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  • Jonathan Boorstein

STAGGERING TAPESTRIES

At last year’s Diversity Conference, I came up with what I thought was a great ice breaker for the first gay, lesbian, and bisexual caucus meeting, in which a number of people from all over the country were to meet for the first time. I would ask each participant to give his or her name and then tell the group who his or her favorite gay or lesbian designer or architect was and what was his or her gayest or most lesbian design. When I tested the idea out on Dan Lansner, our moderator, he suggested Michelangelo and the Laurentian Library, although he has yet to tell me why.

Imagine my shock, then, when in a room with thirty gay or lesbian designers or architects, no one could think of few other gay or lesbian architects than Michelangelo, Eileen Grey, whom I mentioned, and Louis Sullivan, whose claim to homosexuality might be best described as “not proven”. Among other things, it turned out the subject has not been broached in architectural history classes in school.

This surprised me. I started out in college as an English major. The sexual proclivities of the writers we studied – as well as how they chose to indulge them – was always mentioned, if not discussed. Gay and lesbian writers were always identified as such. It was not always in positive terms, but it was mentioned.

I remember Ronald Firbank being described as an over-exquisite man with marcelled hair and green fingernails, who dined only on champagne and peas, and swayed, ever so precariously, in even the slightest breeze.

We could then do whatever we wanted with that information – dismiss it or use it as a way to approach a writer, or a group of writers. Even in film and art history, my two minors, such information was made available. But not, it seems, in architecture school.

Of course, the commonplace is that such history is important since it provides us so-called minority groups with legitimacy and role models. But such history also provides us with a way, one more way, to approach an artist or group of artists. After all, sexuality is but one thread of all the different threads that, woven together by the lives we lead, makes each one of us an individual, a unique tapestry.

But while each pattern is unique, certain threads are in several tapestries, threads that are shared with others for example, in this room, we all share the common thread of architecture. Such common threads might also include sex as well as sexuality. Other threads are: males, female; social class, economic level; where one grew up, where one lives; health, religion; education, and hobbies, among others.

Now this thread of same-sex sexuality carries a sensibility with it, one that has been debated and defined by such writers and intellectuals as Kate Millet and Susan Sontag, Vito Russo and Edmund White, Arthur Bell and Richard Dyer, Frank Browning and myself, if I may be so immodest as to include my own contribution to the literature, which I first presented at Design Pride ’94. In my paper, I suggested that the gay and lesbian sensibility has three characteristics, or to force my metaphor, this thread has three filaments: camp; drag; and bricolage, as I am now calling them

Camp is, well, camp. It’s an angle of vision that subverts or appropriates the so-called natural or normal with style and wit. Drag, here, means the use of theatre and costume. It’s putting on a show to get an effect, whether to put someone in the mood, or to pass muster. Bricolage is a kind of assemblage, the putting together or pieces of things, changing them, bending the meaning of items and images for other purposes. These bits and pieces often also serve as hints and clues to who we are which can be dropped to connect others who share our common thread.

In short, we’re discussing a type of ironic sensibility in the construction of set, mask, and costume, whose elements are found and then appropriated for that purpose.

So now let us sample a random list of some three dozen gay and lesbian designers and architects: major or minor; known or unknown; amateur or professional; past or present; and good, bad or indifferent. Let us glance as some of the tapestries into which our common threads are woven.

Charles Moore

A friend of mine, Seth Joseph Weine, once attended a lecture by Moore and came away remembering Moore’s wonderful description of the churrigueresque, the kind of sugary ornament that covers Spanish colonial architecture. Weine particularly liked the term churrigueresque itself. I do too.

For if you look upon the churrigueresque as the results of ordering types of bricolage, you might well have a key to Moore’s work. Paul Goldberger noted that Moore “had some remarkable goods and trappings, including hundreds of antique toys, pieces of folk art, architectural models, drawings and artifacts, which he cobbled together into a series of residences that were almost magical in their ability to merge whimsy and monumentality”.

As an example, Goldberger cites a “sprawling living room” in which those collections of collections were “arranged in niches, hung like gargoyles and placed on shelves from floor to ceiling”. Goldberger felt that “Moors sought not superficial whimsy, but a more profound view of the world as a staggering tapestry”. And Martin Filler once described the Madonna Inn as a “kitsch landmark on the Moore map of America, in which he mixed high architecture with high camp”.

