Curtain Wars Revisited

October 1, 2006

Since the emergence of the professional decorator in the late 19th century, the supposed incompatibility between architecture and decoration has been bolstered and sustained by deep-seated  cultural prejudices that oppose male authenticity with feminine masquerade. Architects (traditionally men) work rationally, manipulating hard elements to shape space, white decorators (typically women or gay men), guided by intuition, use applied soft materials to adorn preexisting rooms. Not surprisingly, the pejorative binary adjectives of rational/intuitive, integral/applied, hard/soft reiterate the underlying gender stereotypes that have shaped the public’s conceptions of both fields.

Those were my arguments in the 1994 essay Curtain Wars which explored the professional rivalries that have divided architects from decorators. But times change: The traditional cultural conceptions of sexuality that generated Curtain Wars have evolved at an accelerated pace. The gendered division of tabor that spawned the female homemaker/consumer has broken down: Both men and women now juggle parenting and wage earning. In some European nations, gays and lesbians enjoy the legal rights and privileges accorded to heterosexuals. Even in the U.S., the film Brokeback Mountain initiated a national debate. Are the premises of Curtain Wars still relevant?

Until recently, Modernism’s misogynous repudiation of “feminine” artifice and ornamentation has effectively stigmatized the practice of decorating. Searching for an authentic, rational, and timeless architecture, architects like Adolf Loos and Le Corbursier valorized stripped-down modern buildings, which they compared to ” naked men.” Corbusier and Loos likened over-ornamented structures to overdressed women.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson in a scene from Pillow Talk: “Style compatible with a taste for ladies’ breasts”

But interestingly enough, over the past 10 years a whole generation of architects has begun to embrace those same aspects of fashion and interior design that their modernist predecessors snubbed: applied surfaces and patterns. Transferring the logic of the interior to the exterior, many architects are creating buildings whose surfaces approximate, even emulate, the signature material of both the decorator and the fashion designer: fabric.

Subverting the modernist logic of visual transparency, a wide range of international architects, including Peter Zumthor, Toyo Ito, and Jean Nouvel, treat the facade like a woman’s veil that suggestively conceals rather than reveals, heightening mystery and desire. Making even more explicit the once forbidden connection between architecture and fashion, these translucent membranes are often patterned: Herzog and de Meuron’s Ricota building is clad in potycarbonate panels silk-screened with floral motifs white Jun Aoki’s Louis Vuitton store in New York City features translucent walls tattooed with the company logo.

No longer constrained by modernist orthodoxies, today’s architectural avant-garde is taking advantage of new digital fabrication techniques that facilitate the design and manufacture of complex modular skins in which no two panels have the same pattern or dimension. In projects like Herzog and de Meuron’s Prada Epicenter in Tokyo and Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Library, surface articulation merges with structure. New computer technologies, widely accepted as having masculine connotations, are allowing a generation of mostly male architects to create buildings whose facades resemble the signature element of the interior decorator: curtains.

The subordinate status of interior decoration can be historically linked to its reputation as a women’s pastime, rather than a “serious” activity worthy of men. But today the burgeoning market for home furnishings is beginning to be aimed at male as well as female consumers. Mainstream unisex periodicals bring together architecture, fashion, and interior design while television networks devoted to home improvement target a demographic of affluent men and women.

Perhaps this development is related to the emergence of a new genre of male consumer, coined by marketing executives as the “Metrosexual,” who has recently expanded his shopping list to include home furnishings. Although he flaunts traditional gender codes, the Metrosexual is nevertheless haunted by the spectre of homosexuality. David Beckham, the Metrosexual poster child, is a case in point. He, like the other often scantily clad studs depicted in countless ads geared to young men, is usually in the arms of a stunning woman, an image guaranteed to reassure its viewers that, as Mark Simpson put it, their “unmanly passions are in fact manly.”

But does the Metrosexual represent a new prototype of manhood or is he merely an updated version of the debonair consumer, the post war bachelor? Bachelor pads appeared in Hollywood films like “Pillow Talk” and magazines like Playboy, to reassure viewers that male style was not incompatible with a taste for ladies’ breasts. High-tech equipment like stereos and vibrating beds, designed to bolster male prowess, facilitated seduction. Significantly, contrary to the stereotype that masculinity is authentic and femininity a contrived masquerade, these modernist dens also employed “applied” materials with masculine connotations-like wood, metal, and stone veneers- to fabricate a convincing image of manhood.

