TOWARD IDENTIFYING A GAY OR LESBIAN AESTHETIC IN INTERIOR DESIGN
You’ve been invited up for a drink. The guy is kind of cute, but you’re not sure he’s even gay, let alone interested in the same sort of relationship you are. So while he mixes the drinks, you take a look around. There’s a the-dirt-won’t-show brown tweed chesterfield; the Oriental carpet is from somewhere in central Karastan; and the coffee table and etageres not only are glass and chrome, but also match. Somehow, Toto, you just know you’re still in Kansas. On the other hand, if the lighting were low and well-planned, the room filled with “clever” flea-market finds, and the statue on the coffee table is a bronze of Cellini’s Perseus….
Of course, interpreting interiors is nothing new. Back in the 19th century, Edmond de Goncourt was among the first to suggest reading personal interior space in terms of form, style, and meaning, and in our own century, Roland Barthes proposes a furniture system in his Elements of Semiology. The system refers to “the set of the ‘stylistic’ varieties of a single piece of furniture,” while the syntagm deals with the “[j]uxtaposition of the different pieces of furniture in the same space.” Sephen Calloway describes interiors as “expressions of individuality, national characteristics, and cultural and social aspirations.” Which is a familiar idea for those of us who peruse such regional interior design style books as English Country Style or Manhattan Living.
And we lesbians and gay men do have a culture, even if it’s just in the sociological sense Chuck Rowland, one of the founders of The Mattachine Society, liked to cite: that is, a group of people sharing a body of language, feelings, thinking, and experiences, In seeming elaboration Richard Dyer says, “There are signs of gayness, but these are cultural forms designed to show what the person’s person alone doesn’t show: that he or she is gay. Such a repertoire of signs, making visible the invisible, is the basis of any representation of gay people involving visual recognition, the requirement of recogniability in turn entailing that of typicality. Though not indispensable, typification is a near necessity for the representation of gayness, the product of social, political, practical and textual determinations.” To illustrate “[d]ecor as signifier of queer/gay identity,” he uses this scene from The Detective, an American film from the late sixties. A particularly telling touch is how the statue’s buttocks face the camera.
But does Dyer’s typicality, or experience, produce a unique design sensibility or methodology that we could call a gay aesthetic or a queer eye? In What Your House Tells About You, Virginia Frankel, for all her homophobia, writes, “his apartment is womb-like: dim, cushy, deeply upholstered, very sensual and tactile with velvets and other … fabrics. The walls are painted dark or … covered with dark fabrics…. [P]hallic imagery is abundant: swords and guns, obelisks, stuffed or mounted beasts of prey, tiger and bear rugs and the like. Also, one … finds evidence of tremendous concern with physical culture: weights, exercise machines, and other body building apparatus…. There are other giveaway signs in the homosexual’s deocr. Many gay males are collectors – some very discriminating, other content with collections of ‘meaningful’ trinkets and tokens from friends and lovers…. There are several homosexual painters who are ‘in’ and their works are displayed not merely for their artistic merit but as tip-offs to visiting homosexuals about the general character of the host.” She concludes, “When you boil it down the function of the homosexual apartment is seduction. Darkness and softness everywhere, sofas and pillows and rugs inviting the guest to sprawl out, countless objects designed to guide conversation into certain channels. Yet, while a homosexual visitor will observe countless clues and come-ons, a ‘straight’ male may see nothing more than a handsomely decorated home. And maybe this is the key to homosexual décor: it hides the truth from the straight world while advertising it to the gay one.”
Frankel, who also feels that beneath the surface treatment of gay design “lies the homosexual’s implacable hostility to women,” is echoed by gay folklorist Charles Bergengren a decade later. In Untitled: Opus 7, he describes the circa 1982 Chelsea apartment of a friend of his. With the exception of a low book shelf in the living room, all the furniture in both rooms is in the center. The bed, for example, is like an altar or island in the middle of a black room. It’s covered in some sort of quilt, no side turned down to indicate ‘up.’ There is no bedside lamp or table. Bergengren speculates that this means anything can and has happened, adding that anything you might need has to fetched out of the closet – of all places – whether it’s books, straps, drinks, Crisco, or even pillows to sleep on. In the living room, also black, he comments on the contrast of the simple clean lines with the rough texture of the Japanese pottery on a burnished metal coffee table as well as a woven rug with bold, organic stripes. Other furniture includes metal and leather Corbusier and Vallini chairs and the oak Stickley table. He even notes that an over-sized closet has been turned into a “micro-gym full of glinting metal, dead weights, and counter pulleys.” He points out such signifiers as a photograph of bare buttocks over the air conditioner. He feels this interior echoes the affective environments of late seventies and early eighties discos, and finds symbolism in the hard, lean, and taut fixtures and furniture. Not just as an analogue to a masculine ideal, as you might expect, but also as a power statement similar to such modern glass, steel, marble, and leather lobbies as that of the Grand Hyatt, among other corporate buildings.