Elsie de Wolfe

C. Ray Smith noted that “despite the stylistic changes of the past half century, the tradition that Elsie de Wolfe established in both her work and her writing about it persists as the foundation of American interior decorating in the late Twentieth century”.

Between when Smith wrote that and now, the tradition is closer to 90 years, and her list of first is still impressive. Among her innovations are: cove lighting for painted ceilings; light switches by the door; vanity tables that open in the front to reveal drawers; enclosing radiators with cabinet covers; the designer show house; dining rooms doubling as libraries; decorating effectively with mirrors; parquet floors; and the use of chintz, as well as the all-white room, which is often miscredited to Syrie Maugham.

For de Wolfe’s nursing services during World War I in France where she had a villa, she was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor in 1923. As for her famous lesbian relationship with Elizabeth Marbury, the 1905 census listed Marbury as the head of the household and de Wolfe as partner.

Terrance Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings

Fortunately, he was known as “Gibby” to all and sundry. Gibby designed both furniture and interiors. His contributions to the former is what makes him matter today. As for the latter, he also wrote a few books on the subject, all modest best-sellers. Such titles as Goodbye Mr. Chippendale and Homes of the Brave give you a pretty good idea s to the tone and contents. In both he took exception to the American penchant for acquiring antiques of dubious quality, importance, and authenticity.

In contrast, his own furniture design offered pieces that combined utility and simplicity without sacrificing elegance. Gibby’s best work reinterprets ancient Greek furniture in general and the Klismos chair in particular for contemporary interiors. He also reinterpreted classic Chinese furniture. In addition, he was the first interior designer to design furniture for a major American manufacturer, namely Widdecomb.

Toward the end of his life, he wound up living in Athens with his companion, Carlton Pullin.

Julia Morgan

Julia Morgan is by now a cult figure, something one imagines this immensely sensible and no-nonsense lady viewing with nothing but alarm. The cult status makes it all but impossible to discuss her architecture as architecture. She must be discussed in terms of her importance to women architects in general and lesbian architects in particular. She was the first woman to be enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1898 and in 1904 was the first woman architect to be registered in California.

Her best known work – San Simeon – is her least representative, and, anyway, was only one of some two dozen other projects she executed for the Hearst family. At her best, Morgan combined the symmetry of the Beaux Arts, but never as an end to itself, with the crafts ideas and a sensitivity to client-needs and the environment of the California Arts and Crafts movement.

Philip Trummel Shutze

In 1977, Henry Hope Reed called Shutze “America’s greatest living classical architect”. During his career, Shutze dotted Atlanta and the surrounding countryside with neo-classical, if not neo-Palladian, villas and vistas, most adapted from buildings and gardens he visited and measured during the five years he spent in Rome, three of which was as a fellow of the American Academy.

The results were vaguely Wren-link: Italian themes as filtered through the British sensibility, circa 1730. He died in 1982, leaving his possessions to the Atlanta Historical Society, by then headquartered in the Swan House, widely regarded as Shutze’s masterpiece.

Frank Israel

To judge from the number of articles that have appeared about him over the past year, Israel is the architect of the moment. He seems best known for his bold use of color and new materials. His view of urban planning says it all: “The city is not about knitting thigs together; it’s about diversity, it’s about pluralism it’s about things not necessarily fitting in if you to deny that and create pristine sense of reality you violate what’s strong, rich and exciting about cities today.” He has also cited gay and lesbian people as urban pioneers who go out and gentrify run-down neighborhoods.

Inigo Jones

According to John Harris and Gordon Higgott, who wrote Inigo Jones: Complete Architectural Drawings, Jones is “perhaps the single most important person in the history of the arts in seventeenth-century England…. Even if Jones’s genius were apparent this early, he would have required powerful friendships to permit him o spend as long in Italy; it might be suggested then that Jones participated in intimate relationships with is patrons [the Earls of Essex and Southhampton]”. For those who care, a staircase he designed has been installed in The Cannery on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Aero Studios

There is also a cottage industry producing articles about William Sofield and Thomas O’Brien and their firm, Aero, which specializes in product and part design along wih interiors. They note that gay male couples need three kinds of living space: a room of one’s own (such as an office or study); shared space (such as the couple’s bedroom or kitchen); and public rooms (such as the dining room and living room). The idea is to create a division that allows each man his individuality while supporting heir needs as a couple. And Sofield claims to get inspiration from Dr. Suess and Eileen Grey.

