We sometimes speak of Underground Culture: productions by independent makers, groups, and communities, which were created apart from the mainstream—and often in pointed challenge to it. The most well-known application of the term underground is in “Underground films”—like the kind originally associated with Andy Warhol and other independent filmmakers. Calling them “underground” allegedly came about because of where such films were first screened: literally, in basements—though the association of “underground” with secrecy and daring (and even Dostoevsky) may have given them some cachet.
The use of the term spread, and—while it certainly had a political face—”underground” was applied to all kinds of new and experimental things happening in the 60’s and 70’s:
Underground Comics (of which Robert Crumb is the most famous practitioner)
And even a popular guide to offbeat restaurants, The Underground Gourmet
Even if you were labeled “underground”, that didn’t mean you couldn’t become famous—and Warhol, Pink Floyd, and Crumb are probably the most recognized example of that. Today marketers speak of an “underground brand” —and it’s a useful association (especially when promoting to the mainstream) to connect ones product with, in Ian Volmer’s superb phrase, “a soupçon of subversion.”
If films, music,media, and even restaurants could be “underground”, then why not design too?
By the mid-60’s, a spirit of cultural rebellion and lifestyle adventurousness was sprouting in every domain—and in just a few years designs with “experimental” color, layout, materials, and function were beginning to appear in design magazines. Ultimately, this included architecture—but buildings are expensive and clients are, on-the-whole, conservative. So this explosion of colorful creativity first manifest in interiors: after all, they’re more personal, temporary, and (compared to whole buildings) lower-budget—and thus more likely to be the sites, at least initially, for adventurous design.
A collection of these interiors was brought together for a 1972 book, Underground Interiors: Decorating For Alternative Lifestyles. It showed some of the most exciting designs to date, and the book was published by The New York Times.
Oberto Gili—still an active photographer, with a creative portfolio—started the book project for the publisher L’Esperto. When they dropped the venture, it was picked-up by the New York Times’ long-time Home Editor (and prolific author) —who no doubt (having also worked for House Beautiful, Interior Design, and Contract magazines,) was aware of the most exciting interiors then being done—and together they completed the book.
SURREALIST, RADICAL, POP, SPACE AGE…
Those are not our descriptions of the work they included in the book—they were the author’s, appearing unabashed on their contents page. While some of the designers and artistic personalities they included have fallen into obscurity, a number of them were already gaining prominence.
Before he achieved ultra-stardom in the world of fashion, Karl Lagerfeld was already making fascinating juxtapositions, as in his own apartment:
Dream, parade, or baking contest?—this Paris home offered them all at once:
The book came out at in the midst of the US space program’s most active period—and some interiors embodied that futuristic flavor:
One of the most influential designers included in the book was Gamal El-Zoghby. “Minimalism” does not do justice to the careful thought and planning he brought to each project. His modulated spaces, carpet-covered platforms, deftly-detailed built-ins, and hidden storage (designed to lower the distractions of everyday life) inspired a generation of designers—and helped create the vocabulary for multi-level living spaces.
RUDOLPH: AVANT GARDE AND TIMELESS ?
Paul Rudolph, most known for his muscular buildings, was also focused on interiors. He used his own home and office spaces as laboratories, trying out different spatial arrangements, lighting techniques, materials, and details—and, if pleased by the results of those experiments, he’s apply some of those lessons to the work he did for clients. [This was the subject of the Rudolph centennial exhibit, Paul Rudolph: The Personal Laboratory] Rudolph had a significant number of commissions for interior design, most often residential, but sometimes commercial (including an innovative dental office!)
In Rudolph’s design for a home of Mr. & Mrs. Elman in Manhattan, the walls remained unchanged—but he was able to shape the existing spaces through the placement of hanging light fixtures (of his own design) on an unexpectedly low plane, textures that flowed from floors to furnishings, and the creation of a living room that partakes more of landscaping than of traditional notions of room design.
Here’s the book’s caption, with what the author’s had to say about Rudolph’s interior:
Many of the rooms in the book (a sample of which we’ve shown above) are amusing, but also like they’re “of their time” [and maybe a bit too much so?] If “timelessness” is one of the criteria for good design, It’s hard to imagine—with some exceptions, like El-Zoghby—later designers choosing to create them.
What about Rudolph’s design?
It is nearly 50 years since he received the commission. Yes, back then, it was an era identified with “shag carpets”—and we all make fun of that. So if Rudolph were doing this interior today, he might dial-back the woolly-mammoth textures a bit.
But the room still looks striking, enticing, fun—and quite livable and flexible: a place one would like to visit and hang-out. A place that could accommodate a large party, yet maintains a sense of intimacy. A place to unwind—and a place to be theatrical. A place to shock—and a place to relax. We contend that Rudolph’s design, overall, holds-up rather well, even a half-century after its conception—another sign of a master.