On Interior Design
Essay by Fred Scott
Like the common cold, interior design, despite its prevalence, is lacking in definition. Recently, a designer suggested there was no such thing, or if examined, it would be found to be totally subsumed by architecture. The opposite temptation therefore is to attempt to describe interior design in terms of what architecture is not, or rather to ascertain in which ways it is distinct from architecture. In terms of the geography of human effort, it lies somewhere between architecture and set design, more artistic than one, less dramatic than the other.
Recent architectural theories have emphasised the timeless quality of buildings, especially in the relationship with the city. Regarding true architecture as essentially unchanging, like a rock, over which at different times different uses will wash.
Architecture is timeless; interior design is temporal. Lack of interest in temporal qualities weakens the architect’s attachment to other previously important considerations. For instance, interest in the role of the client, and more generally, interest in most of the programmes with which today they are likely to be presented. The latter echoes the reaction against the commitment to a social programme which was a characteristic of the previous generation.
The new theories dictate a stance which is removed from such matters. In the replacement of Parker Morris with poetics, an air of suspension has permeated architectural vision, frozen banners in a departed wind. The interior designer can afford no such other worldiness. In his world the role of the client is paramount, and also whereas most clients can be relied upon to understand area, there are a few that will understand space. The architect tends to dream his production. The designer however is always aware of the client's hot breath and, like a striker in a game of football, or someone waking, he must struggle to make space in the face of intense distraction.
Other differences are clear in the approach to the work. For the interior designer there is no equivalent of a clear site; the least limiting of interior space with which the designer must contend is more conditioned than almost all sites with which the architect is presented. Consequently there is a different consciousness required of the interior designer in the approach to his or her work. It is provoked by this condition of fitting, of always working with and within existing structures. Because of this, a structured understanding of the host building is an essential preliminary to the consideration of any intervention. The understanding needs to be a common language derived from the actuality of the built form, a language which will allow a mental deconstruction, informing the physical alterations. It requires of the designer a thoughtful stripping back of the host building. An understanding must be reached which is material, spatial and cultural.
Through an intellectual approach, the designer may establish his correct standing between the extremes of limp mimicry and ill-mannered outlandishness, and by this, establish a basis for the ensuing rules of intervention. Classifying such rules is beyond the ambitions of this piece, except to say that the designer needs to realise that sometimes he will be more accomplished than the original author of the building and similarly sometimes will be able to clarify by his intervention the original architectural intentions, and in so doing, in some ways, to complete the building with which he is working.
The relationship between style and way of life is the matrix within which the designer operates; interior design is essentially the orchestration of new life in old buildings. Interior design establishes its relationship with architecture by involvement in spacemaking and fuses this relationship in a common interest in the plan.
Originally published in Plans and Elevations by Ben Kelly Design, Phaidon Press, 1990