Modern Nature

 The veranda room and window greenhouse in the Villa Necchi Campiglio, Milan, designed by Piero Portaluppi, completed 1935. Photograph by Penny Sparke, 2011


‘Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.’
Frank Lloyd Wright

April, 2021

You could be forgiven for thinking, from 2020’s astronomical sales of house plants, that the benefits of living with plants have only recently become understood. Not so, demonstrates the design historian Penny Sparke in her new book Nature Inside: Plants and Flowers in the Modern Interior; in fact it has long been known that plants make an indoor space more salubrious, although this is an aspect of interior design that often slips under the historian’s radar. The Victorian and Edwardian penchant for decorative palm courts and fussy conservatories may have been dismissed by the Modernists in favour of industrialism, rationalism and efficiency, but Sparke explores the important role that plants and foliage nevertheless played in modern interiors. A case in point is Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, normally studied for its innovative structural engineering, but which Sparke reassesses to show how the textures of natural materials and the softness of textiles and plants played as important a role in the feel of the space as the steel-frame construction. Here, Mies updates the Victorian conservatory by creating a winter garden inside a large glass tank along one end of the house; a similar strategy is used at the Villa Necchi Campiglio by the architect Piero Portaluppi, who installed window greenhouses that neatly displayed plants between two windowpanes.

‘Arrangement of Plants and Hanging Baskets in Window’, an illustration from John R. Mollinson, The New Practical Window Gardener, new ed. (London: Henry J. Drane, 1894), p. 24

Nature Inside: Plants and Flowers in the Modern Interior by Penny Sparke. Yale University Press, February 2021

During the pandemic, restricted access to green space, coupled with sky-rocketing anxiety, awakened an instinctive need to connect with nature in the safety of the home environment. Beyond the obvious, Sparke muses that the reasons we like to bring plants indoors ‘are probably too deeply embedded in the human psyche for us to be able to easily explain them’. Undoubtedly nature has ‘life-affirming qualities’ that compensate for many of the challenges and tensions of contemporary urban existence – Sparke lists ‘an over-dependence on technology, social isolation, and environmental problems’ for starters. Research in the field of neuroaesthetics, such as that undertaken by Professor Susan Magsamen at Johns Hopkins University, is seeking to understand the reasons behind our desire to connect with nature, but as Sparke shows, it is a need that designers have been satisfying in different styles and forms for a long time.

Miranda Vane