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Nancy Lancaster and Her Influence on Architecture Essay

Empowerment. No other word can probably spell out how the women had ever wanted, and will always want to achieve it so long as oppression, discrimination, disparagement, abuse, and the list of scornful issues can go on until this era and so long as the eras to come continue to wreak these issues upon the women. This advocacy grew stronger every decade and the society’s sight falls upon those ‘group’ of citizens kicking up a storm within and against the ‘other’ group called men. What could better explain this outcry than their wonder that despite their membership in what the world or at least most of it recognize as society, they are clustered as ‘the second group’ with the men filling up the first.

Even the artistic realm, though mostly associated with women, is predominated by the male species. After all, the great grandmother of all architectural work of art was conceived by men. The Parthenon, begun in 447 B.C., was part of a great plan conceived by the indubitably male Athenian Pericles for decorating the Acropolis in Greece. This temple was designed by three other manly architects Ictinus, Mnesicles, and Callicrates. History tells us that the Greek colonists had established this ever-male-dominated disciplines in literature, art, and architecture. Their neighbors, the Etruscans, were the first to forge practical skills in sanitation, road building, architecture, and pottery making by as early as seventh century B.C.

This inequity was brought about by a number of reasons. Generally women were not permitted into the finest art institutions. As a consequence, women turned out deficient in the de rigueur education to go up against men in the field receiving the highest regard for in the scholarly realm, historical and metaphorical painting. This segregation similarly kept women from breaking the glass ceiling and establishing the social and political associates needed to thrive in the artistically aggressive ambit.

Juvenile female art scholars supposed they existed in a potential period notwithstanding the several forms of complicatedness they were obliged to prevail over. Private art academe, enrolled in which was a mix of male and female students, were a commonplace, as were art schools exclusive to women. But even these art schools would not permit women to exert themselves from nude subjects until the transition to the new century.

The sizeable national exhibitions demonstrated several works by women, to a certain extent for the reason that entries were tendered namelessly or incognito. Halfway through the subsequent centuries, women likewise started to establish their own exclusive expositions. Among them were Americans Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, Lois Lilley Howe, Louise Blanchard Bethune, Sophia Hayden, and Mabel Keyes Babcock.

Twentieth century architects explored new methods and materials in their designs, but the dominant style in city buildings was the angular International Style. A few architects in the United States made use of ideas found in German architecture and in the Savoye House. Although office and public buildings are impressive, it is the house that provides the most immediate architectural experiences for most people.

There is a huge variety in the houses in the United States. This is seen in the thousands of buildings erected in housing developments since World War II. At one extreme, are the multiple-unit dwellings. At the other is the house designed for the needs of one family. Thanks to the households headed by women, the need for more female architects and designers were born. And together with dwellings is the widened variety of furniture and housewares that peppered the household pioneered by Nancy Lancaster.

A woman designer who made a redrafting of a historic edifice was Rebecca L. Binder. The five-story academic institution she was commissioned to remake a 40,000-square feet addition, which she beautified with concrete with horizontal belts in brickwork. How she made it happen could not be sufficed with either superlative words or this magnum opus itself:

Perhaps, Nancy Lancaster’s words could better explain the beauty that Rebecca L. Binder and the rest of the fabulous woman designers emanate through their masterpieces:

“I was always searching for beauty. I wasn’t as interested in the houses as I was in their ambience. In the furniture, in the history, in the garden. You never could put your finger specifically on whatever created the beauty, it was too elusive, but houses were where I found it the most…”

Indeed, Rebecca L. Binder is but one of the many designers especially the female ones to have perpetuated the influence of one of the breakthrough designers of the modern era – Nancy Lancaster. Nancy Lancaster’s words could echo the own feelings of these female designers for interiors and architecture. The revolutionary Scandinavian boomerang shapes had descended en masse upon the abodes of the more progressive of the Western population.

