New York City became a true design capital by growing up, big and brassy. A solid foundation in colonial times drew directly from neoclassical forebears in Europe, maturing into some of America’s best specimens of Greek Revival and Second Empire buildings and interiors, the latter favored by General Grant.
Lavish interiors, funded by magnates of industry and finance, filled big rooms with lush fabrics and ornate furnishings. But the city quickly honed in on its own style: echoes of London and Paris heavily dosed with a fine hand, the latest technology, and supersize scale. Classic examples include Manhattan Arte Nouveau and, much more so, our muscular, radio-era Art Deco. Chevrons and sunbursts in lacquer, aluminum, and chrome took the city by storm, topping off such monuments as Radio City Music Hall and the Chrysler Building.
The year 1964 ushered in mid-century Space Age and groovy, Buckminster Fuller-inspired shapes and modern art. New York came to welcome Postmodern, punk and disco. The global scene flourished with the 1988 debut of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and seminal MoMA exhibits like “Mutant Materials” in 1995.
New York remains a laboratory of design, with the blobbies and minimalists all running amok. Yet the holdout traditonalists have never left either, stoking a brilliant collection of Euro-inspired décor, and keeping it forever young.
For a pictorial timeline of New York from 1780 to 2012, can be find on the following images:
1780 – 1820: Federalist, Neoclassical and More
Abigail Adams’ Home (1799), now the Mount Vernon Hotel, recently hosted haute-colonial installations by Manhattan revival doyenne, Bebe Winkler. The building was conceived as a carriage house in 1795 by Col. William Stephens Smith and Abigail Adams, daughter of President John Adams.
1815 – 1860: The Greek and Gothic Revivals
Neighborhoods achieved distinction back then with killer classicism. Wall Street’s Federal Hall (1833) became the look of capitalism, and Brooklyn got respectable by landing Richard Upjohn churches. The biggest commission: Frederick Law Olmsted unveils Central Park (1850)!
A rendering of Central Park in the 1850s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photography Division.
1860 – 1920: Victorian and Beaux-Arts Meet Big Industry
Cigar-chomping industrialists bring assembly-line arches and ornament to the masses. McKim, Mead & White’s store for Tiffany & Co. (1906) reveals the intimate side of the epic Beaux-Arts proportions evident at club row, Grand Central Terminal, and the Custom House.
The Cooper Union, 1899. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
1915 – 1935: Reaching for the Sky
Inventors of the skyscraper – apologies to Chicagoans – New Yorkers are moved by land values and ambitious notions to world-record heights, adopting fast elevators and even air-conditioning. Setback zoning (1916) yields the ubiquitous wedding-cake towers. American modern art takes root at the fabled Armory show – the International Exhibition of Modern Art (1913) – rocking the fashion and design set. In 1916, the New York School of Interior Design opens.
1925 – 1945: Deco, Baby!
The mother of modernism, Art Deco mutates into monuments like the glamorous Chrysler Building (1930), Radio City Music Hall (1932), and Rockefeller Center’s International Building (1935). When Raymond Loewy shows off his streamlined office concept (1934), Deco invades the workplace. Contract interiors are born.
The Chrysler Building, 1930, by architect William Van Alen for a project of Walter P. Chrysler. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
1940 – 1965: International Style, American-Style
Ultra-modernism invades the city at the 1939 World Fair, with iconic works by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Next stop: Park Avenue, with Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House (1952) and later Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958). It’s the toehold for new Knoll and Herman Miller showrooms, as well as power-brand interior design firm SLS Environetics, the proto-Gensler. In 1955, Sotheby’s opens an office at Bowling Green; soon after, the Guggenheim lands on Fifth Avenue.
1985 – 2000: Modern Reinventions
Modernism comes back hard with lots of new ideas, thanks to the launch of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair launch (1988) and shows like the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Mutant Materials” (1995). In 2001, terrorist attacks bring a sobering and retrenching: Green design, preservation and a gentle minimalism pervade the city’s rebuilding. Friends of the High Line is formed (1999).
ICFF launches in 1988. Photo by Max Estenger.
Friends of the Highline is formed in 1999.
2000 – Today: Color, Funk and Diversity
A varied and colorful era emerges, thanks to cultural diversity, starchitect invaders, and computer-toting blobbies like Asymptote and Karim Rashid. Our midcentury fling helps: Gensler revises Eero Saarinen’s TWA Building for JetBlue, for example (2008). Still vying for a large chunk of commissions are holdout traditionalists, epitomized by Robert A.M. Stern’s 15 Central Park West (2008), and the high modernists – among them Richard Meier’s West Village condos and Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building (2007).
Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building (2007).
Robert A.M. Stern’s 15 Central Park West (2008).