What's New? What's Now? What's Next?

Mary Anne Beecher

What's New? What's Now? What's Next?


A recent seminar course offered in the Interior Architecture program at the University of Oregon reviewed the "state of the contemporary interior" based on its representation in a range of popular media outlets. This essay is based on the seminar's discussions and the students' findings.

What's New

It is difficult to measure newness and change without acknowledging what has come before. The contemporary interior became laden with increasingly disparate design expressions as the twentieth century closed, making the task of characterizing it that much more difficult. We can describe some of the designed interiors of the 1980s and 1990s as rejections of the formulaic approach to interior design demanded by modernism. In its place, new explorations of the concept of style occurred. These explorations often expressed a renewed emphasis on the detail. The expressiveness and exuberance of Postmodern design restored historical references and skepticism (the distinct impression that things and spaces are not always what they seem) to our active design vocabulary.

Interior spaces of this era and their contents became the playing field for all designers and artists with an urge to express something. This accessibility can be interpreted as positive or negative, depending on which side of the camp you choose. For some, the lack of disciplinary boundaries results in an enrichment of the built environment that would not otherwise be possible without the multiplicity of voices represented. For others, the confiscation of the interior environment by individuals, teams, firms or brands has led to the uncomfortable collision of varying methodologies and a certain amount of chaos that can be credited to collages, mutations and samplings of images, forms and materials.

What's Now?

* Restrained
There is a pervasiveness of restraint in one faction of designed interiors that
is usually characterized by the term "minimal." However, this term does not do designers' intent any justice. Things that are minimal are just barely adequate. They represent the least that is possible. The restrained interiors of the 21st century seem too carefully composed; too specific in their intention to represent an insignificant or spare approach to their creation. The images of such spaces seem not to represent how little can be present to constitute a design of significance. Instead, they seem to challenge their viewers to imagine that more could possibly be necessary.

Such restrained interiors may seem extreme. However, in other periods in design history (except for certain examples of the modern interior), the extreme interior is more likely to be represented by highly decorative design rather than by such sensuous, but empty spaces. In either instance—baroque or spare—there is little doubt that the design is intended to convey a sense of drama. That is not to say that function doesn't matter in the minimal interior, but it seems clear that delight matters more. Although they may be perceived as lacking creature comforts, these types of spaces compensate for
this lack by providing a memorable experience to their inhabitants.

When minimalism was popular during previous design periods, its critics noted its disregard for humanity. This perspective can be challenged today because in the extreme composition of their few elements and surfaces, minimal spaces, more than any others, place emphasis on the people and activities that occupy them at any given time. How you look, how you behave and where you locate yourself matter because you
visually and spatially become a part of the space and its ultimate expression.

* Detailed

In their effort to characterize the restrained designs of our time, journalists (and designers) have attempted to argue that 21st century minimalism is more a spring-board to the future than an homage of the past. Interior spaces are conceived as backdrops for the drama of human life, as settings that accommodate and include our physicality. But how can designers be so sure that we'll want to participate on the stage that they set? In part because the materials and details used are sumptuous and irresistible. Sometimes they look soft or smooth. They draw us to them. Other times, their rawness or unfamiliarity makes the common seem strange and our curiosity gets the best of us. Or perhaps at times designers rely on the perversity of our human nature—the inability to look away from an accident—to create a condition where the rough or unfinished can actually appeal to our sensual sides. The minimal exaggerates the detail by its very nature. It celebrates the miniature and magnifies the few.

* Expressive
The 21st century promises to carry on a legacy of expressiveness through the incorporation of curves in interior spaces. This is appropriate because curves in architecture do such a good job of feeling unexpected or surprising. The computer is often credited with making the construction of the curve possible. In the case of architects such as Frank Gehry, this may indeed be so. But in the case of countless interiors that are curved without reference to the exterior building's form or structural system, the computer seems a hapless assistant in the generation of unresolved forms. In fact, interiors that rely heavily on curvilinear profiles are nearly always perceived as forms, not spaces. Therefore, in order to reduce the clumsiness of their three-dimensional realities, interior designers must work to understand the implications of the forms they make before they can be used to an advantage. This suggests the need for a transformation in the way we approach the definition of space.

* Flexible
The popularity of the curvilinear expression of interior space is just one way that we often experience the interior as disconnected from the exterior form of a building. Flexibility, or the lack of a limited or specific use for a space, demands this conceptual separation. Where once the interior strove to be an inverse reflection of its exterior architectural context, this is no longer the case. The result is a growing dependence on furniture and movable features so that designed interiors are no longer understood as site specific.

