Curtains, that element of the domestic interior on which the hands of the decorator and of the architect come directly into contact, embody many of the tensions and prejudices that have divided interior designers and architects since the emergence of the professional decorator in the late 19th century.1 Here the hard walls designed by the architect meet the soft fabric that is the decorator’s trademark, in a juxtaposition that confirms the common perception that architects work conceptually, using durable materials to shape space, while decorators work intuitively, adorning rooms with ephemeral materials and movable objects. Window treatments underscore the divergent design approaches of architects and decorators. Architects typically repudiate curtains, believing that this element that modulates vision compromises the architect’s conception, obscuring and softening the precise geometry of architectural forms.2 Decorators, for their part, consider curtains essential; veiling sunlight and views, curtains make domestic privacy possible and offer relief from the austere spaces created by architects often obsessed with form at the expense of comfort. Ironically, the “curtain wall,” the iconic modernist glass facade that has come to embody so many key values of modern architecture—logic, structural integrity, and stripped-down form—takes its name from the curtain, the signature element of the interior decorator. But are architecture and interior decoration really oppositional practices, or are they, as the term “curtain wall” suggests, more interdependent than we think? Here I would like to argue that the supposed incompatibility between these two rival but nevertheless overlapping design practices evokes deeper cultural conflicts that are themselves bolstered and sustained by profound social anxieties about gender and sexuality.
Architects, Decorators, and the 20th-Century Domestic Interior
“Curtain Wars,” the professional rivalries that cleave the interior community, are not new; they date back at least to the 18th century. More often than not, the interiors of upper-class dwellings were then outfitted not by the architects who designed them but rather by upholsterers—tradesmen who supervised the activities of skilled craftsmen including furniture makers and rug manufacturers. Referring to the friction that often resulted from this division of labor, many writers, including Nicolas le Camus de Mézières (in 1780) and William Mitford (in 1827), levied the same complaint: upholsterers corrupt the spatial integrity of buildings.3 Such tensions came to a head in the late 19th century when a new figure, the professional “decorator,” arrived on the scene, usurping the upholsterer’s role. Hired to coordinate and assemble the elements of residential interiors, the first decorators were often amateurs, self-taught society women from prominent families, who, like novelist Edith Wharton and designer Elsie de Wolfe, shared their good taste with their affluent friends and peers. In The Decoration of Houses(1897), considered by many the first handbook for the modern interior decorator, Wharton observed the battle that pits architects against decorators. “As a result of this division of labor, house-decoration has ceased to be a branch of architecture,” she wrote. “The upholsterer cannot be expected to have the preliminary training necessary for architectural work, and it is inevitable that in his hands form should be sacrificed to color and composition to detail. . . . The confusion resulting from these unscientific methods has reflected itself in the lay mind, and house-decoration has come to be regarded as a black art by those who have seen their rooms subjected to the manipulations of the modern upholsterer.”4
By educating a new breed of design professionals “to understand the fundamental principles of their art,” The Decoration of Houses would, Wharton hoped, bridge the already entrenched architect/decorator divide. Interestingly enough, the novelist collaborated on this guide with an architect, Ogden Codman, Jr., who had helped her refurbish the interiors of her home in Newport, Rhode Island, and who later drafted the preliminary plans for The Mount, her villa in the Berkshires. But despite the cross-disciplinary intentions of the co-authors, in the end the text subordinates decoration to architecture. Wharton and Codman insist that “good decoration (which it must never be forgotten, is only interior architecture)” must obey the strictly architectural principles of logic, proportion, and decorum.5 In many ways their description of the ideal relationship between architect and decorator mirrors the relationship between turn-of-the- century affluent women and domestic space: while houses were presumed to be a female domain, housewives were ultimately subject to the authority of their home-owning husbands.6
Since Wharton’s era, not only have professional battle lines been drawn, but also architecture, whether viewed from the vantage of high or popular culture, seems always to emerge as the victor, commanding greater respect and prestige than does interior decoration. While the profession of interior decoration is scarcely a century old, the practice of furnishing the interiors of buildings is as old as the buildings themselves. Nevertheless, architecture has a long-studied history in the West (of monuments from the Parthenon to the Guggenheim, of architects from Ictinus to Frank Gehry), while interior decoration, conceived in this broader sense, has only recently been considered worth serious scholarship. And even when art historians and museum curators acknowledge interior design’s legacy, they accord it a subordinate status. The very phrases “fine arts” and “decorative arts,” used by art historians and museum curators to distinguish architecture from interior design, betray institutionalized prejudices. Such ostensibly innocent labels subtly but forcefully uphold the apparent superiority of architecture over interior design. Moreover, the structure of contemporary design education and professional licensing reinforces the disciplinary segregation authorized by scholars, dividing architecture and interior design into separate schools and departments, each with its own curriculum leading to different degrees and licenses.7