By the way, a list of other such designing partners or couples might include: Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat who have been professional and domestic partners for some twenty years; Percier and Fontaine; Jed Johnson and Alan Wanzenberg; and Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti.

Eileen Grey

My choice for last year’s ice-breaker, Grey started off working within the Arts and Crafts tradition, turned to Art Deco, before becoming a modernist of such intellectual rigor and innovation that she gathered the admiration of such architects as Le Corbusier. Regardless of style, she remained fascinated with pivoting drawers and barriers that both define space and are penetrated by it. Her Bibendum chair – a club chair done up as a campy nod to the Michelin tire man – was my choice for her queerest or most lesbian design.

Charles Robert Ashbee

Ashbee was a disciple of Joh Ruskin, William Morris, and Edward Carpenter. The latter was a pioneer of the simple life and Whitmanesque “companionship” as well as a pioneer of gay liberation. Companionship would break down social barriers and create a “freemasonry of men”, which became the principle behind Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, a platonic brotherhood of artisans – mostly young men – with whom he created a quasi-utopian community.

William Haines

Haines was a silent film star who became an interior designer, not because of talkies, but because he was caught once too often in Hugh Grant-like situations with male hustlers and the studio got tired of hushing it up. Or so Kenneth Anger would have it. Haines was known for the set-like theatricality of his designs, which included such innovations as hiding the vulgar technology of screening rooms behind elegant paneling.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

His sister “hired” him to design her house, really as therapy for the “tormented” state World War I left him in. The interior organization makes the building unique. According to George Henrick von Wright, “the beauty of Wittgenstein’s architecture is the same simple and static kind that belongs to a sentence of the Tractatus”.

Philip Johnson

Johnson is problematic for many who are gay, Jewish, or care about architecture. He’s been something of a Vicar of Bray in terms of political and architectural currents, changing his mask, if not cutting his skirt, to suit the current fashion. Nevertheless, he produced the Glass House, which, wih its assorted outbuildings, is a classic of modern design.

Eleanor Raymond

A graduate of the famous and fascinating Cambridge School, she designed the first modern house in Massachusetts. A studio of hers was described as big, bold, and businesslike, and the lesbian commune she lived in on Beacon Hill was once called a “non-masculine townhouse”.

Michael Taylor

Taylor virtually created the idiom we now think of as the casual and eclectic elegance of contemporary California style. The Taylor idiom incuded white wall, wicker and natural wood, oversized plants and furniture, no curtains, and a casual mix of period pieces.

Robert Currie

Jacobsen liked to reduce the need for furniture, or perhaps just reduce visual confusion, as well as liked to integrate technology into his interiors. At best, his aesthetic merged the classical with the minimalist.

Charles Pfister

He was another advocate of the clean uncluttered opulence of California style. Something of the archetypal decorator in character, Pfister was the one who developed the open plan work station for Knoll.

Jay Spectre

His clients had high incomes and low profiles. He used technology to create comfortable interiors, often balancing high tech with folk art, the antique with the avant garde.

Russel Wright

If it could be designed, Wright probably designed it. He’s best known for American Moern dinnerware with its cheery colors and asymmetrical biomorphic forms.

Alan Buchsbaum

Buchsbaum took the high tech look a step furher, but mixing industrial objects with camp quotes.

Vita Sackville-West

Her garden was probably the great ove of her life.

Since time must be running out if it hasn’t run out already, I’ll just add Bruce Goff, Mel Hamilton, Mark Kaminski, Roger Ferri, Arthur Drexler, Arthur Erickson, and Ralph Adams Cram in passing. There’s a rather interesting new book on Cram just out, and, as for Hamilton, he once observed that one could do a contemporary interior without specing a Mies chair and a Knoll fabric.

This list of gay and lesbian designers and architects is by no means compete and I do apologize to those of you who would have like for me to have gone into more detail, if not depth, with some of these figures. However, it’s meant to be a quick-pick survey, although one I hope is helpful – whether to pique your interest, inspire your own research, or just give you something amusing to talk about at your next cocktail party.

Thank you.

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