The house and the office are both good examples of this type of flexibility, although certain aspects of retail design also emphasize the concepts of mobility and replication. As Americans become less and less likely to stay in one place, their attachment to the site of their homes grows increasingly tenuous. The popularity of storage systems and modular furniture that can be installed and removed with little effect on the structure of a building demonstrates our elastic relationship to our home environments. The "nonterritorial" office with its lack of designated work stations in favor of configurable units that accommodate new models for working reminds us that the contemporary interior is no longer required to represent the actions it supports. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find offices filled with living rooms, diner booths, basketball courts and/or shower rooms: non-traditional images encroaching on what has previously been a space dedicated to formal and relatively independent production.

* Political
Given that interior design has the power to influence the way people live, work, learn and a host of other everyday tasks, its power as a political agent must be visibly acknowledged. However, there are at least two major areas in which the contemporary interior has, thus far, failed to exert its potential. Designed interiors as portrayed in recent publications fail to demonstrate the spaces' ability to act as a site for the practice of proactive attitudes toward environmental responsibility. Negative perceptions of "green" design—from both an economic and an aesthetic point of view—have limited the cultivation of leadership by the interior design profession in this area. A 2000 survey conducted by Interior Design suggests that while 83 percent of designers feel a moral responsibility to practice sustainable design, only 37 percent of them actually make it a point to provide their clients with sustainable solutions.1 The result of this condition is that ecologically sensitive design elements are not a visible characteristic of most contemporary interiors. Some may argue that using green or sustainable principles and materials subversively will be more effective in the transformation of interior design practice—that clients will be more likely to approve of designs that don't seem to stray too far from their own expectations. However, interior designers must explore the call for the creation of a new design language that visibly identifies environmentally responsible practice.2 Until an accepted aesthetic for the "green" interior emerges, the contemporary interior is failing to use its political role to its greatest potential.

This call for a new design aesthetic can infiltrate our culture at more than one level, and in doing so, can address another of the profession's major political short-comings. Thirty years ago, Victor Papanek published his book, Design for the Real World. In it he challenged designers to provide practical alternatives for expensive, badly-designed, unsafe or inefficient objects. These challenges carried over into the design of the spaces that were intended to house the objects he proposed.3 The failure of designers to answer Papanek's call might be attributable to the lack of aesthetic consideration he offers in his evaluation of "good" design. Although the perception that interior design's power to
influence society must begin with exclusive and expensive solutions that trickle down to mass culture has shown recent evidence of erosion, the presence of Michael Graves' designs at Target and Martha Stewart-inspired objects at K-Mart does not solve the problem. The contemporary interior, at least as it is represented in the design profession's journals, remains, for the most part, out of reach and out of sight for many people whose lives will never be impacted by the environmental conditions about which this essay speculates. Instead, we spend our day-to-day existence in less than inspiring environments for one of two reasons: either good design costs too much, or the persons responsible for the majority of the built environment aren't creative enough to imagine it. In either case, the results are a tragedy.

What's Next?

In December 1999, Interior Design magazine listed predictions for factors that would impact the future of interior design beyond the year 2000. They include the continued growth of on-line sales of furniture and furnishings and the opening of traditional showrooms to the public.4 These speculations promise to increase the accessibility of designed objects to the mass public. Although the average wage-earner may have limited ability to afford well designed objects, they can at least enter the market and decide for themselves.

However, the idea of purchasing a chair on-line raises the issue of whether a physical connection with objects that intervene with our bodies is still perceived as necessary. It's not surprising that this kind of disconnected experience (virtual shopping) is a growing part of the processes of both design and consumption. We may understand the designed interior as less real than it used to be. The role of hypothetical design seems to have translated into actual interior installations that are detached from the buildings in which they are located and the people that occupy them. This is only a problem if we cannot accept interiors as temporary and approach their design with this quality in mind. In 1979, George Nelson published an essay entitled "Interiors: The Emerging Dominant Reality." In it, he reminds us that interiors are the best place for the urban environment to be redefined because they are "lightweight, open to individual production, impermanent, and hence less burdened by ego-ridden, pseudo-concerns for posterity."5 By accepting the positive potential of the ephemeral quality of designed interiors, we can begin to truly acknowledge the importance of drawing inspiration from distinctly un-architectural sources for new interior concepts. We can approach the use of materials in new ways. Although the relative importance of a designer's name in connection to his or her work will be hard to reconcile under this condition, the reality today is that large firms and corporate design identities make it more difficult to be a star than ever. A combination of the use of digital design processes with a projected seven-year lifespan for the average interior makes it more difficult for a designer to leave a tangible legacy than ever before.

Mary Anne Beecher is an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Oregon. The Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC) can be reached by calling (317) 816-6261, fax: (317) 571-5603 or via www.idec.org