Interior Design and Masculinity
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Interior Design and Masculinity

Interior designers need to know what makes an interior masculine and why certain forms are associated with masculinity.

Gender is a social construction. Society presents us with acceptable models of masculinity and femininity and these teach us how to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Traditionally, men were expected to be rational, assertive and active; women were expected to be emotional, caring and nurturing.

When someone says ‘gender’ most people think of femininity, but masculinity is a social construction too. Interior designers need to know what makes an interior masculine and why certain forms are associated with masculinity. This is an interior by a design firm in California. It’s stereotypically masculine, with a functional, factory-like space built on a steel frame, with Modernist furniture. It features Le Corbusier’s Grand Comfort armchair. Modernist design is perceived as inherently masculine.

‘Masculine’ interiors

Designers are influenced by traditional notions of gender, so I now want to explore some ‘masculine’ interiors. Radio City Music Hall is an entertainment venue at Rockefeller Center in New York. The building is a palace of mass entertainment in the Art Deco style, the style of the Jazz Age. The artistic director was Donald Deskey, who oversaw every aspect of the interior design. He designed a private apartment for the owner of Radio City, Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel. Art Deco was a glamorous, deluxe style, but this interior is clearly masculine, with monumental furniture in dark leather.

Radio City included a men’s smoking lounge. This was a space that women weren’t allowed to enter; it was a private male space. The scheme included a mural by Stuart Davis (1932). The title is a quote from Hemingway, Men Without Women. The imagery is entirely masculine in theme: sailboats, cigars, cards, pipes etc. It features the largest Havana cigar in the history of Western art – it’s rather phallic. The space was designed to exclude women; it was a bastion of masculinity.

Modernism was perceived as a masculine style because it was rational and scientific. This is particularly true of the Maison de Verre, or House of Glass (1928-32), an important Modernist house in Paris. It was designed by Pierre Chareau, an interior designer working in Paris. This was designed as a house and medical clinic for Dr. Jean Dalsace and his wife.

The client bought an 18th century house in Paris and decided to completely rebuild it. However, the upper storey was owned by someone else, so the architect developed a radical solution. He used scaffolding to support the upper storey and cut the old house out of the street; then he built a new house in the gap. It’s called the Maison de Verre because it has a translucent façade executed in glass brick.

The house was built for a doctor and included a medical surgery on the ground floor. The design has been seen as a surgical metaphor. The diseased flesh of the street has been cut away with surgical precision and the wound is held open by the glass screen, which allows light to flood in and transfuse the space. In a metaphorical sense the light has a healing, curative affect. However, Jean Dalsace wasn’t just any type of doctor, he was a gynaecologist. His area of expertise was the female body. Feminist design historians have argued that the house is a metaphor for male science and rationality curing the female body.

The house features some of the most severe of all Modernist interiors because it makes use of industrial fixtures. This is the stairwell. The glass façade floods the interior with cold, white light and the rigid geometrical grid looks very stark. There are industrial rubber tiles on the floor, which are very unusual in a domestic setting; they give it a very institutional atmosphere.

This is library. Here the aesthetic is softened with books and furniture with coloured, abstract designs, but it still has rubber floor-tiles and metallic fixtures. The living space is punctuated by industrial beams because the house is built on a structural steel frame. The living room features a staircase running up to the library. The staircase is very clinical and sterile.

Modernism was a supremely rational style. The lighting within the house was regulated from a central console, which allowed each space to be illuminated individually. This can be seen as an obsessive attempt to achieve control over the whole environment.

The glass facade flirtatiously reveals and conceals the interior. In the same way, the interior is divided by sliding screens of glass or perforated metal. A passage leads to the doctor’s surgery. It has another wall of glass blocks, but there’s also a strip of transparent glass to permit a glimpse of the garden court. So again, the house is playing with vision, alternately concealing and revealing. This is the bathroom, which is very clinical. It’s surrounded by a perforated metal screen.

The Maison de Verre was designed as a house and gynaecological clinic. It was used by women, but the aesthetic seems very cold, rational and masculine. The design has been interpreted as a metaphor for male science curing the female body.

These examples demonstrate that there is such a thing as a masculine aesthetic, and it has been used in interior design. However, we also have to recognise that throughout history, interior design has been seen as inherently feminine. This stems from the long-held conviction that a woman’s place is in the home. The domestic ideal of the 1950s revolved around a man who went out to work and a woman who stayed at home and did the domestic chores.