The Playboy and the Metrosexual share yet another affinity: Both appoint their homes with examples of mid-century design. The same Nelson bench, Eames chair, and Saarinen coffee table illustrated in Playboy’s Penthouse of 1961 are now regulars on the pages of the vanity design and lifestyle press. These reissues and their knock-offs can be conveniently purchased online and in design emporiums everywhere. In short, there is a direct connection between the revival of mid-century Modernism and the creation of male-oriented markets for interior design. Could it be that retromodernism’s appeal to the male consumer depends at least in part on its ability to conjure enduring values of masculinity, which despite shifting gender codes still resonate today?

Koolhaas’s installation for Prada exhibition: “No qualms about twirling skirts”

Minimalism, another parallel global design trend, similarly taps into the age-old notions of a properly masculine aesthetic. Fusing the prestige of two expensive commodities, art and empty space, minimalism appeals to a wide audience, particularly to the male consumer, because it possesses formal attributes-naked, austere geometries devoid of decoration. Not surprisingly, condominium ads regularly feature images of buff guys lounging with attractive women in luxury residences appointed with mid-century or minimalist furnishings and finishes.

Depictions of designers in Hollywood films like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (1949) and the gay decorator in Any Wednesday (1966) once confirmed the stereotypical image of the masculine architect and the closeted effeminate decorator. Today, television series like Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” have advanced the visibility of gay professionals. But even if gay designers have finally come out of the closet and landed on national television, such shows nevertheless transmit outmoded stereotypes: When it comes to design, straight men are innately helpless, requiring the services of gay men, whose design sensibility comes hardwired in their genes.

Perhaps more professionally transgressive, renowned architects are openly embracing a branch of the profession that only a few years ago was considered beneath contempt: commercial interiors. This trend is clearly an outgrowth of the so-called “starchitect” phenomenon: Developers, following the lead of cultural institutions, are pairing up with world-renowned architects to confer added prestige and value to their properties. While initially hired to create spectacular skins, increasingly these designers are being recruited to ” brand-scape” commercial interiors.

Celebrity couples have become the rage: Hoteliers lan Schrager and Andre Balazs paired with architects John Pawson and Jean Nouvel; star-chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Masaharu Morimoto joined with Richard Meier and Tadao Ando. But perhaps the most widely discussed celebrity alliance links Rem Koolhaas and MiucciaPrada, a union that not only overturns the architect/decorator divide but also makes explicit the once repressed symbiotic relationship between interior design, fashion, and femininity.

But while the Koolhaas/Prada union suggests that the architect/fashion taboo hasfinally been lifted, has it liberated the architect’s professional persona? Traditionally, gender stereotypes shaped even how design professionals conducted business with their clients. Unlike notoriously stubborn architects who impose their will on patrons, service-oriented decorators employ professional empathy as a strategy to forge close and familiar client relationships that enable housewives to channel their inner selves through their domestic surroundings.

Many of today’s prominent architects nevertheless uphold the classic Howard Roarke stereotype of the domineering modern architect. Although he has no qualms about mounting Prada’s latest exhibition of twirling skirts, Koolhaas issued a 500-page tome justifying his interestin shopping on sociological grounds.

Perhaps architects’ image of masculine arrogance and control is a defense mechanism; after all, a huge gulf divides an architect’s image from his actual value in the marketplace. An architect’s expertise is constantly challenged both by those he works for- clients, developers, institutions- and by those who work for him- structural engineers, contractors, construction workers. No wonder so-called starchitects are reluctant to soften their images.

Twelve years after I first wrote Curtain Wars, architects, particularly signature architects, are overturning long-standing prohibitions against feminine decoration, freely incorporating surface and pattern and thus overcoming the architect/decorator divide by venturing into the realm of commercial and residential interiors. But these seemingly progressive developments have arisen not only from shifting cultural perceptions about gender and sexuality. Boy-toy technologies as much as permissive gender codes have given male architects the creative license to translate principles derived from fashion into built structures that share formal affinities with fabric. Likewise, the phenomena of the Metrosexual and the starchitect as well as the revival of mid-century modernism and minimalism, are at least in part market-driven developments that depend on obsolete models of masculinity. Nevertheless, these trends are important first steps, portending how flexible notions of human identity will radically transform the already overlapping worlds of architecture and interior design.

Joel Sanders, a practicing New York City architect, teaches at Yale University and frequently writes about art and design.
He is also the editor of the 1992 book Stud: Architectures of Masculinity.