I was a young man in Rome when I fell in love with the idea of theatrical statements. I was on my way to the to top the Capitoline Hill to view Michelangelo’s stately Piazza del Campidoglio–visitors ascend ramped stairs that serve to heighten their emotions in anticipation of arriving at the plaza with its central heroic-scale equestrian figure of Marcus Aurelius – and glimpsed through the Senate House on my right, the startling sight of fragments of the colossal statue of Constantine in the inner courtyard. The hand alone is as tall as a human being. This Alice-in-Wonderland-type of experience, perfectly timed, made me see things in a new way.
I remember the anticipation I experienced before visiting Chiswick House for the first time years later, by which time I was a lover of all things designed by William Kent. I already knew of its interiors by Kent, and that it was not a grand English country seat. However I had absolutely no idea that the rooms would be so charmingly intimate. Seeing them was a special moment of recognizing that rare combination of a “big/little” house. The “bigness” of this little house is summed of in Kent’s treatment of an ordinary-sized corridor. With vision and artistry, he exaggerated the crown moulding and the woodwork of the door-surround, divided the walls into panels, and crowned the door with a bust held aloft on an elaborate corbel, giving the passage great splendor. Visitors are distracted from the narrowness of the space and participate in a theatrical show as exciting as coming upon the Constantine fragments in Rome.
Kent’s vision reinforced my feeling that no matter how small or modest they are, all homes should have some sense of drama – a little pageantry, to provoke delight and surprise. I don’t know why so many people are afraid of the idea of theatricality. Perhaps because most of us have been raised on a diet of guilt that says if something does not keep us warm or we cannot eat it, it is a willful extravagance. For me, a house is much more than a mere shelter, it should lift us emotionally and spiritually.
Entrance halls or foyers are highly significant to me. Far more than simply somewhere to wipe your feet or hang your coat, an entrance to any home is essentially a ceremonial space, a place to make an adjustment from the outside world, to close one door before opening the next, so I feel it should be clear and uncluttered; it is also a place that can be used to heighten anticipation, or whet the appetite for what is to follow. I cannot imagine a proper residence in which you are immediately thrust into the best room of the house. So when my late wife and I bought our first home in Connecticut, and found that the house had no entrance hall, we created one by using an existing space and paneling it with old wood. Not only did that simple hallway allow visitors to stop, to make the transition from their journey, but it gave the illusion that the house was larger and more important than it was in reality. An entrance hall or corridor may be one of the very few places in the house where you can be truly daring. If clients express nervousness at dramatizing the entrance hall, I remind them that they – or their guests – are in there for about thirty seconds.
The entrance hall of my former New York ballroom apartment exemplified my belief that rooms can deliver far more than mere need and practicality demand. Inspired by and ancient Etruscan tomb, it became a textbook for many of my design ideas. Nearly all the colors, textures, and shapes used in the entire apartment appeared in this area as a preview of what is to come.
From the elevator hallway visitors stepped into the oval foyer. The curved walls were plastered with the roughest of undercoats, because I believe that is the best covering for curved surfaces, while the straight surfaces were laminated in sheets of dull silvered metal. The shallow elliptical ceiling was lacquered a soft amethyst color to give it the effect of a blurred upside-down reflecting pool. The way to the living room led through one of the metal walls. Here, so that old met new, I placed an intricately carved pine Adam doorway salvaged from a stately home in Norfolk, England. In the middle of the foyer, the epicenter of the apartment, was a 9-foot-tall steel beam encased in a Doric-style plaster skin. Down one side of the column was a 2-inch-wide opening purposely showing the steel inside the casing. The bleached oak parquet floor, which ran through every room, fanned out from the column like an open book.
Much of the effect of this foyer came from a series of contrasts in which each component exaggerated the other. The yin-yang of the room was rough with smooth, architectural and illusionary, retro and futuristic. The conjunction of these disparate elements created a theatrical event, and I hoped that the daring of the deed would make viewers see anew.
The juxtaposition of opposites is always effective; it is a theme that runs through all my work. I put ancient with modern, high gloss with matte, soft with hard: an antique mirror over a contemporary table, shimmering silk curtains with unbleached linen-covered walls, a velvet sofa against a rough brick wall.
Another consciously heightened contrast that I aim to achieve when designing a house is between the walls and the glazing. In pursuing the concept of the home as a sanctuary, I feel that a room should, if possible, have a feeling of substance and permanence in order to provide shelter from a world that threatens us with constant change and ephemerality. To exaggerate the solidity of the walls, the glass should look tissue-thin.
In my enjoyment of contrast, and of challenging the expected, I sometimes buy an ordinary beaten-up wooden flat full of herbs, perhaps of chives or flowering thyme. Instead of pulling the flat apart and planting the herbs in the garden, I clean the box slightly and place the herbs on the dining-room table with silver candlesticks. Again, the juxtaposition of opposites, of rare and humble, jostles perceptions and, in this case, relaxes the mood of the dining room and the people in it. Growing an amaryllis in an old corroded pot and placing it on a highly polished console table, forcing country and city cousins to keep company, would have a similarly liberating effect and make each be seen with fresh eyes.