also play an important role in helping people orient themselves in a space. As part of a renovation and expansion project, Monterey Bay Aquarium sought color consultation on the new entry and ticketing lobby. The scope expanded to include the graphics, display, and retail components adjacent to the renovation. The goal was to link disparate elements of the museum experience with a comprehensive color plan.

To enter the aquarium, visitors waited in lines stretching down the block. The dominant visual fields were white stucco walls. The application of color accentuated the entry point.

A new exhibit of Monterey Bay history consisting of photographs and canning machinery was being added. Large brick ovens sat between the entry point and the new history display wall. A highly chromatic yellow green was selected to complement the color of the brick ovens and call attention to the exhibit walls.

To create a sense of identity and welcoming, blue was chosen for its power to suggest reliability and stability. Visual cues such as differences in hue and color values attract attention to a formerly unused area of museum converted into a display zone. Around the corner, a red wall dramatically wraps around the façade and into the gift store in order to encourage visitors to explore the retail shop.

Recasting Healthcare as Hospitality

When skillfully crafted, color can suggest mood and create ambiance. Palomar Pomerado Health in Poway, California, asked Anshen+Allen to design an outpatient facility that felt spa-like rather than institutional. The facility offers exams, consultations, and lab work services to adult women. The color palette was developed to mimic the regional Southern California landscape, using bright colors judiciously. The team presented the color ideas objectively, describing how color psychology had guided the selection of a palette of sage, coral, light blue, and neutrals, which, combined with natural materials, would meet the overall project goals and create a relaxing atmosphere.


Via Rail, Montreal, Atmosphere Design. Using cross-disciplinary analysis, a palette of color was selected to enhance rider experience. Photography by Gaetan Tanguay.

Via Rail, Montreal, Atmosphere Design. Using cross-disciplinary analysis, a palette of color was selected to enhance rider experience. Photography by Gaetan Tanguay.

Enhancing the Transportation Experience

Color can also help make environments such as public transit feel more comfortable and peaceful. As part of a project to renovate 423 subway cars for the Montreal Transportation Society, architect Bernard Pepin of Atmosphere Design in Montreal, Canada, delivered a 71-page report on color and experience. He considered factors such as perceptions of security, cleanliness, reduction of aggressive behaviors, vandalism, graffiti, motion sickness, noise, lighting, and heat. His goal was to apply color in ways that would stimulate a positive mood and compensate for poor environmental conditions.

The chief engineer for the subway project has stated that, since Pepin completed the first-class train for VIA RAIL on the Montreal-Toronto line, vandalism and graffiti have been reduced 40% and ridership has increased significantly.

In all of these cases, objective principles, drawing on art and science, informed the application of color. Not every environment needs to be polychromatic or dramatically colored. Yet color is far more than just a decorating tool. Used well, it can be an integral part of architecture, bringing life to large spaces, supporting the needs of workers, and helping people navigate complex environments.



The Place of Interior Design

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[Originally published 4th quarter 2008, in arcCA 08.4, “Interiors + Architecture.”]


Author Maria McVarish is an architect, artist and visual researcher practicing in San Francisco. She has lectured in architecture at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and, since 1996, teaches interdisciplinary studies, critical theory, and design at the California College of the Arts.


“Your body is the ‘house of your soul’”—or so the saying goes. But what kind of body is this “house”? To begin with: is it male or female? How does gender figure in this common architectural trope?

We all recognize the stereotype of the overtly feminine interior “decorator” (whether in the person with a “queer eye” or the second-career housewife) and the disdain shown for “her” when she is juxtaposed against the equally stereotyped, hyper-rational (read: “masculine” or “masterly”) architect. Where do these biases come from? When and how did they enter our perceptions of space and design?

Polemic for a History of Interior Design

“Before the twentieth century the profession of ‘interior decoration’ simply did not exist. Traditionally it was the upholsterer, cabinetmaker, or retailer who advised on the arrangement of interiors.” (Anne Massey, Interior Design of the 20th Century)

Many long-standing practices, concerns, ideologies, and events have contributed to the historical and present-day identity of interior design (encompassing the related fields of interior architecture and interior decoration). Ideas about hygiene and spatial efficiency, behavioral protocols, technological innovations in building systems, the changing social roles of women—all have provoked subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in our cultural aesthetic preferences, with material and spatial consequences.

