Elizabeth Street Meets Alexandra Lange
The critic on raising design-savvy kids and finding a place for everything
Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic who lives in an “Eamesian, Scandinavian modern” Brooklyn row house with her architect husband and two children. Her book, Writing About Architecture, came out this spring. She writes regularly for Design Observer, and her work has appeared in Metropolis, The New York Times, and other publications. She also teaches criticism—to SVA and NYU students, usually, but also, in her way, to her kids. —Kate Guadagnino
Have you been interested in architecture and design from a young age? Where did you grow up and what styles and movements were most influential to you?
I have been interested in both since I was very young. My mother is a graphic designer, and her parents are and were also designers, so we always had pieces of classic modern design around the house: Eames LCW chairs, Heller stacking melamine plates, Marimekko bedding. It was only later, when I saw those pieces in books, that I realized they were special. My family lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts until I was eight, and Marimekko and big paper globe lights and Indian rugs were pretty much the local style. I took my first architecture class when I was 13, and I already knew who Richard Meier was, which seems very funny in retrospect. The Douglas House on Lake Michigan was my first architecture crush. I still think it’s a fabulous house. Most of my other design obsessions date to the 1950s and 1960s.
Did you train yourself to be visually observant at all times, or does it come naturally to you? Are you trying to instill the same habit in your children?
Being observant comes naturally to me. Through college, I thought I was going to be an architect, so I was always drawing and writing and designing and memorizing images. We had lots of beautiful books in our house, and my parents took my brother and me to many museums, and I think that example taught me to pay attention. Right now museums are very difficult (my kids are four and one); we’ve found that sculpture parks, and parks period, work better. Storm King is great for kids, though mine tend to be confused as to why they can’t touch the gigantic steel sculptures. I always try to ask, “What does this remind you of?” when we see something like an Alexander Calder stabile. I took my son to the High Line the week it opened, and he still talks about discovering the old railroad tracks in the plantings. He’s very good at describing things that he doesn’t know the word for (most recently, a vending machine), which is a skill I am always trying to teach my students. I’d like to think he picked that up from conversation with my husband and me.
Photos of naked people with dots painted on them notwithstanding, I found much of the Whitney’s Yayoi Kusama exhibit to be child-friendly. What architects and designers do you think are accessible or appealing to children?
When my son was about 18-months-old, the Museum of Modern Art had an installation by Pipilotti Rist in the atrium called “Pour Your Body Out.” Images (not all of them appropriate for children, but he was very young) were projected 25 feet high on the walls, and there was a big ring-shaped sofa in the middle. You could sit on the sofa or the carpet and just let the colors wash over you. We did that three times. As with Yayoi Kusama show, I think art that is big and intense works best, art that engages the architecture, art you can’t ignore. We have those little blocks of New York architecture that Muji makes, and one time my son asked me about the round building—the Guggenheim. So I took him to the Guggenheim. He wasn’t interested in most of the art, but we walked all the way up the spiral, and then all the way back down, so he understood what a round building was like. He did love, and talk about, the $100,000 room: a gallery German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann papered with $100 bills.
How would you describe the style of your house? I have an image of a design geek’s apartment as pristine, sparse, and maybe all white. This kind of perfectionism seems at odds with living with children. How have your expectations and ideals changed since having kids with regard to design?
I am not a perfectionist, but I am a little crazy about putting things away and keeping things clean. I have a theory that you can’t really be comfortable in a messy or crumby space. That said, we have very little white in our house. My husband, Mark Dixon, is an architect, and he designed the renovation of our rowhouse. I usually say it is “Eamesian, Scandinavian modern.” Lots of blond wood, gray plaster walls, intense hits of purple and yellow and orange and green. And lots and lots of built-in closets and bookshelves. I’ve had to relax about clutter since having kids—we have hundreds of little cars, five different building toys, plastic fruit. We have a play table from the Container Store with mesh drawers that holds a lot, and we use those rubber Tubtrugs to hold bigger trucks so they are corralled. And some of it goes away in cupboards and drawers.
What are some design items that seem needlessly overpriced, and what are your design pet peeves?
It's easy to get seduced by beautiful toys that aren’t fun for kids, and almost always cost much more than Fisher Price. Wooden toys are often much heavier than plastic, which makes them harder to move or manipulate. I wrote a rant for the Fast Company blog about Automoblox, which make a big deal of being interchangeable, but quickly become unusable if you lose a few of the tiny wheels. We have several toys made of recycled plastic by Green Toys, including one that is Lego-esque. I wish Lego would start using recycled plastic, but ultimately you get more play out of the real Lego or Duplo: it stacks better, it all works together, it scales, while the Green Toys blocks have a limited timespan for use. Thinking about it, all our favorite toys are plastic: Lego and Duplo, Tubation, and Magna-Tiles. Magna-Tiles are very expensive but totally worth it.
Do you think a house should have a coherent design scheme, or are you more the type to let your kids draw on their own walls?
Both. My kids aren’t quite old enough to assert design opinions (though I have heard that four-year-old girls like to pick out their own clothes. My son doesn’t care, as long as it’s a superhero shirt), but we have walls with burlap-wrapped Homasote boards in our play area and his room so that we can pin up his artwork. In my daughter’s room there are two walls that are currently tangerine, but could easily be painted the color of her choice. We tried to build in a little flexibility, while still keeping a structure. We will see how that works as they get older. I have to admit, I might balk at pink. I was a total tomboy—blue was always my favorite color, and I wore only overalls for a year or two—and I know pink has more girl power associations now than it did in the 1970s. But I still don’t like it, and I’m always looking for clothes for my daughter that are blue and green and dark purple. When people give her pink, though, she wears it!
Photo two by Matthew Williams/Dwell