White Box, an undecorated space with white walls, white ceiling and a continuous neutral floor, originated in 1927 as clean envelope, a bare white architecture. An influential 1930 MoMA exhibition secured it as a museum aesthetic. more
White Box | Showroom
In showrooms, white walls and ceiling planes and a continuous, neutral color floor, continue to define it. Additional display mechanisms such as plinths may also be white, or they may be a different neutral color. Most often, they take on the color of the plane to which they are parallel.
In showrooms, White Box is often used to create a consistent background from which the product can stand out. A White Box space, like its opposite counterpart Black Out, begins to lose spatial definition as the different planes blend into one homogeneous enclosure. White Box can be found across all showroom types, from those displaying large, three-dimensional objects, to those displaying smaller two-dimensional samples.
White has been considered both the sum of every color and the absence of any color. White light is a mixture of all wavelengths of light, while white pigment reflects all light and is therefore devoid of any other color. In scientific terms, it is more accurate to say that white, like black is not a hue, or spectral color, but an achromatic value, for it exists without chroma or hue.
The white that we see is caused by all wavelengths of light being reflected from a surface. In most cases, such a surface must be clean or free of impurities to appear white. Because of this, it is often associated with cleanliness, purity and renewal. As color expert Frank Mahnke explains, "white means clean." White's unspoiled nature has led to its connotations of innocence. The English language is peppered with idioms using white to denote purity and integrity.1 A white lie is an innocuous or trivial one; lily-white intentions are pure ones. White-collar workers are executives, or those who don't dirty their hands with manual labor, and to whitewash means to cover up faults or to absolve from blame.
Because white is caused by, and associated with light, it is also associated with the celestial, the spiritual and the holy. In Asia, white is often used for funerals and mourning, because the belief in reincarnation means that death signifies "the beginning and not an absolute end to existence." In Judeo-Christian religion, white represents chastity, innocence, purity and joy. It is therefore fittingly the color of "brides, first communicants, the pope, and priests of certain religious orders."2
The use of white in architecture has existed for centuries. In countries around the Mediterranean Sea, white is seen as a symbol of cleanliness and hygiene. "Purifying and protecting"3 whitewash is generally applied to the outer walls of the dwellings in these countries to make them appear clean and fresh, with the added benefit of reflecting most of the sun's rays to keep the dwellings as cool as possible in the hot, dry climate.
In interior spaces, white can evoke feelings other than cleanliness and freshness. A white ceiling is empty with no design objections, but "helps to diffuse light sources and reduce shadows". White walls feel "neutral to empty, sterile, without energy," while a white floor inhibits, because it gives the impression that it is "not to be walked upon."4
White, used in interiors, maximizes the amount of reflected light in spaces, making the space feel more open and airy. It can also be used as a neutral backdrop for interior furnishings and pieces of artwork. Although the use of white in interiors has existed for centuries, the exclusive use of it in spaces did not gain much popularity until the 1950s. This trend toward white wall and ceiling planes continued until 1975, dropping off in the 1980s, gently resurging in the 1990s.5 In the most recent decade, White Box spaces maintain a healthy presence among interior installations, although some practice types, such as museums, are more likely to have a higher incidence of White Boxes than other types.
Opinion is divided on whether the effects of a white space are as neutral as architects and designers think. In reality, the idea that white brightens interiors depends on the quality of light that is being reflected. As Mahnke points out, a White Box on gray, rainy days "is more depressing than if the space were painted with a color with its own luminosity." He states that the exclusive use of white in spaces may in fact have a detrimental effect on its inhabitants. He claims that, "white has no psychotherapeutic effect" because "on a psychological basis, white is sterile" and that it reminds one of "unemotional clinical practice rather than involved human caring."6
The practice of White Box as a design strategy began in art museums, and the use of this tactic in showroom spaces seems to derive from its use in gallery spaces. As Thomas McEvilly explains in his introduction to Inside the White Cube, gallery spaces are meant to reflect eternity, and because of this, "the outside must not come in." Thus, the use of white in museums was intended to make the impression of the displays and art timeless by removing any points of reference from the outside world: "unshadowed, white, clean, artificial-the space is devoted to the technology of esthetics." However, according to Brian O'Doherty, the author of Inside the White Cube, it was the advent of postmodernism in which white museum spaces were no longer as neutral as they once were. Instead, they represented a "community with common ideas and assumptions". White cubes were "usually seen as an emblem of the estrangement of the artist from a society to which the gallery also provides access."7
White Box showrooms are difficult to trace before 1960, because of the predominance of black and white photography in trade magazines, such as Interior Design and Architectural Record. Although the archetype was almost certainly present, it is difficult to know for certain as such spaces were often described as "neutral colored" by the articles in which they appeared. "Neutral" could have encompassed various off-whites, creams and beiges.
