Q: The house we recently bought was built in the 1950s. The Realtor describes it as modern in design, though I don't understand how a 50-something house qualifies as modern. The living room has a big glass wall that's presenting us with treatment issues. Can you help us figure out how to achieve privacy and light control while not interfering with a great view? Furniture suggestions would also be welcome.
A: Your confusion about terminology is widely shared. "Modern," as an architectural and interior design term, refers specifically to more angular and ornamented style than the styles that developed in Europe in the 1920s and '30s. "Modern" isn't the same as "contemporary," which is how designers describe both a more minimalist look that is often a more pared-down style of traditional designs and things that have been popular for the past decade or two.
Plenty of books have been written about modern architecture and design. You should acquaint yourself with its motifs, proportions and materials. In the meantime, I offer this photo that illustrates some common characteristics of modernism and shows a setting perhaps similar to your own. Floor-to-ceiling windows, an absence of embellishments and strong geometric forms are hallmarks of this style.
But this is no ordinary modern interior. It's part of a landmark house in Los Angeles designed by Richard Neutra (1892-1970), one of the giants of modern architecture. "Duette" honeycomb shades from Hunter Douglas are used here to solve the problems of privacy and light control and to ensure that the exterior remains on view at the pull of a cord. The individual shades can be raised and lowered from the top or bottom. It's a type of treatment worth considering for your home.
As for the furniture, purists will argue that all the pieces must be consistent in their styling with the modern architecture. Some other designers, myself among them, will say that only certain elements — storage units, seating and tables — have to have a modernist look to reinforce the architecture. A combination of modern pieces and antiques could work well as accessories in this setting, as could colorful rugs of other periods and styles. To each his own, but I would want to add softness and some visual pizzazz to a setting like the one seen here. It's too stern and sterile for my taste.
Rita St. Clair is the principal designer with Rita St. Clair Associates, a design firm in Baltimore. Readers with general interior design questions can e-mail her at email@example.com.