Arguably, interior design’s professional history begins with early twentieth century Modernism. Newly-minted, nineteenth century consumers braved the Industrial Revolution and its mounting pressures of class awareness by cultivating an antidote in “privacy,” the expressed desire for which was nearly co-incident with Capitalism. Their newfound fascination with psychology (and, more generally, “interiority”) paved the way for a turn-of-the-century revolt against senseless, uncoordinated material production and accumulation. With Modernism, “design” as we know it came into existence, calling for principles of economy, insisting on a continuum between object and environment.

The complication of this lineage is, of course, that it was Modern(ist) architects who placed new importance on total integrity of design, from detail, color, furniture, etc. to exterior structure. And in the early twentieth century it was architects, for the most part, who practiced what we now call interior design. It wasn’t until after the fall of Modernism (in the 1960s and 70s) that interior design officially branched away from architecture, ultimately receiving distinct professional and institutional recognition.

Yet to locate its history solely in relation to architects is to reduce interior design once again to the status of architecture’s other. The roots of interior design lie equally, and perhaps more palpably, with turn-of-the-century applied arts practitioners (industrial and graphic designers, photographers, furniture makers and textile artisans, etc.), who responded to industry without revolting—either through thoughtful resistance, by finding renewed inspiration in handicraft, or through collaborative association—from those surrounding William Morris, to the Viennese Werkstatte and German Werkbund movements, to the Bauhaus and beyond. These roots may be further traced to the fine arts, most particularly to influences in painting and sculpture. The profession has thus, from its inception, incorporated a diverse range of inspirations and practices.

A Longer History: Theorizing Gender in Interior Design

We must look deeper, and elsewhere, to approach the question of gender directly.

In the early fourteenth century, a French surgeon named Henri de Mondeville used medieval “science” to account for the differences between men and women. His ideas gave voice—and gender—to the split that has come to characterize both the spaces we inhabit and how we think about their designs.

De Mondeville, like most of his European compatriots at the time, believed that women’s bodies were inadequately enclosed when compared with men’s. De Mondeville further speculated that the female body is in fact (yes, medically) a male body, turned inside out. This, he seemed to imply, explains why a woman requires another body, an architectural prosthetic, “to protect her soul.”

We’re in strange, preconscious territory here—a zone where female and male, femininity and masculinity, are fantastically aligned with “interior” and “exterior.” Yet, these gender/space alignments continue to influence the practices of interior design and architecture.

In his essay, “Untitled: The Housing of Gender,” Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, argues that, in the gendering of domestic architecture, “The material of the body, considered as a house, is seen as feminine, but its physiological structure is male. Maleness is the structuring of the body.” We can recognize in this formulation the means by which architecture came to assimilate de Mondeville’s somewhat fantastical ideas.

By the late twentieth century, however, the lady doth counter-theorize—most vociferously. Feminist philosopher and spatial theorist Elizabeth Grosz, drawing inspiration from Luce Irigary, protests in her 1995 essay, “Women, Chora, Dwelling”:

“[M]en place women in the position of being . . . the living representatives of corporeality, of domesticity, of the natural order that men have had to expel from their own self-representations, in order to construct themselves as above the mundane, beyond the merely material. To sustain this fantasy of . . . pure self-determination in a systematic way, men have had to use women as the delegates of men’s materiality.”

She continues,

“This enclosure of women in men’s physical space is not entirely different from the containment of women in men’s conceptual universe, either: theory, in the terms in which we know it today, is . . . the consequence of a refusal to acknowledge that other perspectives, other modes of reason, other modes of construction and constitution are possible. Its singularity and status as true and objective depend on this disavowal.”

What have been ignored, historically, in architecture’s attachment to transparent rationality, are the notions of difference, multiplicity, and relationship—the very qualities evidenced through interior design’s professional history. In architectural pedagogy, as in competition values, there is strong pressure to reduce the number of design concepts to one, or at least to organize any abundance of inspirations within a clear and singular hierarchy.