The first definitive use of White Box in showroom design begins in the decade of 1960. In 1968, architect Warren Platner opted for White Box when he designed the New York City showroom for Georg Jensen, the high-end seller of Scandinavian furniture and lighting, called the Georg Jensen Design Center. With white brick walls, coffered ceiling and a gray floor made of Norwegian slate, Platner's intent was to create a restrained showroom that was "never insistent in its presence." To ensure that the product displays stood out in the space in high relief, Platner grouped related items on "rich and shimmery" plinths made of marble, granite, wood, plastic or glass.8 The furniture displays vibrantly popped against the stark white planes of the space. Chairs were arranged on the plinths and were also suspended from the ceiling at various heights, as if they floated in space. This display technique made good use of White Box as an agent that blurred the edges among floor, wall and ceiling planes.
Pace Furniture's 1975 New York City showroom, created by its own design staff, Leon and Irving Rosen and Janet Schwietzer, emerged as a warmer tone of off-white as opposed to the stark, almost institutional shade of bright white used in the Georg Jensen showroom. The installation, which spanned two floors and 11,000 square feet made no differentiation between its contract and residential products. In this instance, off-white didn't "compete with the furniture". The space was kept as open as possible, with dividers positioned to provide maximum visibility of the products while subtly guiding traffic throughout the showroom. The combined effect of the lack of a color background and space planning resulted in a showroom in which customers could "see and select items in the easiest manner for them."9
The 1977 Knoll showroom in Houston, added other design elements to make its interpretation of White Box more visually intriguing. The walls and ceiling were painted white a bright, clean white, while the floor maintained a neutral (though darker than usual for White Box installations) floor for its interpretation. Five groups of three white "sails" were stretched across the space to add a more "architectural" feel to the high-ceilinged space. In this showroom, the removal of color was done so as to help customers "visualize whatever schemes they are planning for specific jobs." As designer Sally Walsh explained, by creating an effectively blank shell of a space, the emphasis was placed on "changes in textures: leathers against canvas against hand-woven textiles.10 Indeed, this strategy worked as the space itself was almost invisible beyond the displays of furniture and textiles. The fabric sails that spanned the atrium space of the showroom gave the only reminder of the showroom's architecture.
Although White Box showrooms of the decades of 1960 and 1970 often consisted of unadorned white walls and ceilings, architects and designers in the 1980s experimented with the structure of the spatial envelope. White Box showrooms became more architecturally expressive. The DesignTex showroom at the Chicago Merchandise Mart used White Box to attract visitors to its showroom. Unlike other showroom spaces housed in communal buildings like the Merchandise Mart, The DesignTex showroom was completely open to one of the building's main corridors. This was done so that "designers were able to walk directly to swatch racks and make selections without registering at a desk. Because the showroom was painted a warm white, it stood out in stark relief from the dark corridor. The showroom itself was white so that the colorful textiles on display would be the first things designers would notice upon entering the space. The swatches were organized in two large Spectrum11 displays on the walls, which showed the entire color range in "schemes" so that "a designer could look at a portion of the spectrum and see a group or coordinated fabrics."12 Again, the White Box strategy was used to downplay the architecture of the space, ensuring that it acted as a neutral backdrop for the product. Because of the two-dimensional nature of the product, the effect of the White Box strategy was slightly different from previous examples of the Intype. With the fabric samples artfully arranged in large mural-like displays, this White Box space was very reminiscent of a museum gallery.
The 1985 NEOCON showroom for Armstrong World industries was much more architecturally expressive than previous White Box showrooms. The space, designed by Gilbert D. Benson, was composed of "square platforms of decreasing dimensions [that] were rotated at 45 degree angles... and piled on top one another to create architectural interest."13 Extending from the ceiling as well as from the floor, the rotated platforms were used to display resilient flooring, carpeting and ceiling finishes on the obvious surfaces. The remaining surfaces not covered with flooring or ceiling panels were painted white, downplaying the architecturally active space. The result was a White Box showroom that didn't feel at all sterile.
The 1998 Dakota Jackson showroom by Peter Eisenman in Los Angeles similarly relied on architectural intervention to add visual interest to an otherwise simple White Box space. A large, zig-zag ceiling element cut through the center of the 100-foot long showroom "in an effort to ease perception of its depth."14 Eisenman created a single origami-like element to destroy the box. The flexibility inherent in the single shape suggested "a series of frames" for the showroom's furniture, allowing the space to be transformed for different types of exhibitions. Additionally, the white envelope of the space was given a pearlescent finish to enhance an ambient glow from the ceiling element. The use of white allowed the architecture to be more prominent in the space without becoming too visually intrusive. The space was able to be visually intriguing, and to clearly display the company's wares.
