For those of us who took the NCIDQ exam in its early years, the history section was a rigorous test—and one that broadened knowledge of the history of art and design, putting it into the context of the practice of design. Now that the history section is no longer part of the exam, we need to look for new places and events to discover the past and learn from it.
Recently I had the chance to visit Boston for the IIDA New England Chapter conference DesignBoston. While in the city of my youth, a number of things made me reconsider the role of history in our profession—and what we can learn from it—as interior design goes forward in the twenty-first century.
A major portion of DesignBoston was a presentation and follow-up discussion with Eames Demetrios, the Director of the Eames Office, on "Taking Pleasure Seriously: Eames Design." Demetrios, the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, is an accomplished designer, author and filmmaker who has taken charge of keeping the integrity of Eames design and expanding his grandparents' vision.
His presentation covered highlights of the Eames approach to product design and their investigation of "interesting things" that served as inspiration for their designs. He also talked about their relationships with their clients—especially Herman Miller—and their lifelong pursuit of surrendering to the design process and keeping the work (and the result) imbued with a passion for life and pleasure in design.
Eames also reviewed the history of the relationship between the Eames office and Herman Miller and how both designer and client pushed the envelope in developing new materials for use in the manufacture of seating. The Eames' were always aware of the limits of technology and the manufacturing process but moved beyond the techniques of the day to collaborate with the manufacturer to produce multiple units of each of their sculptural designs. Perhaps that is why the Eames catalogue seems so contemporary and fresh today more than fifty years after the introduction of the shell chair.
Another Boston journey that emphasized the importance of history was a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a faux 15th century Venetian palazzo located in the Fens section of Boston's Back Bay. Opened in 1903, the museum is an example of a singular vision—that of its builder and designer, "Mrs. Jack" Gardner. Each room is a vision of the way "Mrs. Jack" designed it—with its own specific collection of architectural details, fine arts and furniture.
Mrs. Gardner's eclectic tastes include mixing masterpieces from different eras into "pleasing compositions and spaces" containing elements that she felt supported each other. She also "mixed and matched" artists as diverse as Asger Jorn, an early 20th century Danish artist known for his etchings, medieval wood carvings, and the dramatic and florid renaissance work of the Italian master Titian.
To add to the eclectic nature of each room, Mrs. Gardner only chose to label a few works—feeling that the arrangement and ambiance in each room was more important for the visitor than knowing the name of each artist. The museum is the only private art collection in the world in which the building, the collection and the installation are the creation of one individual—a person whose taste was like no other.
The Museum has remained virtually untouched since the founder's death in 1924, and the three public floors surround a formal garden courtyard with changing floral displays denoting the seasons. The only major change to the contents was the brazen theft in 1990 of thirteen masterpieces including works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. The crime remains unsolved, and the empty frames in the galleries are a mute testament to the crime's effect.
The experience of learning more about extremely creative designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Isabella Stewart Gardner is critical to our understanding of the history—as well as the current practice—of design. Without a connection to the past, and an appreciation of the lives and works that have gone on before us, we are diminished as designers.
Eric Engstrom, FIIDA, is president of IIDA, and founder and president of Engstrom Design Group (edg), San Rafael, CA. IIDA is headquartered in suite 13-500 at the Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL, and can be reached at (888) 799-IIDA; www.iida.org.