Mary Aluminum Particle Board walked through her loft one day, poured herself some water in a midcentury
revival martini glass, had a personality reversal, and screamed at the Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, the Eero Saarinen tulip chair, and the Noguchi coffee table.
“Why do you all have to be so streamlined, so functional, so proportionate, so good! You all look like you’re sitting on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Am I ever again going to have furniture that is messy, nonfunctional, out of proportion, and made by some anonymous person in my own decade? And how am I going to get rid of this tattoo of an Eames chair on the back of my neck? And what about all my glass partitions that give me frostbite, the slate bed that I stubbed my toe on, and my 1970s mental-hospital rubber floor that’s always curling? Plus, there is laundry everywhere.”
Mary Aluminum Particle Board, a composite of all midcentury modernist minimalists, appears to be trapped in a prison of form and function with so much simplicity that everything is getting emotionally complicated. Will she get out? It depends on who is talking.
“The masterpieces from the 1950s are
going to weave in and out of people’s lives for a long time,” said Terence Riley, MOMA’s chief curator of the Department of Architecture and Design, who is working on an upcoming exhibit called “The Unprivate House.” As for minimalism, there is going to be more. “It’s going to be less and less in general. We’re not going to change that much for the next 30 years.”
Cooper-Hewitt Museum curator Donald Albrecht agreed that the midcentury modernist design principles of flexibility, modularity, and ease of use are not about to budge: “They’ve been injected into the way we live.” The pieces themselves–the George Nelson marshmallow sofa, the Eames chairs, Saarinen’s pedestal table–“have become like icons of midcentury American life. Probably the iconic nature of them will one day pass. We’re definitely not going to go back to a crafts society. We won’t be throwing pots.”
Maybe not pots, but BMR Industries architect Larry Bowne does believe we are in for a change as “chthonic forces–ancient primeval earth forces”–are bubbling up for the minimalists. “One thing modernism did is banish the chthonic with pure, clean white boxes that deny the space of the underground in daily life. We’re going to start seeing more and more elaborately articulated surfaces. The simple forms of modernism will still hold, but there will be all richness and sensuousness and texture in the fabrics, the walls, the ceilings.”
Bowne once wanted to cover a client’s walls with dental-dam latex but decided against because it would always smell like a person was going to have a root canal.
David Garrard Lowe, the president of the Beaux Arts Alliance, is convinced his time has come. “Color, fabric, and luxury are working their way back in a world where people are cocooned inside with computers all day. No, I don’t have a computer, just an electric typewriter. But when you’re sealed up like that, you need gilding, wonderful colors. The sleek, smooth design of modernism is too much like the scientific world people work in. Any more and they are going to be depressed.”
Lowe forecasts “some sort of Venetian or the other Italian styles of the 18th and 19th centuries” with “lots of sea green and rose and all mirrors and crystals and things that will reflect light.”
“If rococo’s what’s next, I want to leave the earth,” Bowne said.
John Farley said no on the gilded putti but thinks that perhaps industrial moderns are
only days away from filling their apartments with I Love Lucy furniture–“you know, those end tables in her house in Connecticut.” The collector and former creative director of the 26th Street Flea Market said, “Let’s face it, Lucy’s living room was so comfortable, so earnest,” with all that “Early American revival, all superexaggerated–those big wagon-wheel lamps. It’s the absolute opposite of the cold and haughty modern sensibility.”
The future? “Can’t say, but I’m optimistic, whatever it is,” said the co-owner of the End of History. Stephen Saunders, whose store in the West Village has pink and orange walls and hundreds of midcentury glass vases, said, “Look, we are at the end of the century. We’re rehashing. We just don’t know yet, but we’re loving color.”
Retired interior decorator Rita Klahr was in a similar state of wonder about what’s next for the culture. But, speaking from her all-black apartment in Great Neck, with a black granite table for playing mah-jongg, she said she has always known one thing for sure: “The furniture can be simple but the accessories have to be drop-dead.”
Knoll designer Bruce Hannah said whether it is the past or the future, “the truth is that people really like decoration. Years ago, designer Eva Zeisel said that’s why people are piercing themselves.”
Is that the way out of the modern minimalist prison? “I don’t know. My friend has an idea about the future of the interior. It’s going to be called Heinous Eclecticism. You take your Eames chair and you pierce it. Then maybe throw a quilt on it.”
With the rage for midcentury revivalism comes the prevailing theory that we are perhaps in a new Victorian age, including even more revivals than the real Victorian Age. Even the purest of midcentury modernists and industrialists are really fixed not only in the ’50s and ’60s but likely have their feet in eight decades, collecting 1930s French nightclub booths and 1980s Japanese electronics.
Poet and professor Diane Stevenson, informally observing design from her sunken living room in a co-op in Riverdale, said, “Victorianism was associated with the British Empire and the high point of colonization. The eclecticism and sometimes confusion that we see in the American interior today may well be reflecting our own high point of globalism.”
The seeming confusion could also be that “today we can’t make up our minds how to live,” said Bruce Hannah’s friend Tanya Van Cott. “We can’t live in white spaces anymore even if we try. Our personalities are really showing through. There isn’t one vision of how a house should be.”
The one person who should have been able to live in an ideal modernist space was Le Corbusier, said Van Cott. “He designed these perfect white houses. He lived in one of his houses but the room he actually lived in was a room in back with all objects and stuff that made him happy as a human being. The big space was like a showplace, and he kept the door closed.”
One of four articles in our Shelter Supplement.