Reflective Space

For interior design, mirrors and reflective surfaces are material superpowers and are integral components of how MAAPS reimagines and designs space.

Extended version of article published in Hotel Designs

12 MINUTE READ

© David Hockney – Viewers Looking at a Ready-Made with Skull and Mirrors

Mystery

Once solely a mystical surface and religious metaphor for divine interpretation by Scryers and Soothsayers, mirrors are seemingly a portal to another world. As such, reflection continues to carry a residual sense of visual mystery, fascination and wonder, whether viewed across a becalmed lake or through an ornate framed mirror above the mantel.

In the context of architecture and interiors, mirrors retain a magical ability to bend, extend, and morph our perception of and our relationship to inhabited space. Hovering between two and three dimensions, and in the fleeting moment of transparency, mimicry, and illusion, one’s imagination and perception of reality both instantly undergo four remarkable kinds of spatial transformation through a looking glass. This is what Plato refers to as a “visual spirit” which zips from the eye to a mirror, is reflected back to the observer’s face, thence to the mirror again, and finally back to the eye.

Compressed History

The first mirrored surfaces recorded are found in polished artifacts dating back to 600BC. Hero(n) of Alexandria (15 to 75AD), a Greek mathematician and engineer who invented the steam engine, extols the many virtues and practical applications of refraction and reflection in his work of Catoptrica (“Reflection”).

His explorations and observations form the philosophical foundations of perception and the understanding of visual reality.

Later, and more menacingly, the power of reflected light was deployed in warfare by Anthemius (of Tralles) in ~500AD. His “burning mirror” comprised a central hexagonal panel, with an encircling corona of mirrors to guide the light of the sun to a single point of focus – effectively creating the first analogue laser capable of incinerating approaching fleets or armies.

The Greeks quest for knowledge about the secret physics of light and perception, later taken up by Arabic scholars, were lost and then rediscovered and translated into Latin to be studied anew throughout Europe during the Renaissance period. Meanwhile, in Italy, the island of Murano became the epicentre of glass technology during the 15th & 16thC. It is here that the Venetian artisans evolved the highly coveted skill of applying tin backing to glass sheets to create remarkable and highly valued mirrors. It was a trade secret they vigorously protected for the next 150 years.

As Italy’s economic dominance waned during the 17thC, France’s unrelenting desire to acquire the secrets of mirrors finally succeeded when three Murano masters were bribed and transported to the French capital. The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles is the first dramatic spatial expression of this transfer of knowledge and spectacularly breaks the Venetian monopoly of the magical reflective surface. The captured technology of mirror making is wielded by the Sun King (Louis XIV) to represent a kingdom of infinite opulence.

Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles. Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

Public / Private View

Humans are one of the few species who can intellectually comprehend reflection and identify themselves in a reflection. The mirror taps a unique facet of our internal noetic experience, where we are simultaneously reflected in the physical space within which we dwell and our own psyche.

© Anish Kapoor, Installations at Houghton Hall 2020. Photos: Pete Huggins

Mirrors work powerfully in public spaces too, dancing between the collective and the individual view. All at once, we look at others; at ourselves and inside ourselves. This kaleidoscope of reflectivity, where perceptions of reality collide and fracture, consciously and unconsciously, are intriguing and beguiling. Sometimes pleasurable, surprising, reassuring or strangely disconcerting, the act of catching oneself in a reflective surface is fundamental to our continual assessment of ourselves and our surrounds.

Left: Entrance Hall © MAAPS Bar Ten Right: © Ben Kelly Design. Photo Steve Reynolds

Use In Space

Designing with mirrors invites a space to open and transform. The use of a large statement mirror can make a small room appear much larger, particularly if the mirror encompasses an entire wall; is placed in a central location; or is shaped like a window, to create the illusion of boundless space beyond.

Jewel Hotel Guestroom, New York. Photo MAAPS/RHA

Depending on the size, shape, placement, and ornamentation, a mirror can serve a variety of different aesthetic and functional purposes in an architectural or interior setting. Mirrors can act as spatial camouflage; layering, collapsing, and disrupting the passage of light.

Within interiors, a mirror can function as a statement object, a mass surface, a focusing device or a portal beyond. Glancing mirrored views provide anticipation of approaching spaces, visual intrigue and pull, a sense of discovery, and self-animated movement. Mirrors positioned close to the line of a ceiling visually mobilise illusionary volume and depth into an implied space beyond.