Bridging high and popular culture, design journalism perpetuates what I am calling Curtain Wars. Mainstream “shelter” magazines and professional architectural journals reinforce the architect/decorator divide through the different ways interiors are written about, photographed, propped, and graphically presented. Shelter magazines shy away from describing the designer’s overall spatial conception, preferring instead to concentrate on furniture and objects, while architecture magazines tend to present interiors eradicated of all traces of the decorator. These journalistic conventions confirm each profession’s mutual suspicion of the other—the architect’s belief that furniture compromises the integrity of the spatial concept, and the decorator’s conviction that the architectural shell is a backdrop for displaying valuable objects and furniture.
Yet despite the prejudices of educators, historians, and journalists, architecture and interior design inevitably intersect. The impulse to erect disciplinary hierarchies is a vain attempt to mask the overlapping, fluid nature of these two occupations. In practice, if not in theory, architecture and interior design do not so much oppose as presuppose each other.
How else do we explain architects like Richard Meier and Robert Stern picking fabrics and designing china, while interior designers like Thierry Despont and Steven Sills erect walls and install plumbing? Especially in cities like New York, where interiors comprise a major share of available work, architects and decorators are often in direct competition. Articles in popular magazines counseling readers on whether to hire an architect or a decorator highlight the interchangeability and confused identities of the two professions in the eyes of the public. For example, does an apartment renovation require the skills of an architect or a decorator? Common wisdom suggests (and some building regulations require) that if the project calls for relocating partitions, plumbing, and electrical wiring, then you need an architect; but if the job demands simply specifying freestanding furniture, fabrics, and finishes, you hire a decorator. But these distinct job descriptions break down during actual practice. Experienced architects understand that to maintain the integrity of their vision, they must select the furniture, fabrics, and objects. And savvy decorators, regularly called on to locate plumbing and wiring, routinely make architectural adjustments.
Perhaps the best evidence of the porous boundaries between architecture and decoration can be found in the work of those most responsible for erecting the borders in the first place—the first generation of modernist architects. As the literal separation between inside and outside breaks down with the development of the transparent curtain wall, so too does the boundary between architect and interior decorator. And that quintessential invention of modern architecture, “built-in” furniture (a hybrid between architecture and freestanding furniture), underscores the difficulty of determining where one practice ends and the other begins.
The advent of the “built-in” reflects modernism’s advocacy of the totally designed architectural interior, a notion that ironically coincides with the birth of the professional decorator at the turn of the century. Avant-garde architects like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe insisted on the integration of architecture and interior design, and their domestic work comprised custom-designed furniture and accessories. The Belgian Art Nouveau architect Henry van de Velde even designed dresses for his clients, so they would harmonize with his decorative schemes. As modern architects claimed to distance themselves from what they considered the superficial excesses of decorators, they assumed many of their roles and responsibilities, a practice that persists today. Nevertheless, to recognize such masters of modern architecture as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier as important “interior decorators” who contributed significantly to the history of interior design would, in some circles, be tantamount to denigrating their legacy. How can we account for this contradiction at the heart of modern architecture, a practice that regards interior design either as entirely external or entirely internal to itself?
Should the boundaries codified by practitioners and scholars be understood as the architecture profession’s defensive response to the rise of the decorating profession? Does the marketplace require both architects and decorators to differentiate their identities so that they can vie for the same clients? While professional competition is surely an important factor, I believe that the roots of these professional rivalries run much deeper. Institutional prejudices and interdisciplinary disputes not only perpetuate Curtain Wars, they are also symptomatic of our deepest and most ingrained anxieties about the nature of masculinity, femininity, and homosexuality—mirroring the broad cultural assumptions that shape our impressions of both disciplines, as well as our ideas about the identities of the professionals who practice them.
