Petra Blaisse at the Sonneveld House


18 February 2015

“My work always has this connection with architecture and interaction between what the architecture’s intentions are and what we can do as interior landscape designers to influence it, to emphasise its meaning, or to confront it with some kind of question,” says Dutch interior and landscape designer Petra Blaisse.

Blaisse’s latest exercise of this principle is the Sonneveld House in Rotterdam. Designed in the early 1930s by architecture firm Brinkman en Van der Vlugt, the building was the property of industrialist Albert Sonneveld and his family and executed in the Dutch Modernist style. The property has been open to the public since 2001 as a house museum, its original fixtures and fittings retained, and is run by Het Newe Institut, a Rotterdam-based cultural centre focused on design and architecture. The institute has now begun a series of contemporary interventions in the space that are intended to reinvigorate it.

The first of these interventions was carried out by product and furniture designer Richard Hutten, who introduced examples of his own work as accents in the otherwise 1930s interior. Blaisse, the second resident, has been more radical. She has retained the house in its original state, but installed polyurethane mirrored floors throughout. The floors, coupled with the effects of natural and artificial lights on them, expose details and elements of the house that would otherwise remain hidden. “It's the original scenography as they show it normally to the public, because that’s of course the whole point,” says Blaisse. “But then the mirrors provide a reaction to the space.”

Blaisse wanted to create a connection between the inside and the outside of the house (her Amsterdam-based studio is called Inside Outside), but also between visitors and the house's interior spaces and objects. The mirrors, which display the underside of the house's furniture, are a means of taking elements of the house – its hidden details and ephemera – and highlighting them in an expanded museological context. “The aim was to create an exaggerated connection between interior and exterior,” says Blaisse, “and also to reflect the daylight in it. The light not only comes through the window, but is also caught by the mirrored floor, lighting the objects and everything in a different perspective.”

Over the course of the installation the mirrors will scratch from the action of visitors’ feet, leaving marks that display traces of the routes that visitors took through the home. The first part of the installation comprises the ground floor rooms — the kitchen, living room and dining room – but when visitors go upstairs, the situation changes. Here, only the master bedroom and corridor are mirrored, leaving the children’s and guest rooms in their original form. Visitors are invited to compare realities to see the effect the mirrors have on their perception of the spaces.

"The architects were really good and thought about all the detailing,” says Blaisse. “The mirrors allow you to see that very well. So even each washbasin is beautiful designed and finished. Sonneveld must have been quite controlling, because everything is clean and organised. In all of the rooms for instance, from the living room, to his daughters’ bedrooms, to the guest rooms, there is the same industrially designed clock.”

The house is en example of the early-20th-century Nieuwe Bouwen movement in architecture. “This style of architecture was based around transparency, light, air and space,” says Blaisse. “So by implementing the mirrors we are actually doubling the feeling of light, space and air. But what also happens is that the underside of the furniture becomes visible, so you see, all of a sudden, that you are not in an innocent interior left by the owners, but actually in a museum situation. So the furniture is all secured with alarm systems, You’re looking under the furniture, under everything, and all of a sudden you understand it’s curated, but also you understand much more of the handcraft work: how everything was built, how everything was made."

In the garden, mirrors play a similar role as they do inside the house. Organised around groups of trees, their shapes resemble running groundwater. “The mirrors reflect the sky, but also the trunks of the trees above, adding an extra dimension to the garden,” says Blaisse.

In Blaisse’s installation, the visitor becomes a voyeur, wandering through the house and creating their own route, privy to all its hidden layers and details. Yet for Blaisse, what is more interesting is the discussions the installation may prompt. “The tone of voyeurism is interesting, but it also opens up the question of what a monument is," she says. "What are these private houses that are open to the public and why do museums always leave them as if there are still people living there? So the beds are made; there are still little objects on the table as if somebody is working there; there are vases with water filled with plastic flowers. You think they’re real but they’re not. So I think that the installation has a lot of layers if you want them. Layers of questions and hunting the architecture, but also layers questioning the whole phenomena of monument.”