Three wonderful exhibits in Houston and New York illustrate the current revival of color, pattern and playfulness in interior design. This sea change over the past decade has been a welcome relief after what felt like an eternity of Beige-Beige-White-Beige interiors.
The objects in these shows are human-scaled, detailed and intimate. They were made to be lived with, slept on, leaned against and worn. Many of them reveal a story upon close looking—and many reference each other across the centuries, a reminder that good ideas are always around (and that nothing is ever completely new).
The best exhibit is the littlest, a charming show of wallpaper at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Curated by
Cindi Strauss Christine Gervais and located in the small design galley in the Law building, “Pattern Repeat: Wallpaper Then and Now” pairs historic wallpapers (including a truly stunning design by William Morris) with contemporary examples that slyly riff on traditional patterns. Glasgow Toile by design firm Timorous Beasties takes a classic, monochrome toile and inserts moments of 21st century urban blight (a junkie; power lines; a gas station). It’s an amusing send-up of the treacly pastoral scenes that toile originally celebrated. (Indeed, the current rage for ironic toile extends to online manufacturers who make custom fabric from scenes you select.)
The MFAH show is the soul of brevity, but “Interwoven Globe” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is anything but. This massive exhibit wades into the unwieldy subject of international trade and how everybody has influenced everybody else in their textiles. See how the Chinese influenced the Europeans and the Indian subcontinent influenced the Peruvians and vice versa all around, and how the Americans struggled to catch up! Sadly, it’s a lot to swallow for a tourist with time constraints. That said, many of the textiles are stunning, and even a brief visit reveals the main point: motifs from one culture popping up in the textiles of another.
And for a visitor with access to the MFAH, there is a definite interplay between some of the objects in these two otherwise very different shows. Consider this fantastic resist-dyed panel from the Met:
And this contemporary wallpaper, by Dan Funderburgh, from the MFAH:
One object at the Met that stuck with me for weeks afterward was the Length of Bizarre Silk. This extraordinary woven silk that at first glance looks like it was designed about a hundred years ago is actually much older, from around 1700. The term “bizarre silk” refers to a brief period of lavish, asymmetrical designs based on elongated and distorted botanical motifs, from about 1695-1720.
And back at the MFAH, the Kolomon Moser show of Secessionist design features this textile, which, while much more literal, still brings the bizarre silk to mind:
Hundreds of years apart, working sometimes in different continents with very different materials, these designers nonetheless share a common visual language. These non-art exhibits are a satisfying departure from white cube contemporary galleries, and they serve as a reminder that when it comes to the objects we use every day, we’ve always spoken the same languages.
Rainey Knudson is the founder of Glasstire.