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A magical world of sensuous surfaces

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Encyclopedia of Interior Design Edited by Joanna Banham. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. 2 volumes, 1448 pp. £175

But what is Interior Design? It all began a century ago as 'an acceptable pastime' for middle-class ladies, we read under 'Interior Design' - its self-referential entry in the middle of this substantial body.

Clearly what we have here is not a body of knowledge, not a demarcated portion of human endeavour: it is an attitude. Such a fantastic opportunity to produce a genuinely original work is only partially grasped. Typically, the entry on Le Corbusier focuses too much on the conventional tale to do justice to his notions of interior space, colour, furniture and wall coverings. (And it is not a Bugatti he compares with the Parthenon; he illustrates a Delage.) It is amusing, however, to see that chaise-longue unambiguously captioned as by Charlotte Perriand alone (in this instance accompanying an unusually good essay).

So Interior Design is a position. Defined here by Wells alongside Nigel Coates (though no sign of his rca predecessor Hugh Casson); James McNeill with Rex Whistler; Augustus Pugin next to Andree Putnam (the one's 'early commissions' coming when aged 15, the other when 59); David Hicks beside High-Tech.

First are the biographies. It is great to find Cottier and Crace rubbing shoulders with Cockerell and Chambers; we can sense why Vanburgh and not Wren - but I wonder why no Palladio? His progressions of perfect geometric interior spaces are wonderfully layered with meaningful (and often visually ambiguous) surface decoration, just as are Mackintosh's. The 'Architect' entry tells us 'there is no reason to suppose Palladio was consulted about the decoration in his villas'. Reading Palladio, Book 2 provides obvious enough reason.

That same entry, discussing 'the concept of total design', explains the tremendous preponderance of the men of 1900 - Eliel Saarinen, Baillie Scott, Norman Shaw, F O Shekhtel, Lars Sonck, ad infinitum. So there is loads of Art Nouveau (from 'Ecole de Nancy' and 'Glasgow School' to the 'Godollo' group in Hungary). Gesamptkunstwerk rules ok in id, and every articulator of surface and finish has a say. And value judgments are beautifully suspended (Tiepelo adjoins Three-Piece Suite).

Overall, it is a wonderfully fresh and often unintentional perspective, a vast and original undertaking of 525 entries by 200 authors. There are many authoratitive essays, some genuinely insightful pieces and some banalities. (I have already learned much: in future I will remember that George IV's 'talents lay in his skill in interior design'). Despite the work of two Scots (Adam and Mackintosh) on the covers of the volumes, there is an international cast of characters; but the conceptual focus is Anglo-Saxon.

Richer than the biographies are the possibilities opened by a catalogue of interior elements - from those beloved of Art Nouveau (inglenooks and so on) to those of today (bedsits and coffee tables, mix 'n' match, open- plan and room-dividers) - though we find nothing as simple as cornice, skirting or sash window. There is 'Vernacular', an odd heading here which provides a good essay; and the bizarre potential of 'Planning and Arrangement of Rooms' - a title for a volume edited by Borges. It needs the sharpness of a Robin Evans or Chris Fawcett to have fun with that; the texts here are more flat, even if that for 'Corridors' does refer to Evans' 'Figures, Doors and Passages' essay. Elsewhere, scattered without comment, are those Gillow and Sheraton drawings of rooms folded outwards and Repton's chair arrangements which Evans used to elaborate on so well. It is refreshing to see so many illustrations looking out of instead of into buildings - typified in Gaudi's Casa Battlo.

Finally, its greatest secret quality: it opens a magical world of sensual surfaces, to an extent that the seductive rules as never in a similar architectural book. If autoerotic fantasy only appears when one contributor refers to his own books as 'detailed and stimulating' (Vol 2, p911), we are overwhelmed by the erogenous zones of architecture, and their half- veiled surfaces: silks, sofas and screens, quilts, smoking rooms and passementerie (such, I learn, are the trimmings applied to upholstered furniture). We daydream with leather, mirrors, and portieres (the drapes hung over doors); on floorcloths, beneath tapestry and behind window shutters; of intarsia, ormolu and scagliola . . .

Scagliola is an entirely English historical entry; nowhere is there mention, say, of stucco lustro or even terrazzo. It is just a bit too uk/us World of Interiors, and not daring enough ('Neo Baroque' is not nearly up-to- date, despite Calloway's wonderful Baroque Baroque as a reference). But let us not carp when offered 1500 pages of frisson and enlightenment.

John McKean runs an ma in interior design at the University of Brighton

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