The Fight Over the Flatscreen TV

How designers are tackling the dreaded object.

TV or no TV? That is no longer really a question: Flatscreen TVs are a central component of modern living. “They’re the computer monitors on which you check smart home systems, surf the web, listen to music, program movies and, yes, even watch broadcast—or more likely cable—TV,” says Los Angeles–based designer David Dalton. Yet whether ’tis nobler to suffer the presence of a TV set—a black rectangle now looming to 110 inches diagonally—or more desirable to hide it, well, that is a source of static. “TVs can go anywhere now,” says New York interior designer Campion Platt. “I installed one in a walk-in closet.” Other designers see flatscreens as a black blot on the interior landscape. “I would not have a TV visible where I could instead see art on the walls or views through windows,” says industrial designer Yves Béhar of Fuseproject, who helped design the Slingbox (which puts TV on a laptop or tablet). Béhar winces at flatscreens above fireplaces and in formal spaces. “Once, in Miami, I saw a giant TV installed on the wall at the end of a dining table, and the host actually turned it on mid-dinner! Unless you have video art running on the television, it makes no sense to have it staring back at you in the home.”

Remember that in their infancy, TV sets were largely immobile, connected by wires to roof antennae and rooted in the form-follows-function aesthetics of laboratory equipment. “They were ugly cubes, the bane of a designer’s existence,” says Carleton Varney, president of Dorothy Draper & Co. in New York, who was born in the heyday of the home radio, an appliance that was brilliantly styled by industrial designers, including Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and Walter Dorwin Teague. By the ’50s and ’60s, Varney adds, TVs came into their own as the electronic hearth of the American home and were treated as furniture—integrated into consoles in fine woods and decorative styles like French Provincial. In the ’70s, the sets had a futuristic appearance in colored plastic. But by the bigger-is-better ’80s, the TV had become the hulking gray elephant in the room.

The bigger sets grew, the more designers tried to conceal them, hiding them in screening rooms and media dens. They were stashed inside armoires, integrated into massive entertainment-center wall units and stored in cabinets with hydraulic lifts. “We worked with German elevator engineers, and the TV lifts were cool at the time but laughable today,” says Jamie Adler of the custom furniture manufacturer Phyllis Morris in West Hollywood. “They were coffin-like cabinets with grinding machinery that shook while raising the TVs to the up position.”

Enter the 21st century and the lightweight flatscreen TV, launching an alphabet soup of technological wonders—DVR, LED, LCD, HD—as well as new ways to enhance or downplay the television’s effects on an interior.

Today designers have mostly come to accept that the TV is a mainstay of the culturally fluent person’s home and have opted to enhance it rather than conceal it. Many use custom millwork and cabinetry to help anchor a set in a room. “We’ve put flatscreens into open shelves, so they remain featured, but we add objects around them to give visual relief and a sense of humanity to the space,” says Atlanta-based designer Stan Topol. He’s also fond of placing a piece of art directly above a flatscreen, so that it appears to be on a black plinth when the set is turned off. “The ideal location is often the focal point of an interior,” says Donghia creative director Chuck Chewning, who designed the Gritti Palace in Venice. “So an architectural element is created—a bookcase, an articulation to the wall or a low credenza where the TV sits. In a contemporary interior, it can be a seamless part of the design.” It’s harder to introduce the streamlined look of flatscreens into period architecture and Continental decor, he admits: “I have recessed a TV behind an ornate gilt frame with a two-way-mirror front as the only solution in a very traditional interior.”

Other designers are taking advantage of the TV’s unobtrusive quality when not in use. For his redesign of the guest rooms at L.A.’s Mondrian hotel, Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz worked with the firm Séura, which specializes in flatscreens concealed behind mirrors and waterproof TVs for showers. “Since then we’ve done other inventive installations, like hanging a flatscreen on a clear glass wall,” Noriega-Ortiz says, “and using a Lazy Susan arm that allows you to store a TV with a two-way reflective film in the vertical position, so it becomes a full-length mirror when not used.” He is now experimenting with TVs as ceiling-light fixtures for a project in Australia that will feature a live feed of the sky outside a room.

One thing designers can agree on: The convergence of technology and aesthetics will continue to inform our homes. “Soon it will be a 3-D experience without a TV set,” says Chewning. Campion Platt can’t wait for such a future and predicts the debate over the flatscreen and its place in the home will one day be moot. “Television will be projections from remote sources, like when Donald Sutherland watches TV as a hologram in The Hunger Games,” Platt declares. “The black box will just disappear.”

The Personal Setup

How four designers have configured their own television sets.

Jamie Adler
“It’s in my living room, actually. When I’m having people over, I mute it, put on Barbarella and some cool party music.”

Yves Béhar
“I have two—one pops out of a magic cabinet, and one is a projector that drops from the ceiling.”

Chuck Chewning
“I have one built into the bookcases in my 1878 Savannah house. In my modern New York apartment, it’s mounted to the wall across from the bed.”

Carleton Varney
“The TV is in the corner of my kitchen in Palm Beach. It’s primarily for HSN. I’m on it, that’s why I watch it.”

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