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Originally published September 13, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Page modified September 21, 2012 at 8:17 AM

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Furniture and appliance designs that seem to disappear

A sampling of furniture and accessories that use technology and sleight of hand to hide annoying details like switches, grates and knobs in order to create a streamlined space.

The New York Times

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There is a downside to well-camouflaged outlets if you don't have perfect eyesight. ... MORE

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The first thing you see when you walk into Patrick McInerney's living room is that there's nothing to see. The walls are bare, and ditto for the ceiling. You try to switch on the lights, but there doesn't appear to be a switch. There's music playing, but where is it coming from? The lamp is obviously working — the bulb is lighted, after all — but it seems to be plugged into ... the plaster?

Part interior illusionist and part aesthetic anorexic, McInerney is a practicing member of the cult of disappearing design, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't ethos that aims to secrete away anything that needs a button, a cord or a subwoofer to work. It's a passion that McInerney, a 44-year-old architect from San Diego, takes seriously, comparing his drive to streamline with the process of writing a novel.

"Each word is considered and refined, not only for the word's meaning but also its relationship to other words," he wrote in an email. "And the landscape in which the words are brought together."

Indeed, more than simply stashing your stereo in a closet or throwing a shawl over your ottoman, the all-invisible aesthetic aims for a higher-minded goal: creating unified spaces that flow from room to room and place to place.

"We're interested in having our work reflect and melt into the environment," said Rene Gonzalez, a Miami architect who reflected and melted his vision into a client's $47 million home in Miami-Dade County, Fla. "We think about enclosures that can dissipate and disappear, so that the outside and inside bleed into each other."

Driven by technology and old-fashioned ingenuity, such design pursues goals like "zero sightlines" (fixtures that can't be seen in profile) as well as creating seamless — and shadowless — surfaces. Tricks are plentiful and often James Bond-ian: light switches are camouflaged to appear to be part of the wall, for example, while lighting fixtures lurk behind small apertures. Handle-less drawers open with a touch of a finger, while dining room tables collapse to less than an inch wide. (Note: remove plates before folding.)

One major proponent of the unseen look is the Trufig brand, which offers all manner of disguised designs, like power outlets and data jacks that blend into the background, and tablets and touch panels installed into walls. Trufig advertises itself as "a revolutionary design solution" that abides by a strict rule: "Be completely flush-mounted." All of which, the brand promises, will alleviate deeply annoying eyesores, including devices that "protrude out of the wall or ceiling creating distracting shadow lines."

"Unfortunately, code, safety and convenience dictate they be there," reads a section of the company's brochure, which features a photograph of a chameleon in front of a marble wall. "Do they have to be such a visual intrusion?"

On a more practical, less superficial level, disappearing design is meant to both maximize one's ground plan (particularly in small urban apartments) and minimize the "visual noise" created by things like bulky knobs, dust-prone vents and the ancient albatross of many decorators: the widescreen TV.

"People like, more and more, a clean look," said Alexandra Mathews, the vice president for international sales and marketing at Lucifer Lighting, which is based in San Antonio. "It's nice to be in a place where you're not forced to look at a bunch of things."

And while Mathews and other acolytes concede that such a look isn't for everyone — "Some people like hardware and clutter," she said — they note that there is plenty of proof that such a modernist-tinged look is in vogue, offering as evidence the popularity of both Ikea furniture and iPads. (The former being mass-market minimal, the latter being basically buttonless.)

B. Alex Miller, a partner in Taylor & Miller Architecture in New York City, concurred, adding that the debate between showing things and stowing things is a long-running one. "You go to any architecture office on the face of the planet," he said, "and it's a battle that goes on every day."

Joesph Tanney, at Resolution: 4 Architecture, said that reflected light is also a useful tool, something he employed with a 30-foot wall of cabinetry with hidden hardware that he recently designed for a New York apartment. Made of medium-density fiberboard, wrapped in glossy thermofoil, it created a smooth, airy effect. "The place feels like you're in a cloud!" Tanney wrote in an email.

Much of the current deceptive design originated decades ago with tinkerers who took apart factory-built goods (stereo speakers and tuners, ceiling fans and cooktops) to find ways of making them more appealing. And while professional work of this variety used to be the exclusive domain of custom designers — very expensive custom designers — today's disappearing acts are more likely to be mass-produced and considerably cheaper to pull off.

"It's something that architects and designers have been wanting to do for years, but it's always been ultraluxury, one-off custom stuff," said Rob Roland, the executive vice president of Dana Innovations in San Clemente, Calif., the parent company of Trufig. "What's starting to happen now is that it's moving down the pyramid." And all over the house, apparently. C.C. Sullivan, a spokesman for Lucifer (the company of lighting, not the Prince of Darkness), outlined all kinds of spots where traditional elements are disappearing or becoming less obtrusive, including cooktops, kitchen appliances, bath accessories, drawer fronts, baseboards, medicine cabinets and window frames.

