Every Room Tells A Story/ Design Is
In 2001, even before September 11, the shrinking economy was taking its toll on the design press in America. First to go was ultra glossy One, which had extensive Web and print media presence. With its slick photography, light content, and unfortunate subtitle, "Design Matters," One attempted to be the Cosmopolitan of the design press, seeming only to prove that design didn’t matter. On the other side of the spectrum, the long-running scholarly journals Design Book Review and Assemblage ceased publication. In the professional press, Interiors—the magazine that launched the career of critic Arthur Drexler, had George Nelson on its masthead and spun off ID—folded without warning after 113 years of continuous publication.
Two magazines that, not coincidentally, appeared to flourish during this difficult year, Nest and Metropolis both published their first books, compilations that amount to the greatest hits of both magazines. Every Room Tells A Story: Tales from the Pages of Nest Magazine offers a sampling of the many strange birds that Nest has sheltered. Domesticity is the subject, but the magazine’s perspective is anything but quotidian. From fashion designers to the rural poor, world famous artists to cross dressers from the 60s, Nest peers into their domiciles, looking for insight into the particular lives of their owners and reflections on humanity in general. Simply flipping through the magazine (or the book), Nest appears decadent and occasionally exploitative of its subjects, but after deeper reading it becomes clear that the opposite is true. Nest is refreshing because, at its core, it is anti-hierarchical. Decoration, the book argues, is deeply personal, and accessible—something that we all practice. Joseph Holzman, Nest’s founder, editor-in-chief and art director, is described in the introduction as a self-taught decorator, underscoring a distinction that is made throughout the book:the defense of decoration, not design. The magazine resists the universal, mass production tendency central to modern design, and is obsessed with the unique. Design, as we know it through more mainstream publications, is made light of, almost ridiculed. They Photoshop suburban Tudor style facades on Philip Johnson’s sleek Robert Leonhardt House. The summer 1999 cover story, poking fun at Architectural Digest,shows the magazine thumbing its nose in equal part at the white-gloved elitism of society decorating.
Nest studies the celebrity designer with a literary eye. Articles such as "Andree Putman by Herself" or "Julian Schnabel, Decorator" prove that the quirkiest characters, not well-appointed flats, make the best story. In the end it is the people in Every Room that are memorable, often the least famous people, and the rooms serve as lenses through which we learn about them and ourselves. In "An Unruly Passion For Things," Harvard theologian and minister Peter Gomez confesses his lifelong obsession with coveting and collecting, a result of growing up a child of working class black parents and seeing the fine homes of the white families for whom his mother cleaned. "Casa Suzanna," a reprinted series of photographs of 1960s female impersonators on vacation, shows everyday cross dressers playing cards, eating dinner, idling by a lake, in addition to doing a bit of posing. This intersection, of people on the fringes of society engaged in the most conventional rituals of daily living, prompts us, in the least didactic way possible, to reconsider society’s and our own personal boundaries. This is what Nest is best at, giving us a fresh view of something we may have lived with our entire lives or showing us a way of living that we never would have imagined.
Metropolis magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary with the publication of Design Is…, a book which takes design very seriously. Divided into five themed sections—words, things, people, buildings, and places—the book opens poorly with a wandering letter by contributing editor Barbara Flanagan to her son, in which she speculates about the state the world in 2020. Although this gesture reveals one of the magazine’s weaknesses—over indulging authors who make up their own ‘in crowd’—Design Is… contains some wonderful, inspiring writing. Karrie Jacobs’ essay about the spontaneity and richness of street posters is one of these gems: "Around the corner from the fence… someone has repeatedly wheat-pasted a simple poignant message in crude black type on white paper: ‘My beloved was queer-bashed here.’" As is Penelope Rowlands’ reminiscence about a meeting with Charlotte Perriand is another:
She believes firmly that less is more, decrying "consumer society" and constant coming back to the importance of simplicity, even for kids. ‘I’ve seen children playing with dolls made of rags more happily than they would with all those Barbies,’ [Perriand] says. ‘The more they have, the less they’ll be happy. That’s why I’m for limiting things. So that we can breathe freedom.’
This personal insight, unlike that in Nest, gives us more to reflect on about design than it necessarily does about Perriand. Metropolis is more interested in grand narratives than Nest. For example, James Howard Kunstler’s "Interview with Jane Jacobs" reminds us of the brilliance of Jacbos’ seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities, and shows how woefully inadequate current urban models, such as New Urbanism, are at even approximating the vitality of city life. "When we are faced with the task of fixing up a riverbank—and many American cities are on rivers—we have to put in theme parks, ballparks, aquariums, all this stuff. In Europe they make granite embankments with a ramp or stairs down to the water, and it’s beautiful,"Jacobs notes, with her characteristic clarity of vision.
The roster of names in Design Is… is extremely impressive, perhaps to a fault. Practically every page is littered with names and quotes, with some thought or remark by every prominent designer of the last 25 years. While most of these quips are insightful, and some are truly worth preserving, the book could use less name-dropping and visual clutter (to take a lesson from Perriand). There are big ideas and nuanced examinations that seem a bit overwhelmed by the chatter.
Rem Koolhaas is quoted in Every Room Tells A Story, saying, "You want many more nests, but not nest forever. It is a corrective, a temporary breach, an opening… If nest is a manifesto, it is hoped that it will end, suddenly, like the Surrealists’ reviews. Then it can assume its future as legend." At a time when so many publications are failing these two privately held magazines have been able to survive. Their contrasting lessons, to value the individual and the universal ideal, augment our understanding of how to live and build.