Edgar Allan Poe, Design Critic

A room furnished according to Poe’s “The Philosophy of Furniture” for a 1959 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (Image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Landor’s Cottage,” the author paints an idealized picture of his own New York Cottage. He describes the building in painstaking–some might even say excruciating–detail, but Poe also devotes a short paragraph to cottage’s furnishings:

On the floor was an ingrain carpet, of excellent texture – a white ground, spotted with small circular green figures. At the windows were curtains of snowy white jaconet muslin: they were tolerably full, and hung decisively, perhaps rather formally, in sharp, parallel plaits to the floor – just to the floor. The walls were papered with a French paper of great delicacy – a silver ground, with a faint green cord running zig-zag throughout. Its expanse was relieved merely by three of Julien’s exquisite lithographs….One of these drawings was a scene of Oriental luxury, or rather voluptuousness; another was a ‘carnival piece,’ spirited beyond compare; the third was a Greek female head – a face so divinely beautiful, and yet of an expression so provokingly indeterminate, never before arrested my attention.

This description doesn’t exactly match with the spartan furnishings that currently fill Poe’s cottage, nor is it likely that it corresponds with its decoration during Poe’s residency. However, it does line up exactly with Poe’s personal tastes and his very strong opinions on interior design, which he described in his authoritative, humorous, and confidently written piece of design criticism “The Philosophy of Furniture,” originally published in the May 1840 issue of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine.

In Poe’s view, the interior of the English apartment is the pinnacle of good taste. Everything else is hardly tolerable. With great wit, Poe decries the aesthetic tastes of the Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Italians, who “have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours and Dutch, who in Poe’s opinion, “ have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage.” But no culture has worse taste than Americans. Poe believes that because there’s no aristocracy to imitate or aspire to, Americans created an “aristocracy of dollars” resulting in a display of wealth in lieu of a display of taste.

Like any good critic, Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t just condemn, he offers solutions. He describes his ideal room, a place where every piece of furniture, every painting, and every fabric work together to create a harmonic space. And it all begins with the carpet. Carpet selection is of paramount importance. It is the soul of the room, for its color, thickness, and design influence everything else – “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man,” says Poe, “a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” But an ideal room is more than just carpet of course. It must be shaped to afford “the best (ordinary opportunities for the adjustment of furniture.” Poe prefers “massive” floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a veranda.

Continue reading on Smithsonian for Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture”

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From Pits and Pendulums to Pastoral Porches: Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx Getaway

The cottage rented by Edgar Allan Poe from 1846 until his death in 1849, located in Poe Park in the Bronx.
The cottage rented by Edgar Allan Poe from 1846 until his death in 1849, located in Poe Park in the Bronx.

Once upon a morning dreary, I left Brooklyn with eyes bleary, Wearily I took the subway to a poet’s old forgotten home.

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe and his young wife Virginia moved to New York City. It was Poe’s second time living in the city and just one of many homes for the peripatetic author. Unfortunately, after two years and several Manhattan addresses, Virginia fell ill with tuberculosis. With the hope that country air might improve her condition, or at least make her final days more peaceful, Poe moved the family out to a small, shingled cottage in the picturesque woods and green pastures of Fordham Village – better known today as the Bronx.

The six-room cottage was built in 1812 as worker’s housing for farm hands. Poe rented it from landowner John Valentine for $100 per year – no small sum for the constantly struggling writer who sold “The Raven,” his most famous work, for a flat fee of $8. During his time at the cottage, Poe cared for his ailing wife, who died three years after they moved in, and wrote some of his most celebrated poems, including the darkly romantic “Annabel Lee”

This modest building also served as the inspiration for the final Poe story published during the author’s life, “Landor’s Cottage,” which appeared in the June 9, 1849, issue of Flag of Our Union, four months before his death. A far cry from the tales of woe and horror Poe is widely known for, the story of “Landor’s Cottage” is quite simple: a man hiking through the bucolic setting of rural New York comes across a small house and marvels at its picturesque perfection, finding that it “struck me with the keenest sense of combined novelty and propriety — in a word, of poetry”.  What follows is the narrator’s depiction of the cottage. Warning: in the following excerpt, there’s no secret rooms, no woe-begotten protagonists or menacing visions. Just pure, straightforward, even banal description:

