SIGN of the times: newsstands bursting with magazines - gossip, fashion, and now in particular, interior design - that pander to our unbridled curiosity about how others live. In fact, calling it curiosity may be putting it too innocently. Isn't it more like architectural voyeurism? Transform yourself by transforming your apartment? Can you say, ``The Emperor's New Clothes?'' It's not only a matter of the media's insistence that clever interior design can give you what you're looking for: that living like an aristocrat will make you one. There's also an undefined longing for an individual ``style'' which, at the same time, is rooted in a longing for a historically symbolic interior.
In our frenzy to revive things past, we seem to want it all - an individuality that has historical precedence. Has it always been this way? When did ``the art of living'' become such a big issue? Is a person's being truly reflected in the place where he or she lives, and vice versa? And would it be a bad or a good thing if it were?
An exhibition opened here in Vienna recently that brings these questions into focus. It's called ``Interiors: Artists' Apartments 1830-1930'' at the City Historical Museum.
The Historical Museum is well known for the interiors it keeps on permanent display: the 19th-century Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer's apartment, and the living room of turn-of-the-century architect Adolf Loos. The value of these displays should not be underestimated. The rooms are fortunate (and rare) examples of a thoughtfully executed policy of conservation by the museum. They act as counterbalances to haphazard ``reconstructions'' that have little or no bearing on history, as well as to the sterility of so-called ``period rooms.''
The exhibition contrasts apartments and ateliers owned by artists with those designed by artists, as these two categories make up the chief contents of the museum archive. The way the average person lived, then as now, was considered much less important, and so documentation of it is a good deal more scarce.
``Artists' Apartments'' not only appeals to our current craving for an exclusive view into the everyday lives of the rich and famous, but also provides glimpses of living environments as they developed over the course of several remarkable periods in Austrian design - Biedermeier, Eclecticism, Jugendstil, and the beginnings of the Modern movement.
The stated intention of the show is to ``make transparent the tensions between period styles, social position, and individual personality,'' (There's that word again, individual.) But the show functions on another level as well, making it more than just a 3-D walk through an interior digest.
A result of the modern eclectic revival, and of Post-Modernism's influence, is a complete blurring of the lines of historical accuracy - as far as the historical interior and its contents are concerned: their design, method of manufacture, materials, authentic use, and so on. By clamoring for old objects to create our new interiors (just go to any flea market and see the crowds for yourself), we divorce them from their historical context, and (another paradox) actually lose touch with history by surrounding ourselves with it.
And so, from a conservational or curatorial point of view, the encroachment of modern interpretation (``Fabulous! I love the way you used that Empire bed as a couch!'') and its retroactive effect on historical fact is a dangerous thing. In other words, what modern design wishes the past was like may not have any serious relation to history.
This is a question of significance in Austria today. Forty-five years after the end of World War II, both the economy and the public consciousness have only just been elevated to the point where the restoration of Vienna's architectural works is considered necessary and desirable. The reopening of the so-called Loos Building on St. Michael's Square, among other projects, demonstrated the fine line Vienna officials walk in the endeavor to preserve the city's heritage - and attract tourism - while avoiding the creation of a kind of theme park.
``Artists' Apartments'' includes a collection of some 250 objects - paintings, graphics, photographs, and original pieces of furniture. The interior photographs (from a time when even photography was more honest than it is today) remind us that there really was an age when ``living'' was perceived more as a matter of fact than as an art form.
These artists, both in their own ateliers and in the apartments they designed, were more expressive of themselves - and less inclined to hide behind the interiors they created.
Here there are no truckloads of fresh flowers brought in for the photo shoot, no stacks of coffee-table books from some magazine editor's own library, no charming knick-knacks strewn about to satisfy the viewers' expectations of how an artist ought to live.
In a hundred years, will the remnants of glossy design magazines tell others as much about us as the documents in this exhibition? Perhaps, in fact, they will tell more about what we wanted to be than about what we actually were.
And whether or not, in light of this, we have anything to reconsider about our way of looking at design, this show reminds us that, in romanticizing the past we must resist the temptation to obscure it.