PRINT March 1988



PROBABLY MOST OF US live in the contemporary city, where we generally have only one house or apartment, most often a small one. Until now we have usually designed the interiors of these houses and apartments in a unified kind of way, according to the Modern dictate of standardizing all the rooms of the home, making them conform to a single image: a single color for the walls, a single material for the floors, only a small number of different types of lamp, matching curtains, matching doors, and so on. All this has been common practice for the last twenty years and longer. Now, however, Postmodern interior design has fragmented the image of the house into many different parts and situations. Not only can walls, floors, lamps, and so forth constantly vary, each room can have its own style—the living room can be “medieval,” say, while the bathroom is “Modern,” the hallway “neoclassical,” the kitchen “pop,” the bedroom “rustic,” the garden “Indian.” This replacement of the idea of uniformity with the concept of diversity, of a principle of synthesis with a principle of collage, reflects opposite ways of thinking about life-style.

The large palaces of the past often had long series of rooms, some of them unknown and mysterious even to many of the building’s inhabitants. One such palace—the castle of Ludwig II of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, historically among the most complex phenomena in the psychology of interior design—comprises this kind of series, a sequence of inventions and paradoxes set up to make possible a particular kind of meditation. Here, each room may constitute its own creative gesture, entire and complete. The palace embraces a variety of differentiated spaces—vast drawing rooms, ambiguous loggias, charming balconies, small padded studies. We see the play of fantasy—here an invisible door, say, or there a star-studded ceiling, or a sculpting of the light into beams of bright and shadow. It’s as if many houses were concentrated within a single one, and in fact we all do have more than one home—the concrete place we live in, certainly, but also a mental home, a conglomerate of the different houses we have known or dreamed of: our parents’ house, a friend’s, a lover’s, a house we stayed in one summer holiday, a house where someone looked after us in illness.

Many kinds of design outside the Modern have recognized this kind of multiplicity. In Victorian England the different spaces of the house were personalized with differing curtains, drapes, carpets, tablecloths, and so on, dressing its nudity almost as though it were a person. Today, big hotels from Las Vegas to Bangkok offer Babylonian rooms, Egyptian rooms, both Islamic and Renaissance restaurants, both Japanese and Gothic pools. The Austrian architect Hans Hollein was the first Postmodern designer to capture this need for diversity conceptually. Each of the sequence of rooms he designed in 1972 for the headquarters of the Siemens company in Munich has its own style. This kind of individuality offsets the anonymity usually associated with series—their repetitiveness, the grayness of functionalism.

So interior design—the architecture of the interior—acquires its independence. Abandoning the form-follows-function-type doctrines of the Modern, it becomes autonomous of the building’s overall structure. The new interior is the eclectic theater of private life, evoking memories and associations, allowing for change and for the dynamics of human attitudes and relationships. In the welcome it gives to this kind of play, it is the stage house.

Alessandro Mendini is an architect and designer who lives in Milan. A former director of Domus magazine, he has published widely on design. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.