Yet, in the realm of the interior, designs must employ a variety of approaches. A critical interior design practice takes into account conditions that may not fit neatly into diagrams or phrases, as well as those that do. It seeks to become conscious of all factors and aspects—conceptual, formal, material, socio-cultural, psychological, sensorial-perceptual, etc.—and understands the ways in which these may or may not be contributing to the experience of an interior, without precondition.

In practical terms, this results in a range of models for organizing design priorities—perhaps the most interesting of which is metaphorical. Metaphors make use of alternative conceptual structures, ones that are able to hold and give meaningful form to more than what logic and hierarchy alone would allow.

Repositioning Interior Design

Interpreting Albrecht Durer’s sixteenth-century Draftsman Drawing a Reclining Nude through the polemical history outlined above, we might be tempted to position interior design as the “reclining nude,” at least as viewed by architecture (the “draftsman”): flesh observed by intellect.

Perhaps, though, if we could modernize Durer’s rendering, we might better locate interior design more ambiguously, as the gridded frame itself—a representational system through which the body is rendered less vulnerable. And we might further insist that this frame be oriented both ways, that contemporary interior design practice bring together multiple and diverse aspects of environmental design: the pleasures and necessities of flesh and intellect.

Interior design, at its best, conceives and creates space from the inside out, from the viewpoint of the situated (if ever-fluidly defined) body. Seen in this orientation, the idea of boundary, or boundedness, is always a question of proximity, of layers—never of finitude—while architecture, historically, has “created” space by making objects to enclose and define it, to contain or limit it—by designing, in other words, from the outside facing in.

Because of the profession’s attentions to corporeal, behavioral, and relational nuances of space, interior design attends not merely to materials and colors, furniture and light, but most especially to their meanings within use.

These priorities come with the body. After all, one’s body—as the house of the soul—includes the mind as well, no matter whether male or female.



Views from the Inside

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments

[Originally published 4th quarter 2008, in arcCA 08.4, “Interiors + Architecture.”]

Kim Adam Interiors, Lewis Residence, Los Altos Hills, photography by Robert Vente.

Kim Adam Interiors, Lewis Residence, Los Altos Hills, photography by Robert Vente.

arcCA asked a dozen interior designers, from sole practitioner to global team leader, to respond to two questions:

1. What is one thing you would like architects to know that would facilitate the relationship between the two professions? Your answer needn’t be the most important thing architects should know, although it could be. But it could also be some usefully quirky thing.

2. What do you consider the two or three most important questions or ideas or concerns motivating interior design today?

We begin with Kim Adam, a sole practitioner based in Marin County, who articulates succinctly the most commonly shared thoughts and concerns of our respondents.


Kim Adam, Kim Adam Interiors

I’ve worked on residential projects where I was involved in design before the architect came on board, and others where I got involved in the design process after the architect was finished with a project. The most satisfying outcomes, by far, have been those projects in which the architect, designer, and client collaborated throughout the entire project. The sum in these cases is always greater than the parts.

How do we make sure we really hear the client and help the client to accurately discern his or her needs and requirements? How do we get great design while giving the client the best value for his or her dollar? How do we satisfy these two concerns while also making responsible choices regarding the environment?


BAMO, Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, Italy, photography by Oberto Gili.

BAMO, Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, Italy, photography by Oberto Gili.

Pamela Babey, BAMO

In this age of distinction, interior design has experienced a renaissance. By acknowledging and respecting that architects and interior designers have distinct roles and bring unique skills to the project, teams can collaborate to create the most successful environments ever. Involving the designer early is critical, as the relationship of spaces significantly impacts the success of an interior environment. Skillful planning requires an intimate understanding of the occupant and how the space will be used. As specialists in interiors, we have valuable knowledge to share with the team as the architect begins to develop the building envelope.

My quirky belief is that architects should not draw furniture in their plans. Too often it lacks the correct scale and the level of refinement necessary for proper planning. I can’t tell you the number of times I have faced a client who wanted to seat sixteen or twenty in a dining room that, despite the plan drawing, would only seat ten. Forgotten entirely were special service considerations or a buffet for storing the three or four sets of plates that the client loved to use. Similarly, hotel rooms need to address guests’ desires and needs. Most basically, they should properly accommodate luggage and have a closet into which it is a dream to unpack. Surprisingly, this is often overlooked.

