Most professionals have to demonstrate a certain level of competence in their own lives if they hope to attract and keep paying clientele. (Would you open your mouth for a dentist with bad teeth?) That just makes sense. We expect professional expertise to be reflected somehow in the personal lives of the practitioners, and this is especially true of design work.
We look to artists, fashion designers, architects and other professionals in “aesthetic” trades not only for what they provide to clients or the public, but also to see the work they do for themselves. Unfettered by the constraints that come with most paid commissions, this personal work is often more daring, more expressive, or perhaps the purest version of a designer’s work, pared down to the essential elements.
Dominic Bradbury, a British design writer, recognizes that designers’ homes can be great and unique examples of the craft, and for some he takes it a step further. The really exceptional ones, in his view, are iconic. That is, they are definitive works that capture the essence of a particular style or movement, or even of a specific historical period.
Bradbury has singled out 100 of these homes for inclusion in his book The Iconic Interior: Private Spaces of Leading Artists, Architects, and Designers. The large-format hardcover is a thinking person’s coffee-table book, mixing plenty of eye candy (more than 500 color photographs) with an informed and in-depth discussion of what makes these homes what the author calls “essential reference points in the history of interior design.”
The book opens with Bradbury’s take on how we got where we are today — how social and technological changes have shaped residential architecture, and why interior design has evolved from a domain for the elites into a passion for many “ordinary” homeowners. The 20th century ushered in many profound changes, he says, one of them being the transformation of the home from basic shelter into a vehicle for creative self-expression.
Previous centuries had produced stunning artistry in buildings, certainly, but much of it in the form of ornamentation. Impressive exterior facades concealed structural forms that remained fairly basic, acting as shells and subshells to be filled with fine interior furnishings produced by guild artisans. To paraphrase the late comedian George Carlin, they were big boxes to hold artsy stuff.
When architects broadened their role and took a more organic approach to building design, interior spaces became part of the design package, not just the empty stage for someone else’s performance. Late 19th-century Victorian styles had featured elaborate decoration that masked line and structure; now those core elements were featured prominently, even celebrated, in cleaner and simpler work of the Arts and Crafts and modernist aesthetics.
Toss in consequences from two major European wars — many artists and professionals fleeing to the United States, air travel coming to the civilian market and military technology spinning off new materials such as plywood and aluminum — and by mid-century the cross-pollination of cultures and ideas was underway and unstoppable. Traditionalists and modernists alike found room to grow, either through reinventing classical styles or by claiming new artistic turf of their own.
The resulting diversity is part of what makes Bradbury’s book possible, and he has dutifully assembled here a remarkable array of spaces and places. Readers get glimpses and in-depth looks at, among others, writer Edith Wharton’s neoclassical New England residence, The Mount; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House; fashion designer Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment; the respectful and dramatic home that architect Ray Kappe built into a California hillside; and the jaw-dropping 17th-century Chateau du Champ de Bataille restored and owned by French interior designer Jacques Garcia.
American and European homes make up the bulk of the entries, but other featured locations beckon from as far away as South America, Australia, South Africa, Japan, Morocco, Turkey, China and Thailand. Photography by Richard Powers and others aims for a timeless quality to match the featured interiors.
With the book’s focus on 20th-century work, contemporary design themes outnumber traditional examples, but it’s hard to believe that anyone who appreciates architecture and design won’t find a lot to love in this volume. If I have a gripe, it’s only that having this international tour of beautiful homes at my fingertips makes me wistful, knowing I can’t see them all in person.