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Continued: Design hidden in plain sight

  • Article by: BY JESSE MCKINLEY , New York Times
  • Last update: September 29, 2012 - 1:36 PM

The first thing you see when you walk into Patrick McInerney's living room is that there's nothing to see. The walls are bare, and ditto for the ceiling. You try to switch on the lights, but there doesn't appear to be a switch. There's music playing, but where is it coming from? The lamp is obviously working -- the bulb is lighted, after all -- but it seems to be plugged into ... the plaster?

Part interior illusionist and part aesthetic anorexic, McInerney is a practicing member of the cult of disappearing design, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't ethos that aims to secrete away anything that needs a button, a cord or a subwoofer to work. It's a passion that McInerney, a 44-year-old architect from San Diego, takes seriously, comparing his streamlining drive to the process of writing a novel.

"Each word is considered and refined, not only for the word's meaning but also its relationship to other words," he wrote in an e-mail. "And the landscape in which the words are brought together."

Indeed, more than simply stashing a stereo in a closet or throwing a shawl over the ottoman, the all-invisible aesthetic aims for a higher-minded goal: creating unified spaces that flow from room to room and place to place.

"We're interested in having our work reflect and melt into the environment," said Rene Gonzalez, a Miami architect who reflected and melted his vision into a client's $47 million home in Dade County. "We think about enclosures that can dissipate and disappear, so that the outside and inside bleed into each other."

Driven by technology and old-fashioned ingenuity, such design pursues goals as "zero sightlines" (fixtures that can't be seen in profile) as well as creating seamless -- and shadowless -- surfaces. Tricks are plentiful and often James Bond-ian: light switches are camouflaged to appear to be part of the wall while dining-room tables collapse to less than an inch wide.

One major proponent of the unseen look is the Trufig brand, which offers all manner of disguised designs, like power outlets and data jacks that blend into the background, and tablets and touch panels installed into walls. Trufig advertises itself as "a revolutionary design solution" that abides by a strict rule: "Be completely flush-mounted."

On a more practical, less superficial level, disappearing design is meant to both maximize one's ground plan (particularly in small urban apartments) and minimize the "visual noise" created by such things as bulky knobs, vents and the ancient albatross of many decorators: the wide-screen TV.

"People like, more and more, a clean look," said Alexandra Mathews, vice president for international sales and marketing at Lucifer Lighting, which is based in San Antonio. "It's nice to be in a place where you're not forced to look at a bunch of things."

And while Mathews and other acolytes concede that such a look isn't for everyone, they note that there is plenty of proof that such a modernist-tinged look is in vogue, offering as evidence the popularity of both Ikea furniture and iPads.

Much of the current deceptive design originated decades ago with tinkerers who took apart factory-built goods (from stereo speakers to cooktops) to find ways of making them more appealing. And while such professional work used to be the domain of very expensive custom designers, today's disappearing acts are more likely to be mass-produced and considerably less costly to pull off.

"It's something that architects and designers have been wanting to do for years, but it's always been ultraluxury, one-off custom stuff," said Rob Roland of Dana Innovations in San Clemente, Calif., the parent company of Trufig. "What's starting to happen now is that it's moving down the pyramid." And all over the house, apparently. C.C. Sullivan, a spokesman for Lucifer (the lighting company, not the Prince of Darkness), outlined all kinds of spots where traditional elements are disappearing or becoming less obtrusive, including cooktops, appliances, bath accessories, drawer fronts, baseboards, medicine cabinets and window frames.

Many of the fixes, while technological in nature, are meant to hide other unsightly gadgets. Ten years ago, for example, flat-screen TVs seemed to be the answer to the giant consoles of old. But the growing size of the screens has proved to be a new challenge.

In response, the Seura company of Green Bay, Wis., sells a line of "vanishing" TVs that look like large mirrors when not in use. The company offers more than 100 frames for the sets, from "sleek accent" styles to a candy-colored frames that would seemingly defeat the purpose of de-emphasizing the TV.

But even before hitting the media room, design is disappearing, with companies like Modern Doors Direct in Miami offering frame-free entryways that promise clean lines, a European look and, it almost seems, a better sex life.

"Clean lines and rumpled sheets," a video on the site announces, depicting two very good-looking people in love. "Sleek, seamless doors lead to a life beyond this room."

And speaking of sleeping arrangements, one of the earliest proponents of disappearing design was William L. Murphy, who invented his pivoting bed in the early 1900s. Since then, many have attempted improvements on the Murphy bed, with varying degrees of success.

The Bed Up Down system allows a mattress to seemingly materialize from the heavens, dropping into any space available (it's actually lowered from a compartment in the ceiling).

French designer Rene Bouchara's take on the Murphy bed is a sleek white-on-white retractable that would not look out of place in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

All of which is long overdue, in McInerney's opinion. "It's so simple," he said. "It's sort of like, 'Why has it taken so long to get here?'"

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  • A Trufig power outlet is concealed by wallpaper.

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