Some clients believe there is a shortcut to good design. Yet design intent and detail exist in all phases. To ensure integrity, the team needs to work together to understand and pursue the design intent, providing complete documentation and follow-through.

Time from design to construction continues to compress as costs escalate. Flexibility and teamwork are essential. As timelines shorten, experience becomes more critical. To meet ever more demanding budgets and schedules, teams need to be able to utilize international sources for knowledge and products. Architects and interior designers sharing these sources will develop the best projects. We are part of a team that thrives on details. As professionals, we bring our know-how to the project, adding grace, luxury, and comfort to a space that works.


Barbara Barry Incorporated, Residence, Los Angeles, photography by Karl Petzke.

Barbara Barry Incorporated, Residence, Los Angeles, photography by Karl Petzke.

Barbara Barry, Barbara Barry Incorporated

As designers, we build houses from the inside out, as architects build from the outside in. Where these intersect can be artful or disastrous. If the architect can feel that you are an advocate for his viewpoint, then he will be more open to what you have to bring to the table. I always meet with the architect without the client present to let him know that, as a designer, I am there in support of his work. I like to share with him some of the details that inform the choices that I would be making on behalf of the client, so that he can better design for those functions. I want the project to feel harmonious and work as a whole.

Time and experience have taught me that it is the little things as well as the large that inform our experience of any space, and so, in the end, they are equally important. The height of the dining chair to the table, the comfort of the furniture, and the lighting all make the space successful, or they take away from it.

I believe the most motivating idea in design currently is how the way we are living is evolving. We no longer have the need or desire to live formally, and we seem to not want all the stuff that fills a space as we used to. Living with less while feeling a level of luxury is what is important to us as human beings. We long for a sense of well-being, and we want to be kinder to the planet. We don’t want to heat vast spaces or have to cool them down. We have learned that “stuff” does not feed the soul, but space well designed can; and that space in and of itself can be a thing of beauty and be nurturing. I think a lot about what the home of the future will look like and feel like, and I am sure this must be on the minds of many an architect.


Moore Ruble Yudell, Tango, Bo01 Housing, Malmö, Sweden, photography by Werner Huthmacher and Ole Jais.

Moore Ruble Yudell, Tango, Bo01 Housing, Malmö, Sweden, photography by Werner Huthmacher and Ole Jais.

Tina Beebe, Moore Ruble Yudell

For the last thirty-five years or so, I have been consulting in color and materials with architects Moore Ruble Yudell, so we have had time to hone the process to avoid some of the complications that can arise between architect and consultant. Because I am in the office often, and my protégé, Kaoru Orime, is there every day, we have the chance to meet with the project architects early on and often. We begin during schematic design, thinking about how color and materials can be integral to the architecture. When color and materials are based on strong, initial concepts, rather than late cosmetics, they can play a powerful role in the meaning and experience of architecture.

We consider how the color and material might benefit the massing, scale, and image of the buildings. We think about how they fit into the site and neighborhood. We pose different possibilities for materials—stone, steel, concrete, wood, stucco, or paint—and decide how they come together, where they start and stop, and finally what color and texture work best. Can we afford them? Is there something greener we can use with the same or better effect?

Doing this early on together helps us to get the reading of the building we are after. It is critical to understand the geometry of changes of plane and mass and how color and materials integrate with these. Architects can then articulate the necessary details, such as reveals, soffits, and returns, to facilitate the expression of these materials. Architects can make sure they are in the budget and arrange for proper site samples and schedule meetings and time to adjust these. When these things happen, the results are significantly better, the process easier, and the possibilities much greater.


Paul Fortune Design Studio, Sunset Tower Hotel, Los Angeles, photography by Matthew Hranek.

Paul Fortune Design Studio, Sunset Tower Hotel, Los Angeles, photography by Matthew Hranek.

Paul Fortune, Paul Fortune Design Studio

Well, the most important thing for architects to know is that the decorator is always right! Especially if I’m the decorator . . .

I have found in collaborations with many architects that they tend to have scant knowledge of how clients actually function in the spaces they design. Living and its basic, quotidian needs are often sacrificed to the great “concept.” I would hesitate in saying that this is a question of ego—I know decorators with egos that would rival any architect’s—but the issue with many architects seems to be that they have so little opportunity to make a mark in their discipline that they tend to go for the major gesture when given the chance.