By identifying manliness with the “authenticity” and womanliness with “artifice,” the Western architectural tradition has for two millennia associated the ornamented surface with femininity. Discussing the origins of Doric and Ionic columns, Vitruvius famously wrote: “In the invention of two types of columns, they borrowed manly beauty, naked and unadorned for the one, and for the other the delicacy, adornment, and proportions characteristic of women.”8 For classical architects ornament was acceptable, provided it was properly subordinated to the tectonic logic of buildings, in much the same way women were taught to be subservient to men.
Of course, the status of ornament changed dramatically with the advent of modernism. Justifying their claim for an authentic, rational, and timeless architecture, architects like Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier enlisted gender prejudices in their quest to repudiate ornament, which they considered extraneous additions to buildings potentially corrupting their formal integrity. Evoking ornament’s longstanding and pejorative association with femininity, these architects preferred stripped-down buildings, which they compared with “naked men,” over ornamented structures, which they likened to over-dressed women. They found their archetypal model in the image of the male nude (“naked and unadorned”), the very antithesis of the female masquerader, embellished with clothes and makeup.9
The modernist argument against exterior ornament, based on its metaphorical resemblance to fashion, becomes even more extreme when brought to bear on the interior, where decoration becomes conflated with clothing.10 Another term for curtains, “window dressing,” with its allusion to apparel, underscores the intimate association of interior decoration with fashion and femininity. Like drapery on mannequins, drapes on windows “outfit” the domestic interior. While ornament, designed by architects, is at least materially and conceptually consistent with a building’s skin, the fabrics and curtains selected by decorators are independent elements detachable from architectural surfaces. Draped with fabrics and finery, the decorated room calls to mind the decorated woman whose allure derives from superficial adornment—“womanliness as masquerade.”11 In Women as Decoration, published in 1917, Emily Burbank makes explicit this analogy between interior design and female costume, counseling women on how to dress in harmony with their surroundings. “Woman,” she observed, “is an important factor in the decorative scheme of any setting—the vital spark to animate the interior decoration, private or public.”12
Burbank’s equation of women with decoration coincides with another historical development: the promotion of decorating as a woman’s vocation. While architecture has, until recently, been considered an occupation of men and for men, interior design has, since its inception, been viewed as a practice, if not always of women, then certainly for women. “We take it for granted,” Elsie de Wolfe wrote in 1914, “that this American home is always the woman’s home. . . . It is the personality of the mistress that the home expresses. Men are forever guests in our homes, no matter how much happiness they may find there.”13
It took a confluence of new historical forces—industrialization and the rise of the bourgeois family—to consolidate ancient prejudices and to transform interior design into a women’s field. The notion of the domestic interior as predominantly a female domain, a concept often taken for granted, is, in fact, of recent origin, for historically the domestic household was associated with patriarchy. Aristocratic estates and their contents were passed down through generations of male heirs; they were the tangible signs of family wealth, power, and prestige. Throughout the 19th century, two linked factors profoundly altered this centuries-old tradition. The rise of industrialism made possible the manufacture of furniture. And the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of a socially mobile bourgeoisie created a new consumer, the housewife, whose role it was to purchase and arrange the commodities her husband no longer inherited.14
Feminist historians have exhaustively examined the impact of the gendered division of labor on domestic space. They have shown how, as the workplace became separated from the home in the 19th century and the domestic interior became the precinct of the housewife, a popular literature devoted to interior decorating emerged, geared to the female homemaker. Decorating, a practice once conducted by male architects and upholsters, was thus appropriated by women—either “do-it-yourself” housewives or decorators, many of whom, like Elsie de Wolfe and Edith Wharton, were from wealthy, prominent families.
Professional status mirrors gender status: the subordinate relationship of interior decoration can be historically linked to its reputation as a woman’s pastime. Not surprisingly, at the same time that 19th-century economic developments transformed both women and the domestic spaces they presided over into signifiers of male wealth, financial forces finally gave interior decoration its due. Widespread affluence in the early 20th century fueled a burgeoning new market for home furnishings, a market encouraged by the popular press and geared to female consumers, one that continues to expand today.