At the turn of the 21st century, iterations of White Box became more rigid in execution. Instead of the various off-white and cream tones that marked installations from earlier decades, contemporary White Box showrooms began to use a starker, brighter whites. White flooring also became more popular, blurring the line between White Box showrooms and the less numerous White Out showrooms.15 Often, the only things keeping these White Boxes from becoming White Out spaces were furniture and display units, which were retained as defiantly non-white. The design firm FTL Happold chose a pure, bright white for the 1999 Joe Boxer showroom in Manhattan. Adding visual interest to the starkly white space were "manipulated mirrors that distort the human visage" and the black Joe Boxer logo "running up and down sign posts, coiling around curves, marching across the floor, and crossing desk tops."16 The result would have been too sterile if not for the addition of the boldly colored merchandise. Instead, the envelope of the space became a blank canvas against which bold graphics and brightly colored merchandise were offset.
The Dune showroom (2001) was slightly less severe in execution than the Joe Boxer showroom of two years prior. Like the previous White Box showroom, the walls, ceiling and structural columns were painted a stark white. However, in this the effect was lessened by the use of a sand and resin based flooring material that added a warm, beige color to the showroom. Although the tops of the Plinths in the showroom were colored the same bright white, the edges of the platforms were laminated with a light wood veneer similar in color to that of the floor. This design decision, as well as the rounded edges on the Plinths, added to the softer quality of this White Box space. Additionally, the pale neutrality of the space was broken up by the placement of the furniture on display, all upholstered in bold, bright colors. On one wall, two Spectrum displays of fabric samples added a colorful, graphic touch to the white walls.17 The result was a showroom that read as clean, warm, fresh, and slightly playful.
The 2006 Interface showroom in New York took a similar approach. The brilliantly white walls and ceiling, somewhat softened by a pale taupe epoxy floor, "hardly [made] a splash compared to the modular floor coverings on display." Russ Ramage, the creative director of Interface responsible for the design of the space, explained that the showroom's color acted as a "blank canvas ... to give a neutral backdrop to decidedly un-neutral merchandise," because the product on display changed constantly.18 The dark patches of carpet tiles visually popped against the light colored floor, ensuring that all eyes remained on the product instead of on the space.
In 2010, Philip Johnson Alan Ritchie Architects designed the Manhattan DDC (Domus Design Collection) showroom as a White Box. Non-structural columns and the floor were tiled with a glass composite that created a museum-like effect.19 Additionally low display platforms encouraged patrons to interact with the products on display. The design of a stark white interior, however, entailed more than the choice of bright white as a neutral backdrop for display. The architects chose white for the DDC showroom to differentiate and contrast it from the smaller Minotti showroom next door, which was black.
White Box's association with art museum and gallery display was easily adapted for showrooms, particularly those that featured colorful products, such as furnishings. Because of white's associations with freshness and purity, it is unlikely that this particular Intype will fall ever become unpopular among architects and designers. However, it will be interesting to see how White Box might be reinterpreted or used in the coming decades.20
- 1) Frank H. Mahnke, Color, Envrionment and Human Response (New York: Nostrand Reinhold, 1996): 56-70; Patricia Sloane, The Visual Nature of Color (New York: Design Press, 1989): 190-91.
- 2) Mahnke, Color, Environment, 56-70; Jean-Philippe Lenclos and Dominique Lenclos, Colors of the World: A Geography of Color (New York: Norton, 2004): 32.
- 3) Lenclos & Lenclos, Colors of the World, 32.
- 4) Mahnke, Color, Environment, 56-70.
- 5) Mahnke, Color, Environment, 80-81.
- 6) Mahnke, Color, Environment, 80-81.
- 7) Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1996): 9-15, 79-80.
- 8) Georg Jensen, Inc. Showroom  Warren Platner, architect; New York City in Anonymous, "Architecture Is Really Space," Architectural Record 144, no. 3 (Sep. 1968): 143-48.
- 9) Pace Showroom  Pace Design Staff, architect; New York City in Anonymous, "Pace Expands Showrooms," Interior Design 46, no. 10 (Oct. 1975): 60, 61; PhotoCrd: Anonymous.
- 10) Knoll Showroom  Sally Walsh, architect; Houston, TX in Anonymous, "The Knoll Showroom in Houston," Interior Design 48, no. 3 (Mar. 1977): 180-81; PhotoCrd: Stan Ries.