Adverts of the period reinforced the idea that the home was woman’s domain. An article called ‘The Good Wife’s Guide’ was published in Housekeeping Monthly (1955). It features instructions on how to be the perfect wife - according to the conventional gender relations of the time. This involves being totally subservient to one’s husband, accepting his authority unquestioningly and maintaining the home as a haven. This means that the home, the domestic interior, has always been perceived as a feminine space.

On one hand, this means that the home was a kind of gilded cage, a luxurious prison in which women were kept. On the other hand, it also means that the home was woman’s domain and within this domain, she had a certain amount of power. The man was still the master of the house, but it was the woman who was responsibility for maintaining it - she decorated it; she designed it.

For this reason, interior design has often been seen as a feminine profession. Throughout the history of design, there’s been an assumption that architecture is masculine, because it’s rational and technical. Interior design is seen as feminine because it’s pretty and decorative.

Interior design on TV

This is reinforced by the way that interior design is represented on TV. There’s a range of interior design makeover shows including:

• Changing Rooms

• 60 Minute Make-over

• Mad About The House

The public’s perception of interior design is largely shaped by these programmes and they probably inspire a lot of people to become interior designers, so it’s important to consider how they represent the profession. In these programmes, the designers are usually women, reinforcing the idea that interior design is feminine.

If male designers are featured, they’re usually gay. Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen is flamboyantly camp; he dresses like an Edwardian dandy. Colin and Justin are a gay couple. Their programmes are simultaneously soap operas about their relationship.

Overall, these programmes portray interior design as a feminine profession, something that straight men aren’t concerned with. In doing so, they perpetuate the myth that a woman’s place is in the home.

Another example is Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which involves a squad of gay men invading a straight man’s home and teaching him how to be more stylish,more sophisticated. The programme perpetuates the idea that gay men have a heightened awareness of style, culture and personal hygiene, and that straight men are Neanderthals.

It’s hard to decide if this programme is progressive or reactionary. By associating gay identity with interiors, is it creating a space in which gay identity can be expressed, or is it domesticating gay identity, sanitising it and making it socially-acceptable? The programme seems to confine gayness to clearly-defined, controllable interior spaces. It creates a space where gay identity is permitted, but this exists behind closed doors.

Bachelor pad

Traditionally, men have been excluded from interior design; the interior is seen as a feminine space. However, there are exceptions to this rule and they’re very revealing. One exception is the bachelor pad. A bachelor pad is a house or flat in which a bachelor or single man lives; it usually supports a playboy lifestyle. During the 1950s and 60s, the bachelor pad was considered one of the ultimate status symbols for a young aspirational man.

A typical pad included a bar, modern artwork, designer furniture, minimalist decór and a hi-fi system. It reflected his awareness of culture and the arts, but also acted as a lure for female visitors. This image was circulated in American men's magazines like Playboy and Esquire during the mid-twentieth century. The ‘bachelor pad’ became an icon of high-living modernity. The bachelor pad became a symbol of the 1950s cosmopolitan male. It was a place where men could luxuriate in masculinity.

Fictional representations of the bachelor pad can be seen in films like The Pad and How to Use It, Pillow Talk and James Bond films. These all depict male playboys who operate out of stylish bachelor pads.

The bachelor pad lifestyle was circulated in magazines like Playboy. Playboy was founded by Hugh Hefner, who styles himself as a James Bond figure. He lives in the ultimate bachelor pad, the Playboy Mansion. This is in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles. It was designed in the Tudor-Gothic style by Arthur R. Kelly in 1927. Hugh Hefner bought it for $1.1 million in 1971. He’s since spent fifteen million dollars expanding it.

The mansion is a male fantasy-land, defiantly masculine in its design, but populated by an army of semi-naked women known as Playboy Bunnies. The house became notorious during the 1970s through media reports of Hefner's lavish parties. The entrance features a brass plaque with the inscription Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare (‘If You Don't Swing, Don't Ring’).

The architecture is reminiscent of an English manor house, self-consciously masculine. The interior is lined with dark wood panelling, very sober and masculine. It’s like a boardroom or private clubhouse. Juliet Kinchin wrote an essay called ‘Interiors: nineteenth-century essays on the “masculine” and the “feminine” room’. She argued that dark, wood-panelled rooms are masculine.