Given that curtains and other interior accouterments have recently become bigger business, it could be argued that popular journalism now champions decoration over architecture, regularly showcasing domestic design in such venues as the New York Times “House & Home” section and Martha Stewart Living. And given also the strong affinities between fashion and interior design, it is no wonder that decorating has become a staple feature of the fashion press. Often produced by the same publishing house (for instance, Condé Nast or Hearst) and sold side by side on the newsstands, fashion and shelter magazines not only sometimes feature the same stories, but magazines like Vogue and House & Garden mirror each other graphically as well.
Disciplinary boundaries have become blurred not only on the pages of women’s magazines. Stylists scout hip interiors as locations for fashion shoots, while top designers like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Tom Ford (not to mention mass market companies like Banana Republic) have begun to produce lines of home furnishings to complement the “lifestyle” cued by their clothes. Fashion designers have thus shrewdly colonized a branch of design more closely affiliated with architecture. Have architects ceded a lucrative market to clothing designers because decorating is still tainted by its associations with fashion and femininity? Perhaps. But there is no doubt that over the past decade, the cultural currency of fashion has risen dramatically. The recent alliance between Prada and the Pritzker Prize winners Rem Koolhaas and Herzog and de Meuron suggests that, on the contrary, architects may finally be ready to relinquish their longstanding suspicions of fashion and decoration.
Enter the Gay Decorator
Curtain Wars implicate more than sex and gender; they also participate in the cultural construction of sexuality. Consider, for a moment, scenes from two Hollywood films, the 1949 adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Any Wednesday, made in 1966. Both movies reinforce the image of the “macho” male architect; simultaneously, they fine-tune a newer cultural cliché—the gay interior decorator.
In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, as played by Gary Cooper, personifies the architect as the epitome of masculinity. In the climactic trial scene, Roark defends himself for dynamiting his own project rather than seeing it disfigured by collaborating designers; the concept of masculinity is at the heart of his self-defense. A real man, says Roark, refuses to compromise his integrity and independence; the architect must follow his own vision rather than capitulate to the client’s whim. In the final moments of the movie, Roark’s adoring wife is conveyed upward by a construction elevator to the top of the architect’s latest project—a high-rise, of course—where he awaits her. Throughout the scene the camera’s mobile eye is fixed worshipfully on Roark, who stands atop and indeed seems to surmount the skyscraper—an image that literally conflates the architect with manhood.
In The Fountainhead, professional identity is reinforced too by sartorial style. The clean lines of Howard Roark’s dark suits, echoing the simple geometry of his buildings, indicate his heterosexual manliness. Similarly, in Any Wednesday, in a scene in which the male decorator consults with the newlywed played by Jane Fonda, the silk handkerchief that accessorizes the decorator’s blazer betrays not only his design sensibility but also his sexual identity. And his flamboyant speech and gestures (which match the outrageous fees he freely admits to charging) call up the ubiquitous but suspect stereotype of the gay interior decorator.
If the history of the professional decorator has been neglected, the subject of homosexuality and interior decoration has been largely ignored.15 Interestingly enough, two of the field’s earliest and most influential members—Edith Wharton’s collaborator Ogden Codman, Jr. and his notorious contemporary Elsie de Wolfe—were both homosexuals. A review of Codman’s work in Architectural Record criticizes his interior designs for gaining “variety at the expense of virility.”16 While historians have described how decorating came to be considered a woman’s pastime, they have yet to account for its emergence as a gay profession. One likely explanation is that interior design—like two allied design fields, fashion and theater—attracts a disproportionate number of gay men because gay men, already marginalized for their apparent femininity, are less reluctant to assume occupations that have traditionally been deemed feminine. But it is hardly coincidental that interior design, much like fashion and theater, is a discipline invested in the notion of self-fashioning through artifice. Borrowing the useful concept developed by feminist and queer theorists of sexual identity as “performance,” I have argued elsewhere that architecture participates in the staging of individual identity.17 According to this view, masculinity and femininity are constructed through the repetition of culturally prescribed norms, including gestures, mannerisms, and clothing. Daily life resembles theater, a stage where men and women learn to act culturally sanctioned roles. Extending this analogy, we can compare interiors to stage sets that, along with costumes and props, help actors create convincing portrayals. Because of their outsider status, many gay men, like women, are acutely aware of the performative nature of human subjectivity. Could it be that this awareness, which some consider a survival instinct, allows gay men to be unusually well represented in decorating, a craft in which applied surfaces—fabrics, wallpapers, paint colors—are manipulated in order to fashion personality?