The main building was about twenty-four feet long and sixteen broad- certainly not more. Its total height, from the ground to the apex of the roof, could not have exceeded eighteen feet. To the west end of this structure was attached one about a third smaller in all its proportions:-the line of its front standing back about two yards from that of the larger house, and the line of its roof, of course, being considerably depressed below that of the roof adjoining. At right angles to these buildings, and from the rear of the main one-not exactly in the middle-extended a third compartment, very small- being, in general, one-third less than the western wing. The roofs of the two larger were very steep-sweeping down from the ridge-beam with a long concave curve, and extending at least four feet beyond the walls in front, so as to form the roofs of two piazzas. These latter roofs, of course, needed no support; but as they had the air of needing it, slight and perfectly plain pillars were inserted at the corners alone. The roof of the northern wing was merely an extension of a portion of the main roof. Between the chief building and western wing arose a very tall and rather slender square chimney of hard Dutch bricks, alternately black and red:-a slight cornice of projecting bricks at the top. Over the gables the roofs also projected very much:-in the main building about four feet to the east and two to the west. The principal door was not exactly in the main division, being a little to the east-while the two windows were to the west. These latter did not extend to the floor, but were much longer and narrower than usual-they had single shutters like doors- the panes were of lozenge form, but quite large. The door itself had its upper half of glass, also in lozenge panes-a movable shutter secured it at night. The door to the west wing was in its gable, and quite simple-a single window looked out to the south. There was no external door to the north wing, and it also had only one window to the east.

The blank wall of the eastern gable was relieved by stairs (with a balustrade) running diagonally across it-the ascent being from the south. Under cover of the widely projecting eave these steps gave access to a door leading to the garret, or rather loft-for it was lighted only by a single window to the north, and seemed to have been intended as a store-room….

The pillars of the piazza were enwreathed in jasmine and sweet honeysuckle; while from the angle formed by the main structure and its west wing, in front, sprang a grape-vine of unexampled luxuriance. Scorning all restraint, it had clambered first to the lower roof-then to the higher; and along the ridge of this latter it continued to writhe on, throwing out tendrils to the right and left, until at length it fairly attained the east gable, and fell trailing over the stairs.

The whole house, with its wings, was constructed of the old-fashioned Dutch shingles-broad, and with unrounded corners. It is a peculiarity of this material to give houses built of it the appearance of being wider at bottom than at top-after the manner of Egyptian architecture; and in the present instance, this exceedingly picturesque effect was aided by numerous pots of gorgeous flowers that almost encompassed the base of the buildings.

Despite the patoral setting, it seems clear that Landor’s cottage is an idealized vision of Poe’s own Fordham residence. Beyond the formal resemblance, the interior layout of Landor’s cottage, described briefly by the narrator, is very similar to Poe’s cottage, with a kitchen, main room and bedroom on the first floor. Poe ends his architectural fiction by noting that another article may elaborate on the events that transpired at Landor’s cottage. Had he not died, perhaps we might have discovered more about the kind but enigmatic residence and his picturesque cottage.

Read the full article at Smithsonian

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The Abandoned Cathedral


We were sketching outside the Eglise Sacré-Cœur de Casablanca when a small man slowly shuffled out of the strange, Deco-Gothic structure and gestured for us to come inside. How could we resist? We stepped through the enormous cathedral door and our host smiled wide, saying in hesitant English, “a church with no chairs,” before disappearing. It was a profound sentiment but one I think probably sounds more poetic in arabic.

We slowly strolled down the empty nave, letting ourselves feel the full scale of the vaulted space and looking up at the surprisingly secular stained glass windows, which depicted the flags of every nation. We felt compelled to speak in whispers, telling each other tales of the abandoned cathedral and its protector. Maybe he was a homeless man who, only seeking shelter, was inspired to become the guardian of this forgotten space? Perhaps he was a priest unable to abandon his church though his congregation had long ago disappeared? A human relic and this his reliquary? Was there ever a congregation? Or was this just some mad architect’s folly?

A strange humming filled the cathedral, a constant white noise. At first we assumed it was the wind, but outside all was still. Not a leaf was rustling in Casablanca. Suddenly a pigeon flew down from the rafters. Another glided across the nave. Dozens of others followed and we realized that the noise we heard was an endless echo of coos and fluttering wings. The cathedral was filled with a perpetual avian hymn. Inspired to contribute my own verse, I whistled the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The abandoned cathedral repeated the tune in medley and the echo hung in the air for an impossibly long time. Surprised by the response, I laughed a true, honest laugh and the cathedral laughed with me.


At the conclusion of our service, we climbed the narrow, spiraling stairwell leading to the top of the church’s tower. It was the first time in years that I felt really scared. The stairs were bordered on one side by enormous unobstructed air vents designed to release the sound of ringing bells, and on the other by a very low railing that looked—and smelled!—like it was built from pigeon shit. There was very little separating us from a very, very long fall. What’s more, every turn brought some unexpected hazard – a kit of surprised pigeons flying past our heads, some twisted rebar, or a giant hole in the floor. We walked slowly. Halfway up, we stepped through an empty doorway and onto the roof of the church, standing eye-to-eye with the top of its buttresses before continuing our dangerous trek up to its bell tower. Finally, the stairs led through another empty door and suddenly we were blinded by the blue sky and radiant white city. There were no guards, no railings, and no tourists. It was just the two of us and Casablanca. In the distance, the mosque and the ocean beyond. I stuck to the wall for a few minutes, afraid some misfiring synapse might compel me to leap over the edge. As my nerves faded, I felt exuberant and kissed her at the edge of the world and started laughing again. There was no echo this time, just the sound of ringing joy calling out to all parishioners.