- 11) The Intype Spectrum is a display technique in which items are arranged chromatically, exhibiting the full range of available colors as well as unifying the surfaces on which the items are arranged. White Out has been identified in resort and spa, restaurant and retail practice types. The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, http://www.intypes.cornell.edu/intypesub.cfm?inTypeID=121 (accessed Oct. 14, 2011).
- 12) DesignTex Showroom  Jeanne Hartnett & Associates, architect; Chicago, IL in R.P., "A Good Idea Gets Better," Interior Design 52, no. 3 (Mar. 1981): 236-239; PhotoCrd: Idaka.
- 13) Armstrong World Industries Showroom  Gilbert D. Benson, architect; Chicago, IL in Andrea Loukin, "Armstrong," Interior Design 56, no. 12 (Oct. 1985): 122-23; PhotoCrd: Alan Holm.
- 14) Dakota Jackson Showroom  Peter Eisenman, architect; Los Angeles, CA in Edie Cohen, "Jagged Edge," Interior Design 69, no. 11 (Sep. 1998): 118-20; PhotoCrd: John Edward Linden.
- 15) The Intype White Out is a space in which all planar surfaces (wall, ceiling, floor), as well as furnishings and furniture are a bleached, bright white. White Out has been identified in retail, restaurant and resort and spa practice types. The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, http://www.intypes.cornell.edu/intypes.cfm?letterSort=w (accessed Oct. 14, 2011).
- 16) Joe Boxer Showroom  FTL Happold, architect; New York City in Monica Geran, "That's Entertainment," Interior Design 70, no. 5 (Apr. 1999): 220-223; PhotoCrd: Elliott Kaufman.
- 17) Dune Showroom  Richard Shemtov and Nick Dine, architects; New York City in Linas Alsena, "Civil Heights," Interior Design 72, no. 12 (Oct. 2001): 92-94; PhotoCrd: Formula Z/S.
- 18) Interface Showroom  Russ Ramage, architect; New York City in Eva Hagberg, "Watch Your Step," Interior Design 77, no. 3 (Mar. 2006): 148-50; PhotoCrd: Michael Moran.
- 19) DDC Domus Design Collection Showroom  Philip Johnson Ritchie Alan Architects, architect; New York City in Craig Kellogg, "Double Vision," Interior Design 81, no. 11 (Sep. 2010): 85-87; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel.
- 20) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of White Box in the showroom practice type was developed from the following sources: 1960 Georg Jensen, Inc. Showroom  Warren Platner, architect; New York City in Anonymous, "Architecture is Really Space," Architectural Record 14, no. 3 (Sep. 1968): 143-45; PhotoCrd: Ezra Stoller Associates, Inc. / 1970 Pace Showroom  Pace Design Staff, architect; New York City in Anonymous Author, "Pace Expands Showrooms," Interior Design 46, no. 10 (Oct. 1975): 60, 61; PhotoCrd: Anonymous; Sally Walsh, architect; Houston, TX in Anonymous, "The Knoll Showroom in Houston," Interior Design 48, no. 3 (Mar. 1977): 181; PhotoCrd: Stan Ries / 1980 DesignTex Showroom  Jeanne Hartnett & Associates, architect; Chicago, IL in R.P., "A Good Idea Gets Better," Interior Design 52, no. 3 (Mar. 1981): 236, 237; PhotoCrd: Idaka; Armstrong World Industries Showroom  Gilbert D. Benson, architect; Chicago, IL in Andrea Loukin, "Armstrong," Interior Design 56, no. 12 (Oct. 1985): 123; PhotoCrd: Alan Holm / 1990 Dakota Jackson Showroom  Peter Eisenman, architect; Los Angeles, CA in Edie Cohen, "Jagged Edge," Interior Design 69, no. 11 (Sep. 1998): 119; PhotoCrd: John Edward Linden; Joe Boxer Showroom  FTL Happold, architect; New York City in Monica Geran, "That's Entertainment," Interior Design 70, no. 5 (Apr. 1999): 222; PhotoCrd: Elliott Kaufman / 2000 Dune Showroom  Richard Shemtov and Nick Dine, architects; New York City in Linas Alsena, "Civil Heights," Interior Design 72, no. 12 (Oct. 2001): 92, 93; PhotoCrd: Formula Z/S; Interface Showroom  Russ Ramage, architect; New York City in Eva Hagberg, "Watch Your Step," Interior Design 77, no. 3 (Mar. 2006): 150; PhotoCrd: Michael Moran; / 2010 DDC (Domus Design Collection) Showroom  Philip Johnson Ritchie Alan Architects, architect; New York City in Craig Kellogg, "Double Vision," Interior Design 81, no. 11 (Sep. 2010): 86; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel.
1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, www.intypes.cornell.edu (accessed month & date, year).
2) Cheng, Courtney. "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design." M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2012, 52-69.