The idea that interiors express human and in particular feminine identity is a message reiterated in periodicals like House Beautiful and Metropolitan Home. Like apparel, décor is said to disclose the secrets of selfhood. Perhaps the most exaggerated and paradoxical examples of this staple of design journalism are photo spreads showcasing celebrity homes. Inviting us to identify with the camera’s voyeuristic eye, magazines like Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, and In Style urge us to peek into the homes of stars like Madonna and Cher. Suspending disbelief, we delude ourselves momentarily into believing that these contrived and often outré environments reliably mirror the authentic selves of their occupants.
Patrons have long looked to designers to outfit both themselves and their homes to communicate self-image to the outside world; but the rich and famous are not the only ones savvy enough to understand the importance of a well-appointed home. Since the 19th century, publications aimed largely at middle-class women have instructed amateurs on how to fashion themselves and their domestic environments to reflect who they are or aspire to be. With the feminization of the bourgeois home comes a new conception of the domestic interior: a unique abode that mirrors the temperament of its (female) homemaker. Taste, once considered an expression of class and breeding but now freed from its aristocratic associations, thus becomes understood as an expression of personality. Following a literary model established by architectural theorists from Vitruvius to Marc Antoine Laugier, two early and influential decorating texts—Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses and de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste—counsel readers that decorating, much like architectural design, is essentially a rational process, based not upon whim or whimsy but rather upon objective principles. But as the genre of the decorating book evolved during the 20th-century, a contrary tendency emerged, one that sought to distance interior design from architectural precedent. Two popular books written by designers known for working with celebrity clients—Dorothy Draper and Billy Baldwin—illustrate this trend by upholding womanly taste, not manly reason, as a prerequisite for practice. Both counsel women on how to express themselves through décor.18
One might expect that this subjective design approach would make interior designers unnecessary: consult your inner decorator rather than hire a professional. However, as Draper’s and Baldwin’s texts both demonstrate, decorators quickly learned to take advantage of this union of décor and “womanly intuition,” employing professional empathy as a strategy to distinguish themselves from “arrogant” male architects reputedly indifferent to client needs. Unlike stubborn architects who willfully impose their own ideas and values on patrons, the ideal decorator is a facilitator. According to Baldwin, “A decorator must first consider the kind of people for whom he works, how they lived, and their stated budget. Then, and only then, can he execute their wishes and requirements according to the best of his trained taste and experience.”19 Capitalizing on a seemingly innate ability to forge close and familiar client relationships, some decorators even came to resemble psychics, mediums who enable housewives to channel their inner selves through their domestic furnishings.
True to the genre of decorating literature, both Draper and Baldwin gloss over a fundamental contradiction posed by their endorsement of the intuitive creator: the attempt to teach skills that ultimately cannot be taught. Moreover, although both authors claim to disavow the “signature designer,” the books ultimately validate this figure. Peppered with personal anecdotes, both volumes double as publicity memoirs. Ignoring the incontrovertible fact that people hire decorators precisely because they believe that “taste” can be purchased, Draper and Baldwin strive to convince the reader that hiring a famous designer will result in self-actualization.
Despite the sex of their authors, the subliminal portrait of the decorator painted in both these interior design books is of a female, thus playing into two of Western culture’s long-standing associations with femininity: artifice, fabricated through the application of adornment, and subterfuge (while apparently submissive, women ultimately get their way by creating the illusion that others are in control). Not necessarily oppressive and limiting, these stereotypes have sometimes proved professionally beneficial. Under the right circumstances, the reputation of the cooperative and feminized decorator, when opposed to the figure of the domineering and unsympathetic architect, can pay off. (“I don’t build for clients,” say Howard Roark. “I get clients in order to build.”) The gay male decorator’s intimacy with his female patrons—coupled with his first-hand understanding of the crucial role interiors play in human self-fashioning—permits him to be trusted, to become, in a sense, “just one of the girls.”
