Make the Switch

Light switches and outlets are part of the architecture, too.
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One of the things I admire most about some of the great architects of the Viennese Secessionist movement, especially Josef Hoffman, was the fact that many of their clients got a Gesamtkunstwerk. This idea of the “total work of art,” wherein everything was designed to work together, was not a new one in Hoffman’s time. The term was developed in Germany in the 1820s, but I contend that the roots go back at least to Alberti, whose sympathetic prose about proportion and scale certainly contemplated that everything in an interior space should be harmonious.

period light switch

Other architects such as Victor Horta, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Frank Lloyd Wright also developed their interiors as carefully as their exteriors down to the curtains, dinnerware, silver, maids’ uniforms, the lady of the house’s housecoat, and of course, light switches. A trip to P.E. Guerin to whip up custom switches is unlikely for most of us, but there are still many superb options that do not involve Home Depot or the corner hardware store. Mind you, I have nothing against either of these places, having shopped for plants several times at Home Depot (great value!), and the local hardware store is a godsend for otherwise unobtainable odds and ends. Still, for the thoughtfully designed interior, it is senseless to economize on critical elements that perform their simple tasks numerous times a day for years.

Something so utilitarian and plebeian as a lowly light switch or outlet cover is the last place where most homeowners want to spend their money. When you’ve got classical entablatures to worry about getting right, door surrounds that would make the Adam brothers proud, and modillions, mutules, and muntins swirling around your consciousness, why spend a minute on these humble workhorses of the home?

period lightswitch

The answer to me is clear. Anything that you touch or use frequently in your home, whether it be a modernist Miesian manse or a classical revival masterpiece by Pennoyer, should be beautiful. Buying cheap plastic switches and then lavishing half your budget on rooms that you will never use is like using paper plates every day and relegating the “good china” to the back of the cupboard. You might get a little wistful when looking at it occasionally, but you’re better off chipping it, putting it in the dishwasher, and just plain using it instead of keeping it for your kids. Oh, and p.s., they don’t want it.

About 10 years ago, we decided to make the investment of changing every single light switch and outlet in our house to Forbes & Lomax. Even the basement bathroom and laundry room got the treatment. Every time I turn on the switch and hear that gratifying “clack,” I know that something is about to happen, whether it’s time to make coffee, work for a client, get dinner organized, or retire from the day’s ordeals. The sound that registers is part of the auditory memory that we are creating of our home. It’s not just the exquisite look of the polished brass plate, the gratifying feel of the switch itself, but also the sound that it makes turning it on and off. This sound punctuates the rhythm of our days like the wall clock chiming the hour in the living room. No plastic switch can do that.

Several years ago, we visited Cuba with the National Trust for Historic Preservation which included a tour of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Havana, erstwhile home of the Countess of Revilla de Camargo. The countess was known for her extravagant parties that took place in her exquisite home, which was a somewhat smaller version of the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Decorated by Maison Jansen and filled with some of the most important furniture, decorative objects, and artwork in this hemisphere, what did I remember most? Electrical outlet covers in brass that were stylized Van Gogh-esque sunflowers, concealing the actual outlet! These were in every room we saw. Even when discreetly tucked away behind Louis XV canapés, these small, marvelously idiosyncratic and petite works of art were still there. An inspired architect decided that even this detail was worthy of good design.

Budget for these small works of architecture in your next renovation or new construction. And use the good china tonight. It’s worth it.

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