And what is it with the lighting? Horrible cans pockmarking ceilings that look like Swiss cheeses. I recently re-designed a hotel that was laid out like a 19th century prison with no attention to daylight or flow or comfort. And everywhere you sat or stood, you managed to have a spotlight shining directly on the top of your head. Even Brad Pitt would look like Dracula in this light. I removed nearly every one (much to the horror of the architects, who presented a reflected ceiling plan that had so may light cans, speakers, cameras, vents, etc. that there was hardly any ceiling). “But how will anyone see?” they whined. Apparently fine.

Wall sconces give a flattering and functional light in bathrooms, and table or floor lamps are fine for reading. The deadening effect of an overall wash of light I find appalling. And it’s a waste of energy, to boot. When everyone from Angelica Huston to Nancy Reagan pays grateful homage to the fact that the lighting in the restaurant makes them feel comfortable and welcome, you know you’ve done something right.

There is a huge glut of thoughtless, cliché-ridden “modern” design out there that has a shelf life of practically zero. Think of all those ghastly, groovy Philippe Starck clubs and hotels—full of wannabes—that are trendy for six months and then over. At which point, they are gutted and remodeled: not very sustainable or “green.” We are at present under “Starck Attack” here in Los Angeles, where his dated and generic projects are sprouting everywhere like poison fungus and seemingly enjoy popularity among the twittering class.

I’ve seen this time and again, when perfectly reasonable interiors are gutted and dumped by a new owner for some spurious reason. Where is the concept of longevity? I enjoy visiting places that have a resonance, a history, a provenance. This takes time and a level of design that is considered and not disposable. This is not to dismiss those contemporary spaces that do manage to offer integrity and an experience one would like to repeat, but they are few and far between.


BraytonHughes Design Studio, Four Seasons Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, photography by John Sutton.

BraytonHughes Design Studio, Four Seasons Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, photography by John Sutton.

Stanford Hughes, FAIA, BraytonHughes Design Studio

As an architect specializing in interiors, I am constantly asking myself what would best facilitate the relationship between interiors and architecture. It is important first to realize that the profession of interior design is extraordinarily varied in methodology and practice. These vary from the more architectural (space driven) to the decorative (object driven) and everything in between. The key for a successful working relationship is that the interiors and architectural firms have a similar philosophical background. It is then a matter of defining project responsibilities to complement each firm’s talent and expertise.

Over the last twenty years, we have collaborated with a number of architectural firms and have mutually developed a responsibility matrix that clearly defines roles between the interiors and architectural firms. This matrix defines responsibility regarding design, budgets, documentation, and project administration. It is a necessity for defining fees and schedules as well as eliminating duplication of tasks.

The variety of responsibility levels range from the “high style” architectural practice, in which the architect is responsible for everything from space to furnishings and art, to the interior designer who provides all finishes, furnishings, and equipment but requires the architect to complete the shell.

Our underlying goal is to create humanistic places connected to tradition and context with the delight of fresh expression. It is to provide joy through the effects of physical forms on spirit.


IDEO, Allen Edmonds, photography by Nicolas Zurcher.

IDEO, Allen Edmonds, photography by Nicolas Zurcher.

Dana Cho, IDEO

Remember that people (well, normal ones, not architecture geeks) often remember moments in time and events that occur within a space rather than the tectonics of the space itself. I remember working for a luxury hospitality company and asking travelers about the most memorable stories they have from their stay in hotels. We heard in great detail about meaningful moments between mother and daughter, having high tea at the Ritz, the way the sun was hitting their table and how they felt like the only two people in the world. How might we design first and foremost for time, experience, and moments rather than form and stuff?

Design by community: the days of the design genius feel numbered. It’s easy to create something solo; it’s hard to create something meaningful as a product of participation and collaboration. It demands we design innovative processes as well as outcomes. What does an inclusive, participatory, collaborative, emergent design process look like, and might it get us to places we’d never anticipated?

Design that demands community: we must contribute to collective, social, and public experience. It feels like a duty as a designer in our intensely personalized world. What are ways we can enable engagement and participation in social and public experiences?


Page + Moris, San Mateo Public Library, EHDD Architecture, photography by Ryan Berry.

Page + Moris, San Mateo Public Library, EHDD Architecture, photography by Ryan Berry.