Design Decoded: Building Better Bricks by Brewing Beer

Researchers have discovered a way to use a byproduct of beer brewing to improve bricks.

While for most of us, the side-effects of beer consumption include might include late night pizza, questionable decisions, and painful hangovers, researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar in Portugal have found a way to turn binge drinking into binge building by making better bricks – or, rather, by brewing better bricks. The same grains that are left over after the brewing process, which are often thrown out or used for animal feed, can be used to enhance the heat retention of clay bricks. As New Scientist reports, “the grains make the bricks more porous, and so they trap more air, which increases heat retention.” This isn’t a new discovery. Bricks are often embedded with materials–usually plastic–to enhance their heat retention. However, while the resulting energy-efficient bricks are desirable, the process is not exactly sustainable and energy restrictions, particularly in the European Union, have limited its use. Beer-battered bricks offer a more environmentally friendly method.

This isn’t the first time the remnants of beer brewing have been used in the built environment. For instance, many old breweries have been transformed into apartment buildings and museums. But even more relevant are efforts from one beer maker to actually produce bricks.

A WOBO wall. (Image: Flickr user greezer.ch)

Back in 1960, Alfred “Freddy” Heineken, grandson of the beer company’s founder, came up with the idea for a “brick that holds beer.” The rectangular glass bottles were produced in the same unmistakable green hue that distinguishes Heineken bottles in bars around the world. The idea came to Freddy when he was vacationing in Curacao, and he was appalled to see empty Heineken bottles littering a beach. To combat the problem, while also providing construction material for housing in impoverished communities, Freddy worked with an architect to create the the Heineken World Bottle (WOBO). Many versions of the WOBO were designed and tested, and ultimately, a limited run of two different modules, carefully designed to interlock with one another, were made and a prototype house was built. But the WOBO was never put into production because the bottles were deemed inefficient and just plain uncomfortable to carry.

Hopefully such practical considerations won’t put an early end to the the beer-made bricks currently in development because I’m certainly looking forward to the day when I can say my hangover is a sign of support for a better stock of building.

via Design Decoded http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/design/2013/12/form-follows-fermentation-building-better-bricks-by-brewing-beer/

Design Decoded: When Architects Build With Gingerbread


Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, as imagined in gingerbread by Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves (image: caitlinstlye.com)

Around this time every year, architects around the world are inspired to tie on their black Prada aprons, roll up their sleeves and apply their seven-plus years of education to the deliciously painstaking construction of gingerbread houses. Gingerbread was first brought to Europe in the late-10th century from the eastern Mediterranean and gingerbread shaping was a common practice by the 15th. However it wasn’t until 1812, when the Brothers Grimm first published Hansel and Gretl, the story of two young children who stumble across a cottage made of candy, that bakers began to build their gingerbread into cottages and houses. Fast forward a few centuries and gingerbread house-building has been elevated to new, almost unbelievable heights.  Seeing what these talented designers can create from cookies and confections is one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.

The most impressive displays I’ve seen do far this year come from food artists Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves, who recently recreated some of the worlds most famous museums in gingerbread for Dylan’s Candy Bar, the luxury candy and chocolate shop. It is absolutely astounding to see what can be produced with gingerbread, frosting, spun sugar, and various other sweets.

I.M. Pei’s addition to the Louvre, as imagined in gingerbread by Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves (image: caitlinstyle.com)

Of course, like brick-and mortar buildings, any appreciation of these gingerbread buildings benefits from excellent lighting and carefully composed photographs. But these works of art deserve nothing less, and the close-up photographs only accentuate the skill that went into creating these confectionary constructions.

The Tate Modern, as imagined in gingerbread by Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves (image: caitlinstlye.com) (image: colossal)

Last year the architecture website Architizer held its inaugural architectural gingerbread house design competition and the submissions were more fun, more colorful, and just as accurate as architectural legos. Take the following two, for example:

A gingerbread model of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House by April Reed Cake Design (image: architizer)

A gingerbread Fallingwater, always a classic choice. A collaboration between Tsontakis Architecture with Classic Cakes & Confections (image: architizer)

Seven more Modernist gingerbread houses can be seen at Architizer. Their 2013 competition is underway now and accepting entries until December 23.

For a different kind of architectural gingerbread, check out the two-story candy cottage built in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. This impressive feat, built by the hotel’s kitchen staff, uses nearly 4,000 pounds of sweets. Check out some of the incredible details on Curbed SF.

The two-story gingerbread house at the Fairmont. Just watch out for witches. (image: Patricia change via Curbed SF)

Finally, to see just how much time and effort goes into making a gingerbread house at this level, check out the following video from The White House, whose chefs made–what else–a replica of America’s First Home.

via Design Decoded http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/design/2013/12/the-impressive-results-of-when-you-ask-architects-to-build-with-gingerbread/