Designing great interiors calls on architecture's best.

Architectural Record's annual Interiors issue is a favorite among readers both inside the profession and out. Who doesn't enjoy ogling photographs of a room's rich finishes and furnishings, such as those on display in the pages ahead? Yet frankly, even we acknowledge it's a little weird to consider interiors apart from “architecture.” Clients often divide duties between architect and interior designer, but the essential values should be no different: the artful creation of space and deployment of light; the careful designation of materials and details. Eero Saarinen, who designed chairs, master plans, and buildings of every scale in between, said he learned this lesson from his father: “Eliel Saarinen saw architecture as everything from city planning to the ashtray on a living-room table.” OK, no one designs ashtrays these days, but we still appreciate the point.

Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief
Photo © Michel Arnaud

Architects who are invited to build within existing structures—who are handed raw space they did nothing to shape—face particular challenges. Vincent James, whose Minneapolis office, VJAA, was recently honored as the AIA's Firm of the Year, used an array of spatial moves to turn a vast 5,500-square-foot glass-enclosed penthouse into an art-filled home, employing wood in creative ways to instill a sense of warmth. On the street level of a new Tokyo tower, interior designer Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall incorporated the window wall, as required by the developer, in creating a chocolate shop, but diverted attention upward with a deliciously witty ceiling, carved out of wood to look like a giant chocolate bar.

Historic buildings present their own obstacles to the interior architect, while often inspiring great ideas. When commissioned to design a culinary laboratory for the Copenhagen restaurant Noma—named best in the world by Restaurant magazine, it features a unique locavore cuisine that includes such ingredients as tree bark—the architects at GXN (the innovative division of 3XN) hit a wall. More accurately, they couldn't touch a wall, or the rustic wood columns holding up the protected 18th-century warehouse. So they designed an ingenious series of floating elements—shelves, tables—all made of locally sourced birch and spruce plywood, of course.

Similarly, BGP Arquitectura, creating a small library within the enormous 19th-century Ciudadela in the center of Mexico City, was not permitted to engage the old 3-foot-thick stone walls, but solved that problem with the elegant engineering of its light two-level intervention. And speaking of a light touch, New York–based SO-IL created offices in a landmarked cast-iron loft building in Manhattan's SoHo by shrouding the entire place—even the windows—in white scrim.

How best to honor a historic building's DNA? Lauren Rottet's interior for the Frankfurt branch of an American law firm offers one arresting model. Inside a handsome former U.S. Consulate, built by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1955, Rottet has created an exalted vision of a Mid-Century Modern interior—not slavishly reimagined, like a Mad Men set, but as a contemporary exemplar of lustrous minimalism.

You might argue that the São Paulo photography studio we feature doesn't quite belong here because Studio MK27 designed the entire building. But in wrapping a stripped-down industrial shell around a stunning space—and allowing that interior to open to a private urban garden—the architects have created a magical place, one that is both backdrop for photo shoots and foreground for human activity. The inside itself is like a little city, with a pair of enclosed structures anchoring each end of a long room, joined by a slender concrete bridge.

Designing interiors isn't just about furniture and finishings or dead white space. Come on inside and see architectural ingenuity at its best.