Bev Moris, PAGE + MORIS

We specialize in the programming and interior design of public libraries, which are one of the few good things that are free, places to learn and to better yourself. They are no longer hush-hush quiet, but full of light and activity—alive community spaces for all ages.

With the advent of digital technology, many people thought libraries might disappear. In fact, their growth has been remarkable. Today, they are about bringing state-of-the-art technology to everyone. With decentralization of service points and self check-out, librarians are no longer trapped behind the desk but are out on the floor, working with patrons.

Reference collections are shrinking, and areas for children and teens are growing. Balancing openness and enclosure is crucial. Because teens engage in a lot of group learning and learning through digital games, their areas require enclosure and a sense of group identity, but they must also afford supervision. Other areas, such as the browsing area for periodicals, are quieter, but not dead silent; while still others are fully enclosed, quiet rooms, where even the tap-tap-tap of laptops is excluded.

Because libraries enjoy such heavy use by such a broad population, materials and finishes must be durable and easily cleaned, as well as warm and welcoming. Once a library opens, it has little funding for maintenance and certainly not for replacement.

Our practice is based on a project type—focusing the services of a traditional design firm and augmenting it with specialized expertise. My business partner has a library sciences background, as well as knowledge of library facilities and working with architects. She specializes in authoring building programs for public libraries. Our work is broader than physical design; for example, for the state library, we are engineering and thinking through the relocation of the collections during renovation. If we do our work well, work comes to us.


Rottet Studio, Investment Management Firm, Los Angeles, photography by Benny Chan Fotoworks.

Rottet Studio, Investment Management Firm, Los Angeles, photography by Benny Chan Fotoworks.

Lauren Rottet, FAIA, Rottet Studio

The education, experience, talent, intuition, research and care that a designer brings to a project are far more important to the outcome of a project than a title. As an architect, I can say without criticism that many of my colleagues do not understand the difficulty of achieving good interior design and even good “decoration.” It takes a great deal of research and knowledge to create truly exceptional interior environments.

Good interior designers know how to work with lighting, acoustics, and ergonomics in the interior environment to create the desired effect. They know the unique finishes and details that make an interior environment more specialized and how to specify and source these components. If they are experienced, they also know how a space will feel as it surrounds you—knowledge that can only be gained from experience. With a building, you can create a model and renderings to pretty much know what it will look like, but creating interiors is like sculpting from the inside out. Only with experience does someone know how all the volumes, forms, textures, colors, materials, lighting, and other elements will ultimately be perceived as they surround you.

In a nutshell, unless an architect is truly educated in the design of the interior environment and has the time to keep up-to-date on the latest products and specifications, it would be wise to explore collaboration with a good interior designer. I realize every day how much there is to know about interior design, and I research constantly. Though Rottet Studio designs buildings as well as interiors, I do not consider myself an expert in curtain wall design or certain other aspects about base building design. We therefore enjoy fulfilling collaborations with architects who are experts in these areas.

The most important concern for me is that the quality of the experience in the interior environment must be inspiring and not boring or conducive to mental fatigue. Interiors, by nature, are more static than exteriors, as they are protected from the elements that add life—wind, weather, natural light, and shadow. Therefore, they must be designed to compensate for this lack of physical and visual movement. We have been exploring for years ways to create visual movement in interior spaces and continue to explore materials that have subtle reflectivity, ways to bring in natural light and allow the exterior views to become an active part of the interior.

Today the office environment is a dynamic space. People are no longer tethered to their desk and can in many cases work from anywhere in many different ways. We have been thinking of the office environment more like a house, in which many different functions are performed and rooms are conducive to these different functions, versus the standard office profile where the individual office is meant to house all of the functions. It is far more interesting to vary where you sit and work during the day, just as you would at home. We are finding that “work,” like most things, is about both individual time and collaboration, being serious and having fun, inviting someone in as a guest and enjoying your own environment as you would your home—and we are designing with this idea as a driver, not the desk.


SmithGroup, SmithGroup’s San Francisco Office, photography by David Wakely.

SmithGroup, SmithGroup’s San Francisco Office, photography by David Wakely.