The fifties era had set in, but in other homes, homebodies were still clinging to Victorian values, Dickens, and Puccini, while everyone else was worshipping the new gods names Elvis and Rock, and had been lured by the pale Danish furniture, delicate paper Noguchi lamps, and wretched wallpapers. The new household names were unpronounceable Sigrun Bülow-Hübe, Victoria Van Dyke, Itsuko Hasegawa, Signe Lagerborg-Stenius, Annette Hoyt Flanders, and Hanna Adamczewska-Wejchert.

The sixties heralded a great struggle between the love for Grand-Mere’s romantic world and the growing interest in all things modern. Out went the sweet remembrance of the old coachman’s house with its exquisite, old-fashioned rooms and in came the exciting iconoclasm of the Mary Quant, the provocative mini-skirt, and false eyelashes by the yard. Plastic reigned supreme, and inflatable transparent furniture and chairs, lamps, kitchen utensils in screaming, vile colors took over from the natural Scandinavian look. Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier, and their much-favored combination of steel, chrome, and black leather had yet to be rediscovered.

For the moment, the design-conscious sat decorously in the pop designer Verner Panton’s “Champagne Chair” and in Knoll’s pristine white and curvilinear furniture, or tried to look very futuristic and 2001 in a foam and stretch-jersey construction made by Monsieur Mourge.

This variety may seem to have been impossible decades ago. Back then, Expressionism was a movement that proved to be an enduring force in 20th century art, exercising a strong influence on New York painters of the 1940s and 1950s. This period also promoted the concept of neoplasticism, a plastic idiom equally applicable to painting, architecture, and the decorative arts, and was known to have influenced the Constructivists in New York.

Constructivism is one of several idealist abstract art movements that arose in Europe and Russia between 1913 and 1920. It stressed total acceptance of technological, scientific society and the possibility of an ideal world based on the perfect functionalism of the machine (Frascina et al., 1982).

More futuristic Vasarely patterns, the revolting combination of chocolate brown and orange and the dangerous juxtaposition of apple-green and geranium-red proved that the seventies were all about color. And about color-blindness. Walls covered with panels of brushed steel, long-haired flokati carpet that looked like the curly fur of a wet sheep, and anthropomorphic furniture ran riot. To be really in meant having plexiglass all over the place: a plexiglass coffee table, plexigllass side tables, plexiglass obelisks (with uplighters cleverly hidden in their bases so they glowed mysteriously at night), and little plexiglass supports to add drama to the objets d’art and emphasize their qualities and value.

Indeed, these innovative designs were all a product of the revolutionary state of affairs during the time they were made. Thus, the artists’ revolt against the classic codes of composition, careful execution, harmonious coloring, and heroic subject matter. One museum in New York today nostalgically reflects this revolution. The Museum of Modern Art puts across the messages of women’s success, fame, power and glory with their latest exhibit Digitally Mastered: Recent Acquisitions from the Museum’s Collection. Digitally Mastered stresses total acceptance of technological, scientific society and the possibility of an ideal world based on the perfect functionalism of the machine. This modern variety in the arts springs to life with a surprising sense of alertness, as if it had a personality. Joie de vivre is what every New Yorker can describe of himself. After all, New York is the busiest city in the world.

The progressiveness of women designers is entertainingly described in the most relevant movie last year. In the movie/novel The Devil Wears Prada, the highly modish corporate garb, seen on people going to work in the course of a fashion runway and doing a catwalk along the busiest business districts of New York, is still an understatement. Not only does the movie depict women progressive in the arty world but in the economic world as a whole. Women have always been the tops in the fashion world, both locally and internationally. Somehow the androgyny seems to have the advantage of knowing what their fellow women want and what men consider attractive in terms of etiquette and dress.

If interior design in the eighties had a color scheme, it was mainly black and white. It was launched and cleverly promoted by the Black Widow of design, Andree Putman, a gifted talent-scout and orchestrator of striking and severe interiors, who founded the firm ECART which reproduced original designs, mainly from the thirties.

