1652344625273 I 2013 Erikatempleton

The History of Design

June 25, 2014

We're reflecting on the past, learning from our mistakes, and gaining some insight on designing for longevity in the July issue of Interiors & Sources.

Human beings derive great pleasure from the new, the now, the “never-before-seen.” We praise budding young talent, and delight in the novelty of their ideas. We seek out innovation until the word starts to lose all meaning. And we always, always build toward the future.

But remember the “good old days?” Sometimes, we do. We rally to save historic buildings, and protest when they’re at risk of being torn down (see “MoMa’s Folk Art Building Safe ... for Now,” June 2014). We revere our predecessors as idols, especially after they’re gone. We show off our vintage and antique finds, marveling at how they blend with modern elements.

It’s a funny balance. There is a dead zone between the interestingly new and the interestingly old, where things become passé, worn down, “so 2005.” But eventually, if someone is there to care for and nurture the aesthetic history long enough for a revival, we celebrate the old once again, far enough away to take pleasure in the big-picture context.

But how long does it take? Where does its value come from? And who is there to save it? This month, we look back at the old but not forgotten, and hope to find some answers to those questions.

We visit the Lord Baltimore Hotel, which sat stale and stagnant for decades before Scott Sanders and the Rubell family brought new life inside its walls. We look inside The Emil Bach House by Frank Lloyd Wright—now artfully restored and available to the public, thanks to Col. Jennifer Prtizker’s Tawani Enterprises, a company devoted to preservation first and development second. And we explore the art of product preservation with Artek’s careful refresh of armchair 400 and 401 by Alvar Aalto.

I am also reminded of a recent conversation I had with design historian (and our own “Mind Over Matter” columnist) Grace Jeffers, who proudly retold her success in preserving The Wilson House, a mid-century home owned by Wilsonart founder Ralph Wilson, Sr.

At the time Grace discovered the property, she was working with the Smithsonian after having completed a master’s thesis on the history of laminates from 1947 to 1964. To her surprise and delight, many of the laminate applications in the Wilson House predated her research by five years.

She convinced Wilsonart to keep the house (which they were setting to sell), lead a full restoration of the property (which she had never done before), and ultimately helped the building become the youngest-ever National Historic Landmark. To this day, it remains the only building nominated due to its use of materials.

Grace’s incredible drive to save the Wilson House against all odds stemmed from her understanding that the work had been pioneering, she said. They were ideas that had never been dreamt of before, executed out of pure experimentation, to forge a new path. And those kinds of ideas are infectious.

Embracing our history is about celebrating pioneers, and hopefully finding the spark of inspiration to become pioneers ourselves. Ultimately our wistful appreciation of the beauty of yore is made that much brighter in juxtaposition with our modern perspectives.

Meanwhile, we’re sifting through mounds of “new” after a flurry of spring tradeshows. Check out some photos from our adventures at NeoCon, and stay tuned for more coverage in the weeks to come!

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