I have long been bothered by the distinctions we make between interior and exterior, and by the way in which architecture focuses so much on the latter. The discipline is essentially one of façades and structures, leaving the utilitas (commodity) part of the Vitruvian triad far behind. We build for the ages, caring too little about the changing patterns of daily life that take place within the rigid structures we produce. Not only that, but in our society the distinction is gendered: Men make buildings, and women have to make their own places within those structures. Almost half a century after women’s liberation started, this is still largely the situation in which we find ourselves.
A recent book, Textile Technology and Design: From Interior Space to Outer Space (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), edited by Deborah Schneiderman and Alexa Griffith Winton tries to break through that artificial distinction [Full disclosure: I wrote a laudatory blurb for the volume’s back cover]. It does so by attacking the separation between technology—which we again gender as male and associate with architectural experimentation or thoroughness—and textiles, which we think of as belonging to the feminine realm, and which we find, with rare exceptions, only on the insides of buildings.
By concentrating both on innovations in new textile weaving and material techniques, and on extreme situations in which such advances can come to the fore, the editors promote a way of making space and form that elides the distinctions between those two as well as, at times, between inside and outside.
The weakness of the premise is that it concentrates on exceptions, rather than the norm, but some of these cases are so attractive and intriguing that they should convince us to think of broader application of this weaving together of inside and outside, as well as soft and hard (it is difficult, especially in a post-Deconstructivist era, to forego such word plays).
The work, in other words, is easily dismissed as “art,” like Do Ho Suh’s ghosts of buildings woven in sheer fabric, or Ernesto Neto’s spice-filled balls of fabric suspended in galleries. At the other extreme, Schneiderman and Winton’s authors show NASA space stations and Antarctic habitats where new fabrics create lightweight, highly insulated wombs in extreme conditions.
I am more interested in the examples the various authors assemble where structure and covering, inside and outside, and comfort and engagement in a physical sense become difficult to distinguish. Margarita Benitez’s chapter on “Sensorial Space: Responsive Interiors through Smart Textiles,” has some interesting examples, although they concentrate mainly on the integration of light. Igor Siddiqui (with his strangely named firm ISSSStudio) has a more textile-proper approach, peeling and layering fabric in ways that defy our expectation that it lie there and be sensual.
What I really wish is that the promise inherent in Anca Lasc’s chapter, “Soft Spaces: From Textile-Clad Interior to Modern Interior Design,” was realized: that the long history of creating spaces lined with fabrics, from the tents that were our first dwellings, to the carpet-clad spaces of the Middle Ages, to the lavish salons of the 19th century, had not been so thoroughly suppressed and repressed by the rigid forms of modern architecture. Imagine what beautiful surroundings we could inhabit if the boudoirs and living rooms Lasc shows—their surfaces not only dripping with curtains, carpets, and valences, but their very architecture melting into interwoven patterns—had a modern equivalent.
Modern fashion has found good ways to use new textile technologies, activating clothing to communicate and to create forms that do not only follow, but also respond to and sometimes even contradict the body. Cars are becoming textile as they turn into carbon-woven shells. A large section of the architecture avant-garde has proposed fluidity as both a formal and theoretical ideal. So why can’t we just go with the flow?
The bias against forms and textures developed in the interior is deep, as is the sexism that comes with it. Even this volume cloaks itself in data and refuses the pleasure of presenting its images in a beautiful design. It is time to let go and realize that our future is interwoven, interconnected, ephemeral, and no longer made up of differences between inside and outside, solid and fluid, men and women. Only then can we truly break the boxes in which we have imprisoned both ourselves as designers and our clients as subjects, and open up new realms of sense and sensuality.