As a result, a large number of tables, chairs, and lams by the totally forgotten Irish designer Eileen Gray, and creations by giants of the Art Deco period, such as Robert Mallet-Stevens and Jean-Michel Frank, were re-edited. Re-edition was the clever description that covered up the eighties’ frantic and boundless copying of originals.

Design fanatics, who would never have invested any money in the acquisition of a common copy, seemed to be proud to be living with the same Fortuny Lamr, the same Eileen Gray carpet, and the same sleek Frank sofa as their neighbors. Gae Aulenti and Rebecca L. Binder very well know this.

Those who thought that living among vulgar copies showed little originality seemed to find solace in the sublime and very esthetic emptiness of minimalism, reassured by the fact that if one possessed very little, one could never be accused of having no taste. Andree Putman, always light years ahead of trends to come, had already pointed a warning finger at the threatening despotism of design and at the constant fear of not being of the latest fashion.

Of course, the multifaceted world of interior design had also had a string of adepts who would only take inspiration from great classical examples. In the fifties, when the boomerang fever had rise to its most dangerous level, the prominent Madeleine Castaing was filling the pages of the leading magazine Connaissance des Arts with images of rooms that looked deceptively period.

Her love of white and gold and her penchant for velvets and damask silks and a flamboyant use of antiques seemed, at that time, only accessible to the moneyed few. Madame Castaing’s subtle concoction of le style Anglais, bourgeois Viennese biedermeier, and sever Frencg directoire reached its zenith at her own chateau near Chartres. But her cleverly composed “windows on the past” were like wines that do not travel, and remained imprisoned in their own country.

This description could equally well apply to the formidable Nancy Lancaster herself, whose memories from her Virginia childhood transcribed in her splendid dwellings in England became the “English country” look. Her “buttah-yellah” room above the shop was the epitome of relaxed chic, and some of her statements, such as “I never thought twice about using bright colors in old houses, and “Mahogany is lovely when it’s been faded in the sun,” illustrate her loose interpretation of the past when she was attempting to create a period look.

An inspired artist who spend her whole life doing up houses, Lancaster has left a most delightful description of the decoration of the staircase in her London townhouse at 28 Quen Anne’s Gate:

“When you walked in, the staircase was on the left: it was the loveliest architectural feature in the house. I left the staircase a tobacco color but painted the paneling along the stairs a pale, pale green. On the window in the stair hall, I put curtains the color of a cigar, with a fringed pelmet and along the floor I had a very pretty Bessarabian runner with the same brown in it…”

Her words convey something of the excitement involved in creating this prologue to a ballet performance.

On the other side of the Atlantic, an equally formidable lady was also freely borrowing elements from the past. Lady Mendl, also known as Elsie de Wolfe, who invented the profession of “interior decorator” was making a risky cocktail of Louis styles in different shades of white and combining them with Venetian baroque, forties’ stucco, engraved mirrors, and walls decorated with silver leaf.

The setting for a period recreation does not always have to be grand, the expenditure exorbitant, or reflective of only the sentimental female’s work. It is imagination rather than money that is the first requirement for originality. Large amounts of money are not always needed: a room can be assembled from inexpensive finds in the flea market, a pair of old curtains, and a table found in a street or on a dumpster. All these could be found in grandma’s basement while the men in the family, leaving their women at home, rummage through the streets for the money. The likes of Nancy Lancaster prove that even the homebodies can be exorbitantly creative.

Ancient patinas have their own romance that could only come from the empowered womanly instincts: crumbling walls and peeling paint can be the epitome of sophistication, and touches such as the elegant folds of draped fabric, a candlestick on an antique table, or the presence of a canopied bed all contribute to a style that has been inspired by the past but will, in the end, be timeless.


Frascina, Francis, Harrison, Charles, and Deirdre, Paul. (2002). Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology.

Grosenick, U. (2002). Women Artists in the 20th and 21st Century.

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