Enter the Emasculated Architect
The popular perception of interior decorating as inherently feminine, conducted by either women or effeminate gay men not only accounts for the field’s inferior status, it also effectively threatens the self-esteem of many architects. For some practitioners, the unstable borders separating architecture from interior design touch directly on the vulnerability that lies at the core of manhood. Whether seen from the vantage of psychoanalytic theory or cultural history, masculinity, while seemingly invincible, is fragile.20 The biological penis can never live up to the mystique of the cultural phallus. Architects are inevitably asked to perform certain “decorating” activities—like picking furniture and fabrics—that call into question their manliness. Already insecure about their attraction to tasks that society deems “unmanly,” for some practitioners the architectural profession represents a strange sort of closet, a refuge that allows them (albeit with some discomfort) to engage in practices considered otherwise unacceptable for “real” men. Still, many architects feel they must defend against the sneaking suspicion that inside every architect lurks a decorator. Ultimately, architects disavow interior design as a way of overcompensating for masculine vulnerability; they are compelled to draw emphatic limits between two professions whose contours inevitably overlap.
At this point in history, with interior design finally beginning to receive greater professional and cultural recognition, Curtain Wars underscore the low self-esteem in much of the architectural profession, exacerbating the male architect’s doubts about his self-determination and empowerment. The cultural priority accorded to architecture over interior design was never all that secure. Despite the grand historical narratives promoted by art historians, architecture, although an ancient craft, is nevertheless a relatively new profession that has struggled for respect. To this day architects sometimes have to fight to overcome their image as aristocratic amateurs.21 In the absence of public belief that architects provide indispensable skills, architecture is often viewed as an expendable luxury. Why hire an architect when many states allow clients to enlist professional engineers or contractors to do the job? Although they endure similarly lengthy training and demanding apprenticeships, architects typically command significantly lower fees than do other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and yes, even interior designers. And while the public image of the architect is as a dashing and sometimes charismatic figure, rarely does this positive appeal translate into actual value in the marketplace.
To add personal insult to this economic injury, architects often find themselves, despite their reputation for machismo, disempowered by colleagues and clients alike. The architect’s expertise is often challenged both by those for whom he works—clients, developers, institutions—and by those who work for him—structural engineers, contractors, construction workers, and even decorators. (An interesting example of the age-old feud between architect and decorator involved Richard Meier and Tierry Despont at the new Getty museum in Los Angeles. Perhaps what proved so humiliating for Meier was not just that he was forced to compromise the integrity of his pristine galleries with “bordello-red” damask wall coverings, retro tapestries, dentilated cornices, and plastic moldings, but also that the infringement of the “suave” society decorator signified Meier’s ultimate loss of control. But the real battle took place not between decorator and architect but between Meier and his client, curator John Walsh, who hired Despont in the first place. Contrary to the myth of the commanding architect, it is still the client who holds the purse strings and ultimately, the power.) In recent years a crisis of confidence has overtaken the architectural profession. As buildings become more complicated and expensive, architects have been “relieved” of many of the technical responsibilities they once fulfilled: specialists now handle engineering, structural, and construction issues. Often, in the case of large-scale projects like high-rise buildings, developers retain signature architects like Michael Graves to function as glorified styling consultants, hired to create clothing—building facades and lobby décor—for structures designed by others. Some trace this development to Philip Johnson, who was hired by Donald Trump in 1995 to style the exterior of the former Gulf and Western Building, now rebuilt to become the Trump International Hotel and Tower.22 But the architect as skin decorator dates back to Postmodernism in the early 1980s. Transferring the logic of retail to buildings, developers like Trump acknowledge the cachet, prestige, and media attention associated with celebrity designers. In today’s global marketplace, high-profile architectural practices are rapidly dismantling the once-firm boundaries between architect, decorator, and fashion stylist.
