Hard truths about design, past and present

by Patricia Cove
Posted 10/8/21

In the fall, the Sunday edition of the New York Times publishes a magazine supplement that focuses on design.  As the topic is a broad one, articles can range from antique Italian jewelry to the gardens of France, to the architecture of  Mallorca. The stories are always fascinating and often quite thought provoking.  But it was an article in this fall’s edition that I found to be most intriguing.

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Hard truths about design, past and present

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In the fall, the Sunday edition of the New York Times publishes a magazine supplement that focuses on design.  As the topic is a broad one, articles can range from antique Italian jewelry to the gardens of France, to the architecture of  Mallorca. The stories are always fascinating and often quite thought provoking.  But it was an article in this fall’s edition that I found to be most intriguing.

The cover screamed, in oversized pink block letters, “ THEIR WAY OR NOT AT ALL”, and then asked, “What truly inspires? Design that makes no compromises - and no apologies either.” It is not until you begin reading the article that you discover that it is about a 63 year old Swiss architect by the name of Valerio Olgiati.

I have often written about design as a profession versus design as an art, and the balance between the two. And as a lover of history, and especially the historic interiors that provide a physical document of the way people lived and socially and politically interacted, the article, and specifically Mr. Olgiati himself, challenged every design concept to which designers, especially architectural historians generally adhere. With every paragraph there was a new and staggering statement attributed to Olgiati that were actually insults to intellects of more traditional leanings.

Most designers and architects enter into this profession because they love the creative process, but also realize that they must make a living. So a balance must be achieved between the expression of creativity, and the complete satisfaction of the client. That concept is not part of Olgiati’s lexicon. He does not take commissions or work with anyone who does not adhere to his strict vision of creating austere buildings and interiors made of concrete, and eschew any references to history or place. He takes this stance steps further, stating that designers and architects who do not create something truly new lack talent and imagination, reiterating his opinion that “historical context is dead.”

The article contains several photographs of Olgiati’s work, all of his signature material. We’re talking concrete……everywhere….walls, floors, ceilings, staircases, with the only differentiation being the structure's shape and form.  Take for example his vacation home, Villa Alem, located in Portugal.  It is of greyish beige concrete in the shape of an open cardboard box.

Certainly fascinating.  Even the interior furnishings are made of concrete. Olgiati states that the stark effect is softened by velvet sofa cushions that provide “Just the right texture and amount of relaxation.”

OK.

It is at this point that this article could definitely take a cynical turn.  But I will “contain” myself.

As a young architectural historian, I really disliked “modern” architecture, but as time went by, I began to truly appreciate its reverence to nature, innovative building materials, and creative floor plans. There were many qualities that appealed to many people and modernist architects designed many architecturally significant structures that are not only innovative, but welcoming, warm and comfortable. So, I question, could I also come around to appreciating the concrete structures of Valerio Olgiati? Extremely “hard” to say. (Sorry). The incorporation of warmth, comfort and familiarity has always been integral in all my designs. I can’t even imagine suggesting a sofa made of concrete to any of our clients. Does that mean, as Olgiati says, we lack talent and imagination?  I hope not.

Philadelphia is full of intelligent, sophisticated, and savvy individuals, who appreciate the intellectual humility that Olgiati seems to be lacking. But hey, he just accepted a commission to build a Los Angeles apartment building for the recently separated Kanye West. That says something…….right?

Alright, I just incorporated the cynicism that I promised I wouldn’t. So I will close with some questions that I often ask myself when taking on a new project. What is more important, being true to your own design aesthetic at the risk of losing an important commission, or agreeing to a client’s design idea knowing it is not the right choice? Should the historically intact interior of a significant structure be gutted to create a trendy “open floor plan”, or should efforts be made to save and/or replicate important architectural detail that provides historic reference to the way we once lived? What is more important, comfort and familiarity in design or statement making with “Starchitect” status?  Olgiati has answered these questions quite definitively.  I am not so sure, except to say that the most successful projects contain a little bit of all of the above.  Project success comes from the ability to do that.

If you have the chance, I would highly recommend reading the article in the September 26th issue of the New York Times Style Magazine “Design and Luxury.”  It is a thought provoking tome, and the varied approaches that designers and architects take when given the opportunity to express their own aesthetic. And if you ever have the chance to visit one of Olgiati’s designs, take a soft pillow.

Patricia M. Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and completes projects in both historically significant structures and buildings of the 20th and 21st Centuries, and can be reached through her web site, www.patriciacove.com.

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