It seems to be that these descriptions not only have surprisingly similar points of view, but also suggest there is, or ought to be, an identifiable aesthetic. I would venture to say we can organize these and other, similar observations into three loose categories: hints and clues; seduction and sensuality; and subversion and appropriation. Any one, or more, of these elements can be in play at a given time and can exist between as well as within objects.
Clues and hints are probably the easiest to characterize, even if it is most susceptible to fad and fashion. The category might have been called dropping beads or hairpins, which can be visual as well as verbal. Henry Urbach, in the not so different context of discussing how shelter magazines describe gay interiors to (presumably) straight audiences, comments: “In portraits of gay domestic space, décor offers clues: Safro and Epstein display an early 20th century goache entitled ‘Victorian Sisters’ in their Manhattan town house. Bill Ryall and Ted Porter … have multiple books on Michelangelo, a painting based on a Walt Whitman poem, and a copy of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse by the bed. Machedo & Silvetti have marble obelisks and male torsos everywhere, along with books on Pasolini, Horst, and Mapplethorpe.” About such clues and hints, Dyer observes, “Typifications (visually recognizable images and self-presentation) is not just something wished on gay people but produced by them…. Visibility, and hence typicality, means that is easier for gay people to meet others.” An historical example might be when Guilio Romano designed and built the Palazzo del Tel in Mautua for Federigo Gonzoga. Romano includes an interior design of erotic frescoes. As Penguin’s Dictionary of Architecture notes, “One room gives a key to his strange personality: one door and no windows and the walls and ceiling are painted to represent the Fall of the Titans, so that the shape of the room is entirely effaced and the visitor finds himself engulfed in a cascade of boulders and gigantic nude figures some 14 feet high.” I’ll also draw a recent example from The Village Voice. In an interior design section, a photograph of Kevin Viverata’s apartment is captioned: “New Orleans bordello chic on the Lower East Side”. The accompanying text reads in part: “His living room walls are painted a deep dried-blood color … and there are lots of surprises, like the three tiny Tom of Finland prints, exquisite as cameos, between the windows, and the rococo chandelier mounted over the curvaceous, if sagging, sofa.” It’s not a surprise to learn that one of the carpenter-hair colorist’s clients is RuPaul.
Seduction and sensuality cover everything in design and decoration that appeals to the senses in general and puts you in the mood in particular. Often prey to fashion, it can be deep upholstery one decade and steel and leather the next. It also involves a sense of theatre. Dyer stresses the sensuality of gay design: the tactility and patterning of fabrics or the careful placement of objects. He suggests that such choices are “associated with femininity in our culture. We know these men are gay because we see aspects of them in some sense feminine.” Michael Bronski sees the gay sensibility as the “broadening and extension of sexuality.” Eye Q’s own David Revere McFadden suggests that you can separate straight design from gay design because straight design tends toward the British styles, while gay design tends toward the French ones. Background versus backdrop; a setting against a set; not something to frame your life, but to provide a proscenium arch. This is useful if it is taken as a metaphor and not a literal fact.
The third category – subversion and appropriation – is my favorite. It’s camp. High camp; low camp; even straight camp. Bronski regards camp as “the reimagining of the material world into ways and forms which transform and comment upon the original. It changes the ‘natural’ and the ‘normal’ into style and wit.” In fact, Bronski seems to feel that it’s within this attitude that we see the most marked difference between the straight and gay communities. “Rather than the outer garb of gay communities, perhaps the thing that really matters as a measure of cultural identity is the technique gay men use in creating the garb. More telling than the artifacts are the aesthetic perceptions and social arrangements people rely upon to create them … what unifies them is an ironic sensibility in the construction of mask and costume.” The homosexual as bricoleur is certainly something Claud Levi-Strauss never thought of. As McFadden points out, another form of this appropriation is a certain class or type indulges in the intellectual and self-conscious pursuit of another style. He cites how gays spearheaded the Victorian revival in the seventies as an example. At its worst, this sort of appropriation can produce piss elegance, camp’s dour flip side, with its deadening sense of correctness.
I should add these categories are tentative and speculative. At the very least, they need to be applied in a more rigorous fashion. In addition, there are other issues and categories that need to be discussed. For example, is there a difference between gay and lesbian design? Did any of you notice which rooms belonged to two women sharing? The one with a lovely Eileen Grey chair? What, if any, are the effects of age, class, religion, or ethnicity on queer spaces? Does region – where you’re from as well as where you live – have any identifiable aspects? What about the influence of queer identified interiors in books, movies, theatre, and television? Will identifying or labelling such spaces or décor result in a homogenized idea of “queerness”, that is, a reduction of any real differences? The very use of space may be a question as well. By this I mean how public and private space are indicated and used, whether in public or in private, whether at a bar or in an apartment. And another potentially rich vein is to look at the results when a straights design for gays or when gays design for straights.
So the next time someone invites you over for drinks, take careful notes on the décor. I need the results for research to answer all those questions.