Yet in a world in which noncelebrity architects are increasingly marginalized by the public and their peers, it is no wonder that many architects might find picking upholstery and curtains uncomfortable; this seemingly inconsequential activity is tainted by its deep-seated associations with women and homosexuality. Today, however, as restrictive gender roles have become more flexible and alternative modes of sexuality are more openly expressed, professional possibilities are emerging—possibilities that portend the transcendence of the architecture/decorator divide. Not only are women now encouraged to be both high-powered professionals and nurturing mothers, but men are also increasingly permitted to express themselves through activities once closed off to them—they are free to be both athletes and aesthetes, breadwinners and homemakers. And decorating is finally coming out of the closet. Not only are shelter magazines showcasing domestic interiors inhabited by same-sex couples (who are often decorators), but professional journals like Interior Design also run provocative homo-social advertisements directed at both female and gay designers. Interestingly, journalism’s belated but nevertheless welcome acknowledgement of the significant role that gays play in the design community coincides with an even more striking development: mainstream media like the New York Times and Wallpaper, and even companies like Ikea are setting their sights on a new household consumer—straight men hip to the latest decorating trends. In “Pulls and Pillowcases: It’s a Man’s World,” a recent New York Times article devoted to how this burgeoning tendency has created new tensions between co-habitating men and women, journalist Rick Marin writes, “There are two kinds of men. The kind that spend long hours lying on the couch in front of professional wrestling. And those of us who prefer to spend our spare time shopping for the perfect couch to lie on. You’d think women would prefer to cohabit with the shopping man. Not necessarily.”23
Now that the mainstream culture is finally beginning to accept the fluidity of gender identities, both architects and decorators are able to embrace one of the best aspects of domestic design: its ability to align activities once conventionally designated as distinctly “masculine” or “feminine”: science and art, logic and intuition, architecture and interior decoration. Professionals who can integrate such supposedly opposite skills are newly empowered to question conventional and restrictive notions of gender and to invent a new design vocabulary that will merge the best features of the divided worlds of architecture and decoration. Collapse various distinctions—between building scale and human scale, stable shell and freestanding furniture—and architecture will finally be understood as continuous practices. Whether rigid or malleable, found on the inside or the outside, the surfaces of our buildings work like the clothing that covers our bodies; both are coded to enable us to articulate the various identities that we assume every day. The time is ripe for a new generation of designers to move beyond Curtain Wars and invent a hybrid design vocabulary that will allow a range of human identities and activities to transpire in domestic space.
* Many of the themes and issues explored here were raised in the “Curtain Wars” conference that I organized at Parsons School of Design in 1996.1 The term “decorator,” which originally designated an individual who practiced what we today call interior design, is now considered both obsolete and pejorative: it evokes the image of “decoration,” a culturally denigrated concept that I will call into question. In the same spirit in which the gay community has revived the once-reviled term “queer,” I will use the labels “decorator” and “interior designer” interchangeably, to both politicize and historicize the activity of “decorating” domestic space. 2 Frank Lloyd Wright never used curtains and thought of them as “unhygienic.” Charles Gwathmey is quoted in the October 2001 Architectural Digest: “Interior design ‘is a reductive process,’ he asserts. ‘Decorators think of coming in and adding to “enrich,” and I think of our work as the opposite. The interior does not want to be covered up; it does not want to be added to. . . . If I design a window wall, the details of that window wall-—its materiality, its proportion, the fenestration, the way we control the light—are all integrated and thought about. The idea of coming in and saying, “Let’s put a curtain over that!” is totally antipathetical and totally contradictory’” (p. 100). 3 Le Camus de Mézières insisted that the furniture of an important bedchamber should be designed by the architect “and not by the upholsterer who should confine himself to executing the design”; William Mitford claimed that “the upholsterer’s interest . . . is in direct opposition to the architect’s credit.” Peter Thornton recounts these, as well as other attacks against the upholsterer, in Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior, 1620–1920 (New York: Viking, 1984). 4 Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr., The Decoration of Houses (New York: Classical America and Henry Hope Reed, 1997), xx. 5 Ibid., 13. 6 But Wharton represents an exception to the paradigm: Vanessa Chase argues that Wharton’s intellectual and economic independence allowed her to successfully invert typical gendered power relationships in the design of her own home, The Mount. See “Edith Wharton, The Decoration of Houses, and Gender in Turn-of-the-Century America,” in Architecture and Feminism (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996). 