As a male pleasure-ground, the house boasts masculine luxuries like a games room, which is in a separate building on the north side. This room has arcade games, pinball machines, a jukebox and a television. The most notorious room in the complex is the grotto, a fake subterranean cave with a pool. When in use it would be filled with romping naked girls, a Bacchanalian erotic fantasy.

In the 1950s, the chic, gadget-laden ‘bachelor pad was a recurring icon of hedonistic, masculine consumption, but later bachelor pads are often stereotyped as being messy, with dirty dishes and clothing strewn on the floor. They often disgust the women involved with the men living in them. A famous representation of this is the sitcom Men Behaving Badly, which was about two male slobs living in a flat together. A more recent example is the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show. These programmes depict a retrograde notion of masculinity.

Man cave

If the design of the home is controlled by women, men sometimes struggle to express themselves through design. This has given rise to a trend of men retreating into a ‘man cave’. A man cave is a male sanctuary within the home. It’s a space where men can do as they please without fear of upsetting female sensibilities. Paula Aymer of Tufts University calls it the ‘last bastion of masculinity.’

The term man cave is a metaphor – it has connotations of retreating to a more primitive, primal space and reverting to a regressive notion of masculinity, the caveman. The general design trend is to take traditional male spaces like garages and basements, and equip them with accessories like fridges, vending machines, giant TVs, musical instruments and pool tables. A man cave might also be fitted out with a bar and sporting memorabilia. This is man cave sign that you can buy online. The website says it’s ‘perfect for anyone who has a bar or a special den, family room, garage, patio, deck or anywhere friends gather.’

Man caves have multiple purposes: they're a place to be alone, to be away from women and to indulge in male activities. As we’ve seen, the wife has authority over the home in terms of design. A man cave is a reaction to feminine domestic power.

Conclusion

In conclusion, gender is a social construction. Society presents us with acceptable models of masculinity and femininity. It is possible to design a ‘masculine’ interior (Modernism is seen as a masculine style), but the ethos that a woman’s place is in the home has been dominant. For this reason, interior design is often seen as a feminine profession.

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Comments (11)

Remarkable presentation, Michael. I have a habit of first assessing a male domicile for its female qualities. I find it quite revealing!

very educational and very good to know, I always love your historical perspective on the pieces you write

LMAO... why should men get a 'Man cave'? Don't you think we give more than enough letting them sit for hours in front of the TV fire gazing? Letting them run speaker, home cinema, computer cables, all over the house? ... I am just jealous, I wanted to be a man, I fight stereotypical comments daily. But getting back to your wonderful article, I actually love masculine design and feel more at home with straight clean lines and statement colours. The Radio City smoking lounge decor is fantastic and right up my street, well taste wise anyway. I have no complaints with phallic cigars and the pony adds the perfect touch. The colours are the same as the ones I am currently doing in my lounge to go with very masculine brown leather sofas... I get frustrated with society rules on what we should be like, so I do everything opposite to what is expected, good job I wasn't born before the 1920s.

Thanks Lisa. This article is a sketch for a lecture I'm doing next week. As an introductory lesson, it only examines conventional gender roles, but of course these are just stereotypes and there are plenty of people who don't conform to what is expected. I'm going to do an article on alternative forms of masculinity soon, looking at people like David Bowie. Coincidentally, my lounge is in the same colours, since I'm attempting to achieve an Art Deco style. It's not quite as lavish as Roxy Rothafel's place, however . . .

Well I was going to make a profound comment here, but it would appear Lisa has said it all. I love what is considered to be masculine decor, so this has been a real interesting article, along with it's feminine sister article. More good stuff from the master yet again !!

Remarkable as always, Michael. It's disheartening, however, to see Radio City; in the last 20 years the place is falling apart in many respects, and it would seem that more money needs to be poured into the budget for upkeep and repair. Voted and appreciated.

stairs would be a big problem for me now, I just would not be able to do them

The colours are fantastic, I had to find masculine material in the colours, textures and bold shapes then get a company to make me some curtains! I have a large bay window (:-() would rather have a flat window and blinds! Hope the lecture is a success.

Such an extensive discussion. Now I understand why I have a room with all my stuff inside which I like. It's my cave, I'm a cave man.

Thanks, Patrick. I hope nothing I wrote was offensive!

I have Fran's Cave - the kitchen and most mean are not allowed. Designed to be masculine with the big boy's toys. I also like this article, beautiful presentation and it makes sense..voted

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