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DESIGN STYLE : A Classic Case of Ancient Influence


Many home furnishings are taking a giant step back in time--to ancient Athens. Neoclassical furniture is on showroom floors, and fabric and wallpaper patterns with shells and column motifs are coveted.

Step into almost any home improvement center and you'll find ready-made columns, rosettes and moldings as well as how-to books and videos on executing classical techniques such as trompe l'oeil painting.

"As shown by the popularity of classically inspired furnishings and buildings, the general public already wants this type of design," Donald Rattner says.

Consumer interest has been growing in traditional architecture and decorating since the preservation movement in the 1970s. But professional interest has been lagging, with few designers able to pull off the look. Rattner says that's because schools aren't teaching how to design, build, decorate and furnish classical buildings. If they cover classicism at all, they treat it purely as history.

Enter the Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture, founded in 1991 in New York City by Rattner, a graduate of Princeton University's School of Architecture, and Richard Cameron, a fellow New York architect and a graduate of the University of Toronto. The institute is under the auspices of the New York Academy of Art, which opened in 1982 and is devoted to figurative and representational art.

"Our main aim is to fill a gap in the education of architects and designers," Rattner says.

It isn't for professionals only. Throughout the year, the institute also offers courses, lectures, field trips and publications for the public.

The purpose of classicism is to create buildings in scale with, and comfortable for, human beings, Rattner says. In classical buildings, each room is separate unto itself, and a lot of attention is called to boundaries, for example, with surrounds for doors and windows. In modern buildings, rooms flow into one another without particular boundaries.

"Classical architecture conveys monumentality, but it is also based on nature and on the human form," Rattner adds.

A classical column has a base that corresponds to feet, a shaft like a human trunk and a crowning capital analogous to the head. A modern column is a mere cylinder lacking a base and a capital.

For those who would like to add a taste of the classical past to their present home, the architect offers a quick review of classical design inspirations:

Look for decorative details such as moldings at baseboard, chair rail and cornice, corresponding to a bottom, a middle and a top. If there is a classical column, there will usually be a beam above it. If there is a fireplace, there will be a mantel, and often the mantel will be enriched with carving and will be the room's focal point.

Furnishings will be derived from classically inspired styles such as Federal, Biedermeier or Regency. There will be echoes of colors and patterns. A Greek key pattern on a cornice molding might be repeated on a cushion fabric or window border. Classical motifs include the acanthus leaf, scroll work, laurel leaf or wreath, lyre, shell and urn shape. These motifs may be carved, cast, painted, molded and printed on fabrics and wallpaper.

Classical rules of design provide many answers to questions associated with design and decoration--not only room dimensions and ornament, but how to frame a door or window, to orient a house in relation to the sun for warmth in winter and coolness in summer, to create a focal point and arrange the furnishings.

Is this classical style expensive to execute? Not at all, Rattner says:

"It is possible to build very modest traditional structures at a reasonable cost."

The Institute for Classical Studies, 111 Franklin St., New York, NY 10013.

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