Mirage installation for Hungary’s 2014 Sziget Music Festival © Studio Nomad

Ultimately, mirrors possess a chameleon quality that can dramatically transform a built space, where an interior either expands or dissolves and our visual experience of perception is shifted. Whether mirrors serve to accentuate an existing interior, to lead you visually through to another space, to tease and stimulate your curiosity, to keep your imagination engaged, or simply to characterise a newly built space, they are versatile devices and instruments of light.

The Infiniti Bathroom © MAAPS

It is only natural as designers, that we would want to celebrate reflection within the interior as both a quality of physical and mental space. In a constrained bathroom, 900mm wide, we played the infinity game and applied mirrors to directly opposing surfaces. The smallest room then transforms into a meditative space for expansive contemplation.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

Soane’s use of light is a distinctive and consistent trait of his architecture and interiors. He produced complex, multi-layered effects by innovatively deploying forms and structure to marshal the play of light and shade. He invented creative devices which are still in use today, such as top-lighting, strategically aligned mirrored surfaces, elongated vistas, along with the use of coloured glass to transform the experience of the spaces he designed.

Soane’s choreography of light and mirrors is perhaps the most captivating aspect of his Lincoln Inn Fields museum interior. Many of the principal rooms are delightfully augmented and subtly rendered with natural lighting effects cleverly interacting with skilfully positioned mirrors. These are seen to greatest effect in the Library, Dining and Breakfast Room.

Photos © Richard Bryant from Sir John Soane’s Museum book.

Soane’s spatial techniques were one of the contextual sources of inspiration for our use of mirrors within the guestrooms at the Club Quarters Lincoln’s Inn Fields hotel.

Club Quarters, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Alumni Guestroom © MAAPS

Perception Of Light

As with Sir John Soane, Lebbeus Woods’ notes on “Measuring Light” (April 30, 2012) consider our relationship and engagement with the reflected self.

“Light is a natural phenomenon, the complexity of which reveals the structure of human consciousness. Objects, including buildings, in their absorption and reflection of light, stimulate a human’s neural networks, in effect activating the brain. The more complex and nuanced the stimulation, the more the brain comes to life. Shape, edge, texture, colour, shadow, highlight – play with and against one another – effectively enabling the brain to make the most subtle distinctions, thereby imbuing human experiences with a richness and complexity that defines it… the perception of light is central.”

The mirror can therefore be viewed as an instrument that reveals the presence of light, giving it a precise measure and place in our conception of interior space. 

As designers for Zoffini, we have taken to heart Woods’ sensibilities of light and aligned it with Anthemius’ articulated mirror instrument to create our own variant of a “Shift Mirror”. We purposely break the reflected surface, to redirect light, and to offer an altered sense of perspective.

Shift Mirror, Crown Mirror, and Sutton Fire Surround visual for Zoffini © MAAPS

It is not surprising that we appreciate the mirrored surface as such a wonderful and adaptive material Superpower in our world of design. The mirror is an oddly passive, introspective, intrusive, and energetic surface, not just because it reflects the environments and people around it, but because its reflective quality transforms the way we see the world that surrounds us.

Although rationally we may have put away all mystical metaphors, mirrors will remain analogous to the stuff of magic and imagination – from mirrors on walls used by manipulative fairy tale stepmothers, to joining Alice and her Looking Glass portal to step through into an alternate promised world.

Written and pondered while listening too: The Beat – ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’, Benjamin Britten – ‘Narcissus from Six Metamorphoses after Ovid’, Need For Mirrors – ‘Reverie’, Maurice Ravel – ‘Miroirs III’, Harold Budd – ‘The Serpent in Quicksilver’, Bomb The Base – ‘So Special (Toob’s Special Special Mix), John McCarthy & Ken Currie, BBC Something Understood (06/03/2016) – ‘On Reflection’; Reading Mark Pendergrast – Mirror Mirror, Lebbeus Woods blog notes from Slow Manifesto, Jonathan Miller – On Reflection, Stefan Buzas & Richard Bryant – Sir John Soane’s Museum, Team Yellowtrace – Mesmerising Mirrors in Art & Architecture, David Hockney – Secret Knowledge… at home.

P.S. – Will life on “Zoom” become our new reflective portal?

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