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“Edge of Danger”: Electric Light and the Negotiation of Public and Private Domestic Space in Philip Johnson's Glass and Guest Houses

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Abstract:

In the first half of the twentieth century the dematerializing of boundaries between enclosure and exposure problematized traditional expectations of the domestic environment. At the same time, as a space of escalating technological control, the modern domestic interior also offered new potential to redefine the meaning and means of habitation. The inherent tension between these opposing forces is particularly evident in the introduction of new electric lighting technology and applications into the modern domestic interior in the mid-twentieth century. Addressing this nexus of technology and domestic psychology, this article examines the critical role of electric lighting in regulating and framing both the public and private occupation of Philip Johnson's New Canaan estate. Exploring the dialectically paired transparent Glass House and opaque Guest House, this study illustrates how Johnson employed electric light to negotiate the visual environment of the estate as well as to help sustain a highly aestheticized domestic lifestyle. Contextualized within the existing literature, this analysis provides a more nuanced understanding of the New Canaan estate as an expression of Johnson's interests as a designer as well as a subversion of traditional suburban conventions.

Keywords: ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING; GENDER; INTERIORS; MODERNISM; PHILIP JOHNSON; THE GLASS HOUSE

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/204191210X12875837764057

Publication date: November 1, 2010

More about this publication?
  • Interiors: Design, Architecture, Culture brings together the best critical work on the analysis of all types of spaces. The journal investigates the complexities of the interior environment's orchestration and composition, and its impact on the inhabitant from a trans-disciplinary perspective.

    The interior is the journal's central focus and contributions from interior design practitioners and theorists are welcome. The journal embraces perspectives from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, architecture, art and design history, cultural studies and visual culture, and places no limits in terms of either geography or chronology. The journal sets out to challenge divisions between theory and practice, and aims to provide an essential forum for all those with an interest in the design, history and meaning of interiors.

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