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Learning From Houston, Texas

Platner and Bertoia appear skeletal in an exposed concrete setting

“Less is a bore” the architect Robert Venturi proclaimed as a postmodern antidote to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous “less is more” maxim. The statement pitted the two traditions against one another, and Venturi went on to publish his seminal work Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form in which he averred, quite radically, that architecture had as much to learn from urban signage and the Las Vegas Strip as from the study of buildings.

While the two philosophies remain at odds, aesthetically there is room for reconciliation. One designer who has managed to draw on the legacy of both traditions is Houston-based designer Barbara Hill.

Barbara Hill uses Warren Platner & Bertoia in Living Room

Photograph by Dean Kaufman.

Hill started out her career as a gallery curator, representing minimalist pioneers like Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold and Daniel Buren in the seventies, well before they rose to international acclaim. Although ahead of the times, the Houston market didn’t favor her avant-garde collection and the gallery went bust. Not one to dwell on the past, Hill turned her already keen eye to design, while DeWitt et al. went on to be exhibited in major markets like New York and Los Angeles.

On account of her minimalist past, Hill's approach to design runs contrary to most. She spends as much time encouraging her clients to part with their posessions as she does sourcing new furnishings. Similarly, rather than renovate through an additive process, she studies a home’s features and then strips away what distracts, leaving the rest naked and bare.

In cases where a project does call for supplementary materials, she vascillates between the icons of modernist design – Bertoia, Platner and Hardoy, to name a few – and the visual punch of postmodernists like Philippe Starck and Konstantin Grcic. She also enjoys sourcing dilapidated pieces in various states of decay. This incorporation of urban detritus gives a rough-hewn edge to her work, one very much in keeping with Venturi’s ethos. Among other things, Hill has incorporated airport furniture, neon signs, tractor seats and factory lighting in her interiors.

For her latest home renovation in Houston, Texas, Hill decided to gut a 1960s late-Modernist condominium. Once all that remained was the building’s structural elements, Hill fell in love. “The beautifully textured concrete underneath the sheetrock created a loft-like feeling, that made everything seem much more open that it really is.” She decided to put nothing back, and went about making the space more habitable and hospitable through the addition of a few choice pieces. 

Barbara Hill's Dining Room with Harry Bertoia Side Chairs

Photograph by Dean Kaufman.

Hill reupholstered two vintage Platner Lounge Chairs with KnollTextiles velvet to add a subdued warmth. “They have such weight and elegance,” she said of the end result. Six Bertoia Side Chairs reinforce rather than deemphasize their skeletal surroundings. “I liked the idea of using three white and three black ones,” Hill remarked of the creatively mix-and-matched chairs, “it just felt right and unexpected.”

Just as the postmodernists strove to reintroduce ornament through new and varied forms, Hill finds ways to imbue her home with a carefully-measured dose of irreverence. In her kitchen, for instance, she’s included a series of photographs of rear-ends and her bathroom features a prominent chandelier made up of winged light bulbs.

Of her collection, Hill explains, “[this] is how my cast of characters comes together, by pairing high and low, vintage and modern, each one seems to shine. Whether unknown or iconic Knoll pieces, each contributes to the minimal but romantic blend.”

Project Credits:

Design: Barbara Hill
Photography: Dean Kaufman

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Bertoia Side Chair
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Bertoia Barstool
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Bertoia Diamond Chair
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Platner Arm Chair
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Platner Coffee Table - 36"