Diana Kissil, AIA, Principal, and Juhee Cho, IIDA, LEED AP, Vice President, SmithGroup

DK: The exterior of a building makes a statement; the interior of the building houses the user. It is the job of the interior designer to make the building comfortable to the user, who is able to move through a space easily and confidently. This makes the interior as important as the exterior, if not more so. But sometimes architects think of the design as “their” building. It’s their vision becoming a reality. They tend to look past how people use the space to exterior aesthetics. They want the architecture to control how people use the space, instead of spaces being designed to be supportive of the people.

In our effort to support the user and the client today, we must have an understanding of building technology. It is taking the interior design profession beyond color, lighting, and finishes. Integrated project teams and BIM are making it imperative that interior designers speak the same language as architects, contractors, and consultants, forcing us to be knowledgeable on such things as mechanical, electrical, and structural systems. We now have a very early and clear understanding of a space, allowing us to design accurately for the client and user, quickly work through issues, and get approval well before the first shovel meets the ground.

JC: Human scale. It is not about recognition or the accolades. It is about the day-to-day life of the workers inside the building and how our work affects them—the spacing, daylighting, color of walls, etc. As designers mostly of workspaces, my group and I tend to have a better understanding of user needs like work/life balance, what makes happy workers, and how to create team environments.

As we all know, going “green” is here to stay. Clients are willing to pay for it, and users and employees are seeking it. We, as interior designers, have to be active in pursuing programs to build sustainable design knowledge and skills. Today’s sustainable challenges can be overwhelming and, as a colleague once put it, we should “try to set sustainable design goals defined by positive and measurable results rather than by actions to be avoided.”


Vanderbyl Design, Teknion IIDEX Exhibit 2006.

Vanderbyl Design, Teknion IIDEX Exhibit 2006.

Michael Vanderbyl, Vanderbyl Design

I’m a sort of counter modernist, even though I love modernism. People say that my work is very traditional, but cleaned up and modern. I like the complexity of that kind of problem—resolving what has often seemed like a conflict between modernism and humanism.

Form following function requires a larger palette, which includes both the reassuring and the symbolic. With my architect friends, I talk about how, for graphic designers, everything communicates a message. In her introductory graphic design course at CCA (California College of the Arts), Leslie Becker asks students to bring in something that has no meaning. They quickly learn that there is no such thing. You can line up a series of chairs, and they each have a symbolic weight, already embedded in them. I try to use that embedded meaning; architects often don’t do so, at least not consciously.

Historically, modernism has rejected the decorative arts, and there’s a lot to learn there, even if you later discard it. The best education would be Billy Baldwin—an over the top decorator who understood the entire history of the decorative arts—meets Mies van der Rohe.

We try to make modern buildings very quiet. Yet there’s something about the human  condition that enjoys elaboration. I would love to see architects understand that decoration is not a bad thing, it’s a humanizing thing. If you look at the surfaces of Herzog & DeMeuron’s DeYoung Museum, that’s decoration, whether you want to call it that or not. The computer allows you to do extremely complex designs with intense articulation and manipulation—something that would take craftsmen forever to do. I’m hoping that this technology of craft will allow us to articulate surfaces more compellingly and interestingly. Clothing, shoes, hood ornaments are all decoration—not part of the function, but ifdone correctly a beautiful counter note to the simplicity of function. “Contrast,” as my fellow graphic designer Bob Aufuldish* says, “is your friend.”

*Editor’s note: Bob Aufuldish designed the format of arcCA and designs each issue’s cover.


Woods Bagot, Eversheds, LLP, London, photography by Timothy Soar.

Woods Bagot, Eversheds, LLP, London, photography by Timothy Soar.

James Calder, Woods Bagot

My specialty is workplace design. What is required is a sophisticated understanding of the culture, business, and work processes, so an interior designer, architect, or even management consultant can create great workplaces. There are examples of interior designers creating good buildings and architects creating good interiors.

The main innovation of the last century was the open plan, which started as office landscaping in the 1950s and was developed by the Quickborner team from Germany, who were management consultants. I would like architects to understand more about the future of work and business, management theory, and the business challenges of today. A shared understanding of the problem would allow the different expertises to work more creatively together, rather than in conflict. In my experience, there are no relationship issues among architects and interior designers who know what they are doing; in fact, there is always respect for the skills each brings to the table.

