Far Beyond The Textbook
Places 11 years ago No Comments


contributed by Denise Homme, PhD., ASID, FCSD, IDEC, IIDA, AIA Allied [DISD program director / practicing professional / itinerant traveler]

I recall the first time I opened a textbook on the history of interior design and looked – really looked – at a color photograph of the largest room in the Château de Versailles – the Hall of Mirrors. At the time, I was an undergraduate student and farbeyond-title.gifhad not yet taken my first trip to France. Inspecting the photograph, I found myself recalling an image that had been shown in class as well as what had been said in our lecture earlier that day. The center of political power in France during the 17th Century, Louis XIV’s lavishly appointed château at Versailles was an opulent backdrop for the French monarchy’s most grandiose celebrations. Imagine my reaction, however, when I visited Versailles and actually stepped, for the first time, into the Hall of Mirrors. It wasn’t until then that I realized that a photograph in a design history book is most definitely worth a thousand words.

Suitcases Packed…

When I gazed at that photograph on the open page of my book years ago, it didn’t take too much imagination to conjure up the subtle rustle of richly embroidered silks, the heady aroma of musky French perfumes, and the overwhelming sparkle of candlelight falling from the immense crystal chandeliers – streaming light shattering over and over into a million sparkling reflections in the Hall’s 357 mirrors. Although my imagination was actively engaged, this vicarious experience was no comparison to the real thing.

In possibly one of the greatest essays ever written on travel, author Pico Iyer accurately describes how I felt that day as I rounded a corner and entered Versailles’s great Hall of Mirrors. According to Iyer, travel is as an inexplicable event that “whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head”. You can read Iyer’s complete essay here. (Yes, Pico…that’s the feeling.)

Since then, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to travel abroad to recreate those types of exhilarating experiences. In addition to discovering the delightful nuances of cultures different than my own, the elation I’ve felt investigating some of the world’s most compelling time capsules of design history has significantly deepened and broadened my understanding and appreciation of the architectural and decorative arts.

The subtle patina of the wall paintings in the Villas of the Mysteries at Pompeii, the achingly sumptuous ornamentation of Napoleon’s Grand Salon , the delightfully exquisite use of pale sky blue and terra cotta in Robert Adam’s classic Etruscan Dressing Room at Osterley Park – how incredibly enjoyable it is (and not unlike Alice Through the Looking Glass) to step inside the flat, two-dimensional photographs I’ve seen in my interior design history books and have them spring to life!

Cameras Ready…

Is travel really that important to an understanding of interior design” In my opinion, interior design history is essentially an examination of the phenomenon of social thoughts and preoccupations expressed through designed objects and surfaces.

The creative mind that devised the interior of de Montefeltro’s Studiolo in Urbino, Italy, for example, approached the design of the interior with a new method of thinking that was first realized in the Renaissance. The idea of using astrological and musical instruments as devices to visually associate the Studiolo as a place for study and contemplation was an entirely new approach to thinking about interior space.

While interior designers of the present century have no problem understanding this association, it’s important to contextualize the social impact of the original idea and, especially, to acknowledge how “modern”, progressive and unique the concept was at the time.

Though the outfitting of interior space has been actively pursued since antiquity, it’s important for students of interior design to keep in mind that what we consider history’s most notable interiors were not created using the same set of intellectual standards and professional guidelines we presently use when creating an interior space. Granted, an outstanding interior today – like that of some of the finest historical interiors – remains the result of collaboration between the creative thoughts of the designer and the work of highly skilled craftsmen. But, as creative vision has unfolded along the timeline of history, so have people’s ideas about appropriate methods or approaches to expressing – visually – the social aspirations of the time.  

Seatbelts Fastened…

The opportunity to experience the aspirations of some of design history’s greatest and most inventive thinkers and craftsmen is one of the unique qualities of travel. Travel offers an unequaled plethora of sights, sounds and cultural experiences so rich and far ranging that they can never be fully realized or explained in a textbook.

When you travel to London you can examine the intricate carvings and outrageous size of the Great Bed of Ware. As you circle down the stone staircase to its well-appointed kitchen, you can experience the sound of water lapping against the lower walls of the château Chenonceau as it floats – or so it seems – on the waters of the River Cher. You can run your hand over the moss-covered cobble and sun-bleached thatch of an Irish cottage before you go inside to warm your hands near a glowing fireplace. You can look upward into the massive dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral and stand in the very same place on the marble floor that the original designer stood centuries ago. It’s all there; a few thousand miles away; waiting to be discovered and experienced.

I can think of no better way than travel to discover, not only the world’s great design treasures but, perhaps more importantly, my own sense of design. As Pico Iyer so eloquently wrote in his travel essay, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate”.

Although Iyer’s reference to self-discovery is not directly linked to the study of interior design, I personally believe international travel is essential to developing ones personal sense of “fit” as a designer of interior environments. To this end, I make it possible for design students, their family and friends to discover themselves by experiencing the world of design through travel.

Minds Wide Open…

Each year I organize an international travel adventure for travelers (18 years of age or older) who are interested in learning about historic interiors, the decorative arts and architecture. Although design is our primary focus, I always plan my travel adventures so that anyone joining our travel group is able to enjoy a mix of sightseeing, learning, culture, and leisure time. (You’ll see just a glimpse of some of the things we discover in our travels in the photographs accompanying this article.)

In 2009, our travel group experienced some of Ireland’s design history during our stops in Dublin, Waterford, Blarney, Kilkenny, Galway and the Aran Islands. In 2008, we visited France; spending time in Paris, Chartres, and Tours, where we toured some of the most notable châteaux of the Loire Valley.

In 2010, we’ll be traveling to Spain to see the inspirations of the country’s foremost designers (including the work of Antoni Gaudí) with stops in Seville, Cordoba, Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona. If you have an interest in joining us for the 2010 interior design travel adventure to Spain (May 15 – 23, 2010), please email me at to obtain more information and to request a digital version of the travel itinerary. Bon voyage!