Many of the fixes, while technological in nature, are meant to hide other unsightly technological gadgets. For example, a decade ago, flat-screen TVs seemed to be the answer to the giant consoles of the "Ozzie and Harriet" era. But the growing size of the screens has proved to be a new challenge.

In response, the Seura company in Green Bay, Wis., sells a line of "vanishing" TVs that look like large mirrors when they are not being used. The company offers more than 100 frames for the sets, from "sleek accent" styles to a "collection of candy-colored frames" that would seemingly defeat the purpose of de-emphasizing the TV.

But even before you hit the media room, design is disappearing, with companies like Modern Doors Direct in Miami offering frame-free entryways that promise clean lines, a European look and, it almost seems, a better sex life.

"Clean lines and rumpled sheets," a video on the site announces, depicting two very good-looking people in love. "Sleek, seamless doors lead to a life beyond this room." (OK, just make sure you close the seamless door before you rumple those sheets.)

And speaking of sleeping arrangements, one of the earliest proponents of disappearing design was William L. Murphy, who invented his pivoting bed in the early 1900s. Since then, many have attempted improvements on the Murphy bed, with varying degrees of success.

Take the Bed Up Down system, which allows a mattress to seemingly materialize from the heavens, dropping into any space available (it's actually lowered from a compartment in the ceiling). The company's Italian language website is positively bubbly about the levitating berth. "Up down bed is the bed that space does not care," the site reads. "But it creates!"

The French designer Rene Bouchara also has a take on the Murphy bed, with a sleek white-on-white retractable that would not look out of place in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Likewise, Bouchara designed a nifty, and nearly invisible, console table, sold at Roche Bobois, that is made almost entirely of clear glass, which must be great fun with clumsy children or easily confused pets.

Transparency and simplicity can be effective tactics, but Miller, the New York architect, noted that sometimes complexity worked just as well. For a hair salon his firm recently designed, he employed a "relentless ubiquity," he said. "We had to fight fire with fire."

The approach involved covering every surface in the salon with wood shelving (even the ceiling), creating what he called a "complex kind of waffle space." The result, he said, was a monochromatic environment that made the salon seem warmer.

That said, while waffles are fine, thin planar surfaces appear to be more common in disappearing design. Fisher & Paykel makes sleek flat-topped stoves with controls that sit on the same plane as the ceramic glass cooktop. No messy back panel, no greasy front knobs, and the entire stove is less than 4 inches tall.

But that's almost bulky compared with the table and chairs designed by Alexander Gendell's Folditure, whose futuristic, collapsible pieces continue a tradition of folding furniture that it says dates to ancient Egypt. (The Pyramids were famously tough to decorate.) Both the table and chair, known as the Cricket and the Leaf, fold to less than an inch thick, which means you could hang the seating for your dinner party in the same closet where you stow your guests' coats.

Folding is also the idea behind a shower concept from Duravit, a German company that claims to specialize in "living bathrooms for living people." Its OpenSpace shower enclosure comes with two locking doors that collapse against the wall after you're done scrubbing. The doors can be clad in a reflective surface as well, providing a full-length mirror.

Can't see yourself through all that steam? Well, that's when you need the wall-mounted exhaust fan by the Ukrainian designer Michael Samoriz, which pops out from the wall, then retracts when its work is done. The fan's exterior is meant to blend in with tile surfaces, and the only indication that the device is not another tile is a thin strip of LEDs around its perimeter.

And while we're on the subject of folding and collapse, why not add some decay to the mix? Giovanni Tomasini, an Italian designer with a soft spot for small things, designed a garden gnome that dissolves in front of your eyes. Created with composted materials, Tomasini's sculptures slowly fall apart as they sit on your lawn, leaving behind a deposit of plant food and hard-to-forget images of melting elves.

Architects like McInerney, of course, hope that visitors will take away more-pleasing images from their work. And at his home in San Diego, that effort is everywhere (and nowhere) all at once: the oh-so-subtle stereo speakers on the ceiling, for example, are perfectly integrated into the texture and color of the plaster. Likewise, light streams out of slots and punctures rather than visible fixtures. And the lamps that are in view plug into outlets that are also integrated into the plaster finish.

All of which seems to be both a confirmation of one of McInerney's long-held beliefs about design ("Architecture consists of many single parts which must be joined together") and something he thought was long overdue.

"It's so simple," he said. "It's sort of like, 'Why has it taken so long to get here?' "


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