Now you see it, now you don’t. Or perhaps you’ve been so fooled by an unexpected illusion that you are in shock. Not only can the eyes deceive, but perception can be manipulated by smoke and mirrors. Many designers depend on that. As consumers of illusion, we buy into and savor uncertain realities. Gawking at impossible spectacle is a human habit. “Mystery invites attention,” writes Paul Gunther in Illusion in Design: New Trends in Architecture and Interiors (Rizzoli), the new book with co-author Gay Giordano. “And such attention in turn yields understanding and the joy of shared discovery.”
Illusion in Design is a real physical book—it does not come with a magic cover or trick pages—but it collects a wide range of incredible design illusions, from elaborate perspective trickery to transformative optical conceptions.
I am fascinated with illusion and illusionists—the grander, the better. So after spending time enjoying this eye-popping book, I asked its two authors to tell me about getting caught in the world of design illusion. (Their answers are combined into a single voice.)
Tell me about your inspiration for this book.
We had been thinking for some time about how to approach architecture as non-monumental—as a more impressionistic approach that explores the experience of the body and mind rather than as awe-inspiring, kneeling respect to phenomenal structures defined solely by size, décor, money spent, and function. It eventually hit us that illusion was the key to what I (GG) am most attracted to as a poet, as I say in the intro: the broken line, the cadence of shape, the overarching connection to what is going on around outside as well as in through more than just windows. Very few architects today ignore the environment and the need to respect it, so the field has redefined itself to think about not just the building, but about how the building engages community (including animal community). This worldview is what we think of as architecture’s contemporary purpose—to see beyond the standard boundaries and function of space to actually interact with the human and natural participant. And illusion is one of the portals.
Lastly, in some examples we found the idea of what the design shown leaves out as much as what is in it—allowing the viewer or user to fill the blanks or complete a design for themselves. Fernando Abellanos is a good example. “How did he do that?” “How does he get in and out of there?!”
I have always been a fan of trompe l’oeil. This kind of art addresses all the senses. How would you describe or define the headspace of the practitioners of design illusions?
They see space and form as fluid and interpretive rather than as solid, static and strictly functional. They see grace and curiosity in bending the norm and letting artistry dictate the terms of construction. One of the most exciting things we found in researching the book was that we have moved so far beyond trompe l’oeil into a world that sometimes ignores the rules or precedent. What you think you’ll be experiencing is about to change as you view these spaces. Your compass points are off.
And also, we love the many applications of illusion applied historically as practical problem-solving. Like the entasis of Greek temple columns—they [called] their sacred sites perfect even if it took a few tricks in order to assert such perfection. If you look carefully at the columns in Kevin Roche’s American Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ll see them wobble and sag due to the “honesty” of being entasis-free. Forced perspective lies behind so many solutions found in the pages.
To follow up, did you find that the creators could mentally picture their illusions as in a vision, or is there a lot more predetermination?
There is such variety here—we wouldn’t even assert that each of them thought about “illusion” per se at the creative outset, yet their solutions allowed us to find it there and invite them to agree with our take on it. So that means vision rather than predetermination. Besides, to answer that fully would require tapping into the brains of every individual in the book because their methods of visualization are so personal! But overall, these people are artists as well as architects (in the case of the architectural projects) and are part of a new generation (regardless of their ages) who are smashing walls and the entire experience of moving through space. What was once a utilitarian and obvious journey through a building is now a journey with many stops along the way to take in the details, get lost in the experience of a redefined space and, most of all, look out and see how nature and natural elements can define both the contours outside as well as inside. These projects are often a response to the natural elements surrounding the sites. In a way, nature is their client—they want to respect what nature would want a building to be if she could communicate verbally. No architect in this book has ignored the impact building has on the environment. They take it as a primary inspiration. It is, in many ways, the surrounding nature that defines the structure by determining how best to blur the boundaries that make architecture and nature often incompatible. In the end, when nature and these human habitations regard each other, they recognize each other.
Your selections are at once fantastic and comforting (in a way). I find Nina Saunders’ chair extremely natural. How do the illusionists balance functionality to dream-state unreality?
This is a quote from Nina:
I love working with chairs because we already have a relationship with furniture; our body relates to them, so our body is ahead when looking and choosing where to sit. When you manipulate these (already anthropomorphic) familiar objects, you change the meaning and they become very thought-provoking, Wild Swan was a beautiful old chair; I felt she had a story to tell, and the dividing line for me was the tension between a beautiful dance, freedom and nature versus pain, suffering, climate change. The fabric is incredibly important to articulate the beauty and expression I am searching for when creating.
Turning the page to Studio Laviani’s chest, is it meant to be an art piece or is there a functional proposition?