Clearly, the most important aspect of interior design today is creating spaces for knowledge management. With mobile technology and the rapid shift that we will see toward activity-based workplaces, the workplace is the place for tacit knowledge exchange. This is completely different from the hierarchical workplaces of the last hundred years and requires a total re-education of much of the profession. If we don’t adapt our workplaces quickly, people will simply stop coming to the office, and knowledge based businesses will suffer.

Work now happens everywhere, so the way we design spaces needs to change as well—for example, how we use laptops in public spaces, the impacts of WiFi hotspots on use, and the unacceptably low utilization of desks in most office buildings. The world needs a more intelligent design focus on the big issues, such as technology, work culture, zero footprint, change management, knowledge management, and business performance.



Interiors + Architecture: Editor’s Comment

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments

[Originally published 4th quarter 2008, in arcCA 08.4, “Interiors + Architecture.”]


arcca_08-4_coverI am sharing my Comment page with friend of the magazine Jimmy Stamp, whose “Blog Is In the Details,” which premiered in 08.1, “The ‘90s Generation,” will now be a regular feature of arcCA. It’s here this time around not so much to highlight it, but just because it can be so darned puzzling how to get everything to fit in an exact multiple of four pages. And you people think BIM is complex.

But, also, I don’t need the whole page, because my thought for this quarter is a simple one. This issue, “Interiors + Architecture,” is the last in a three-part series on the relationships between architecture and three adjacent professions: landscape architecture, engineering, and interior design. The goal is to encourage better mutual understanding among our disciplines, because the better we get along, the better will be the results of our labors. As one contributor to the series remarked, coordinating can be a pain, but collaborating is a kick.

We’re entering a new year in which much will depend on everyone’s willingness and ability to “reach across the aisle.” So, gentle readers: biiiiiig stretch!



Interior Architecture Award – Bar Agricole, San Francisco, CA

in: AIACC / 1 Comment

Photo © Matthew Millman

With a name inspired by the farmhouse rums of the French Caribbean, Bar Agricole embodies both the urban and the agricultural. Designed by Joshua Aidlin, founding partner of Aidlin Darling Design, the restaurant is both down-to-earth and sophisticated in its approach to food, drink, and the dining experience.

As a primary spatial gesture, the existing long, tall warehouse interior is given a sense of intimacy and scale by a wooden “hull.” The hull is crafted of reclaimed whiskey barrel oak, milled into thin strips and lapped in a scale-like texture. Delicate glass sculptures descend from skylights above the hull, puncturing through the wood ceiling and distributing daylight throughout the dining room, while promoting both natural ventilation and passive cooling. Their airy and fluid lines are formed by warped pyrex cylinders, fused into curvaceous glittering volumes that float gently overhead.

The restaurant’s bars, banquettes, and service spaces are arrayed as furniture-like objects within this interior volume. Two bars, made of board-formed concrete and recycled 100-year-old barn beams, are anchors of space and activity. Contrasting their orthogonal geometry are the sinuous banquettes, also of cast concrete. In the banquettes, however, the concrete is a seemingly impossible one-inch thick ribbon, achieved using a new Ductal concrete. More recycled wood, here riddled with wormholes, warms the concrete for the sitting body and links the booths with the overall project palette.

Photo © Matthew Millman

The dining experience does not end at the perimeter of the building envelope. Through a deep steel and glass facade, the dining room connects out to a courtyard and biodynamic garden. Homegrown organic herbs for artisanal cocktails are harvested from a series of raised beds, which directly adjoin outdoor dining tables—reconnecting the city dweller to earth and agriculture while providing respite from the urban streetscape.

The construction uses durable and sustainable materials, fabricated either on site or within a 15-mile radius of the site, to achieve the greatest effect in a minimal and efficient manner. The restaurant is located within a LEED Gold building and benefits from the base building’s solar arrays and living roof. Bar Agricole achieved LEED CI Platinum certification.

After earning his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati, Aidlin founded a furniture design studio that later expanded to incorporate architectural design. His work explores the principles of design for multi-sensory human experience through a broad range of project scales. Aidlin’s dedication to design is augmented by his lifelong interest in the arts and by his strong sense of responsibility towards the environment.

Photo © Matthew Millman