7 I confront the professional rivalries and contradictions described here on a daily basis. As a licensed architect based in Manhattan, apartment renovations comprise much of my practice, work that has required me to augment my architectural training with decorating skills that I never learned in school. Intending to rectify this gap, I attempted, when I became director of the Graduate Program in Architecture at Parsons School of Design, to incorporate interior design classes into the curriculum. However, my efforts to merge disciplinary boundaries were frustrated by the school’s institutional structure: Parsons had recently established a separate Department of Interior Design. 8 Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover, 1960). 9 See Mary McLeod, “Undressing Architecture: Fashion, Gender, and Modernity,” and Mark Wigley, “White Out: Fashioning the Modern,” in Architecture in Fashion (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994). Mark Wigley’s White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995) discusses in depth the ambivalent but nonetheless pivotal role fashion played in thediscourse of modern architecture. 10 Here I am elaborating on the notion of “architectural dressing” discussed in the introduction to the collection of essays I edited, Stud: Architectures of Masculinity (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1986). 11 The phrase was coined by psychoanalyst Joan Riviere, herself a dressmaker before writing the famous 1929 essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” See Formations of Fantasy, eds. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), 35–44. 12 Emily Burbank, Women as Decoration (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917). 13 Elsie de Wolfe, The House in Good Taste (New York: The Century Company, 1913). 14 Two books that survey premodern developments are Mario Praz, An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982) and Thornton, Authentic Décor. For a discussion of the invention of the modern professional decorator, see “The Emergence of Interior Decoration as a Profession” in Ann Massey, Interior Design of the 20th Century (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990). 15 One of the few authors to address the prominent role of gay and lesbian practitioners in interior design is Aaron Betsky, who takes up this topic in Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1997). 16 “Some Recent Works by Ogden Codman, Jr.,” Architectural Record, July 1905, 51. 17 See Stud, 11–25. 18 Counseling female readers on how to express themselves through décor, Draper writes: “Your home is the backdrop of your life, whether it is a palace or a one-room apartment. It should be honestly your own—an expression of your personality. So many people stick timidly to the often-uninspired conventional ideas or follow some expert’s methods slavishly. Either way they are more or less living in someone else’s house.” Dorothy Draper, Decorating Is Fun! How to Be Your Own Decorator (New York: Doubleday, Dovan, and Co., 1941), 4; Billy Baldwin, Billy Baldwin Remembers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). 19 Baldwin, 73. 20 Although they offer different explanations, both cultural historians and psychoanalytical theorists argue that modern masculinity is in crisis. Historians attribute this to the aftermath of the Second World War that transformed traditional roles in both the workplace and the home. See Michael S. Kimmel, “Consuming Manhood: The Feminization of American Culture and the Recreation of the Male Body, 1832–1920,” in The Male Body: Features, Destinies, Exposures, ed. Lawrence Goldstein (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994). For a psychoanalytic reading of masculinity as masquerade, see Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins(New York: Routledge, 1992). Several recent books explore the crisis of masculinity in terms of the depriving yet felt-to-be-necessary distance boys create from their mothers in order to feel like independent, “manly” beings, a distance girls feel less need for (see, for instance, The Reproduction of Mothering, by Nancy Chodorow, In a Time of Fallen Heros, by William Betcher and William S. Pollock, and I Don’t Want to Talk About It, by Terrence Real). 21 The professional standing of the architect is a relatively recent invention. During the Middle Ages, architects belonged to guilds and were considered artisans. While the names of some master builders have been recorded for posterity, it was not until the Renaissance that the status of architects, along with that of artists, was elevated from anonymous craftsmen to individual creators. Even then, professional recognition did not come quickly. From the Renaissance through the mid-19th century, architecture was still considered an “art” largely practiced by amateurs like Thomas Jefferson, who personified the self-taught “gentleman architect.” Not until the establishment of academies like the Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century do architects define themselves as experts who learn not on the job but in school, a change in status that leads to the licensing of professional architects in the early 20th-century. 22 Tracie Rozhon, “Condos on the Rise, by Architectural Stars,” New York Times, July 19, 2001, “House and Home.” 23 February 8, 2001, Section F, 1.
Joel Sanders is associate professor of architecture at Yale University and an architect in New York City.