Yes, it is a working storage cabinet carved by a numerical control machine from a solid piece of wood. Studio Laviani’s Good Vibrations series overturns and questions classical stylistic principles such as purity and symmetry by taking that style and metaphorically zapping it with electricity for an experience that combines recognition and disorientation.
Some of what you are presenting are follies in the English sense. Why do designers make, and consumers consume, such objects as these?
We make some assumptions here: With follies, solitude and contemplation are their inferred purposes, despite often being just an extravagant point of interest in a garden. They were sometimes designed in a style that was considered exotic at the time as a sort of mini vacation. Above all, they were meant to delight and impress, even when in ruins. The small spaces in our book consider other things as well, such as the comforts of purposeful isolation from others and environmental sensitivity. Emerging Object’s 3D Mud Frontiers is a meditative space as well as an example of more sustainable and accessible construction methods. The outdoor living room by Alexis Christodoulou was inspired by what a gathering space could look like during these times that would allow us to connect with others safely in a social setting. People are as flexible as their conditions require, and architects are on it—considering what community and personal space will look like during and post pandemic. In the end, we have learned that we are all attracted to the idea of hiding and to solitude much more than we realized!
Leon Keer‘s work appears to be a fantastical gag. What was the motivation?
Leon is an example of how graffiti has once again taken its place as full-blown public art. It’s fascinating to consider that any architect who builds with exposed exterior walls should perhaps consider the inevitable desire for someone to paint it eventually. Leon Keer is one of the world’s leading artists in anamorphic street art. I’ll quote from his website: “A message seems to be present in his work. Current issues are reviewed, such as environmental concerns and the livability of this world. Leon is constantly aware of the playfulness and beauty versus the degradation around him, a contrast that he expresses and amplifies in his work and which he uses as a metaphor for life. His paintings reflect his thoughts, confronting the viewer with the diseased spirit of our times, visible decay counter-pointing a timeless longing for unspoiled beauty.” Leon has also taken us inside his walls—he has an app that allows you to literally hear inside the building. It connects Augmented Reality with the art. By scanning the painting with your smartphone or tablet, you can see how the painting will come to life. And there again an illusionistic wall painting both inside and out is far from new as the latest archeological discoveries at Pompeii reveal—just a case of the tradition being alive and well.
There also appears to be a relationship here with Claes Oldenburg’s monuments and soft sculptures. Would you agree there is a kind of neopop or ultra neoclassical sensibility?
We hadn’t thought about that, but excellent observation. Stelios Mousarris furniture and Timothy Oulton Studio show great wit to be sure. Studio X+Living makes room for neopop abundantly and the illusionistic decoration associated with post-postmodernism makes its presence felt—none better than the exquisite plaster and porcelain craft of David Wiseman.
Neopop and ultra neoclassical style serve in part to satirize society and what they feel defines us in the modern age—commercialism, power grabs, obscene status-seeking, and on and on. Objects become messages. With Claes Oldenburg, they are malleable and subject to constant change. His soft sculptures were ordinary objects but blown up into enormous sizes to make us stop and wonder what that object signifies in our everyday lives. He engaged the public with monumentality and thought provocation. The examples in our book certainly aim to make us stop and consider, but not through monumentality so much as through an invitation to join in; a way to engage the public driven by social considerations of what we love rather than what we should question. We want community while we also want isolation. We want sustainable architecture, but we also want what we want in our homes. In our examples, we have chosen projects that are fun and thoughtful while still indulging our need for comfort and the vaguely familiar. These spaces and objects invite and engage. They are not altars to artistic thinking; they are art at work in the service of life.
What is it about optical illusions that are such a turn-on, not just for architects and designers, but us all (even something like Disneyland)?
This is only a humble opinion, but we would say wonder is the guiding principle that attracts us. We know this feeling so well as children, before the world kicks the stuffing out of our expectations that we will always feel this way. For children, the fairy tale is reality. Houses dance, teapots sing, beasts are handsome, and everyone loves each other. The world is a rabbit hole filled with adventure and advice. Kids don’t care about the function of a space or what everyone is supposed to be wearing or is supposed to own. The world is community to children and, yes, mice can tie ribbons in our hair and sew our clothes. So why not permit such an approach for adults too? Why not build with stories of tilted horizons in mind? Architects are in a unique position to make wonder a reality that can be shared. You can’t avoid architecture (or furniture), so why not make it an experience in and of itself? At least some of the time!
And there is much more to discover, as even our own research revealed. Our book is an introductory threshold of what is possible today with the technologies and shifting social norms at hand as handy tools. Crossing this threshold is just a start.