Last week I wrote about learning to work within the constraints of a site, but there is an alternative: you can treat an interior independently of its shell. This is called an autonomous approach, in which the original building is considered an "envelope" into which the new interior is placed. Existing site conditions have little, if any, effect on the design of the interior.
While the new interior may lack a connection to the rest of the building's design or finishing, you can create an environment where individual elements form a collection of parts that respond to each other. Travelling exhibitions are often designed this way, since the collections on show have to fit into a variety of environments. Many large retailers also approach the design of shops using this strategy - regardless of its location, each store has distinct characteristics and details that are the brand's signature. Our attention is drawn to what is inside the space rather than the surroundings.
In a home, an autonomous approach can be challenging because existing conditions can be difficult to ignore. If not planned correctly, traditional furniture can look out of place in a modern home. For clients and friends who lean toward a traditional aesthetic but have moved into a contemporary building, I recommend that they add a few modern details to bridge the aesthetic gap. Sculptural lighting fixtures can present interesting details. Finishes that might be thought of as fashion-forward can offer an exciting contrast to an otherwise conservative surrounding. Modern interpretations of traditional patterns and textures can make the most traditional furniture look up-to-date and stylish. And pieces of contemporary artwork mixed in with a traditional collection give the appearance of eclectic taste.
Modern furniture and artwork by contemporary artists can look great in any type of interior, but can be particularly appealing in traditional surroundings. Modern elements set against a background of traditional details provide a sophisticated design aesthetic. Bold finishes and colours can be modern-looking and contrast large mouldings and classic features.
Space planning, furniture groupings and aesthetic decisions that ignore the fixed conditions of an interior can look like mistakes unless the intent to allow the building to fade into the background is planned carefully. Focus must be placed on the elements inside the designed space, which will draw attention and interest.
Robert Reid is a professor of architecture, art and design at the American University of Sharjah.