Barbara Mayer

Senior Gardener

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Some of My Works

American Design History
"Mindful of detail but never boring. . guides the reader through the Arts and Crafts Movement." -
-Home & Garden Magazine
American Cultural History
"Mayer demonstrates a talent for bringing to life the people who built Reynolda"
-Winston-Salem Journal
A sampling of work by the author

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Some Recent Articles by Barbara Mayer


Excerpt from Dome Sweet Home
Metropolitan Home
March/​April 2002

It's tough living with an architectural icon. Mine is a geodesic dome, the creation of R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was an eccentric visionary, and the structure he designed for living imposes its own peculiar demands. Forget everything you know about houses when you live in a geodesic dome. The beauty of the space is its spherical form, but concepts like wall and ceiling lose significance in a building whose walls and ceiling are one and the same.

When Fuller invented his dome in the late 1940s, he wanted to prove that this circular structure composed of triangles is the strongest, most energy-efficient, most flexible and least expensive enclosure possible. While he didn't persuade many people to give up rectangular living, geodesic domes did take their place as unique structures of the 20th century.

By the late 1960s, when my husband and I were looking to build a house on some land we owned about an hour north of Manhattan, geodesic domes had acquired a reputation as inexpensive modernist housing. A painter we knew filled us in on the details: "They come in kits, cost next to nothing, go up fast, offer wonderful light and are architecturally unique."

Unlike those who enjoyed the mathematics and technology of domes, we wanted our prefabricated plywood dome to be a thing of beauty, so we had a landscape planner site our house in a meadow overlooking the lake, and an architect designed the interior. Although the house was small—living room, dining area, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bath on the first floor, with a balcony space above—it was expansive. Even on gray days, light poured in through five large sliding glass windows and four skylights. At its apex in the center, the ceiling soared to18 feet.

We moved into our dome in 1970. The marriage ended ten years later, but not my life in the dome, which has not been without frustrations. The building's roundness, its smallness, its few rooms and their built-in furnishings—things I love—have nevertheless have made my house resistant to the modest changes that life requires from time to time, changes that I am sure a traditional house would accommodate without a fuss. Trying to fit in a larger bed, a new bookcase or even another lamp usually has meant rethinking the arrangement of an entire room. As a result, I became adept at adjusting my needs to those of the house instead of the other way round.

My dome is an homage to a now somewhat obsolete modernist ideal which is to find or invent the perfect form and then to live with it forever. With our complete concurrence, the architect my husband and I hired built in what he could and precisely scaled everything else. In the kitchen, for example, the sleekest and best-designed refrigerator then available fit its enclosure with an inch or so to spare, as if we would never need to replace it or the manufacturer would continue to offer the same model. Similarly, the charcoal-gray carpet, all 200 square yards of it, was glued to the floor and to the wrap-around banquettes at the edge of the living room.

I gave no credence to the pleasure of novelty or to the likelihood that my concept of perfection might change. Furthermore, appliances broke, carpet frayed and possessions mounted. My son grew up and moved away, but overnight guests were still sleeping in his built-in, 33-inch wide bed. Storage space was at a premium: My mixer was stowed in a bedroom closet. My books overflowed their cases, rose in towers from the floor and filled cartons. Though disorder makes me uncomfortable, piles of books and papers confronted me each morning when I came upstairs to work in my balcony office. It was as if the house needed all the space to itself and my life got in its way. This led to reveries about all the large and small inadequacies of my dome-icile and my life. I could think of no way to solve these problems that didn't involve major alterations. Yet, I feared destroying the openness, light, space and geometry that I loved. My house and I had reached an impasse. . . .

Excerpt from website
From Biblical-Theme Paintings to Turkish Corners at Home: When Americans Embraced the Mysterious East

A fascination with “the mysterious east” overtook Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The craze manifested itself in everything from fine paintings to “Turkish corners” with floor cushions and low tables at home to cigarettes with names like “Fatima” “Omar” and, of course, “Camel.”

What came to be known as orientalism spawned artworks and accessories, some actually from the east, but most created in the west from the artist’s or designer’s fevered imagination of the sensuality of Islamic art and culture.

Decorative objects partaking of orientalism were rampant from the 1880s on. As the style became more popular, it filtered down from the wealthy to the middle class via department store offerings and advertising motifs. As demonstrated in the exhibit(at Clark Institute,)the mix encompassed magazine illustrations, ceramics, photographs, clothing, insignia from fraternal orders like the Shriners and silent films from the early 20s, such as “The Sheik” (starring Rudolph Valentino) and “The Thief of Baghdad” (with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.). There were even popular songs with titles like “In My Harem” by Irving Berlin and “My Opal from Constantinople.”

It was artists who started the ball rolling. By the mid 19th century, there was quite a vogue among European (especially French) and American painters for traveling to the near and middle east. The American artist most closely associated with the area was Frederic E. Church. His imposing canvas “Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives” (1870) occupies a dominant position in the exhibition.

In addition to his paintings, Church brought back numerous souvenirs of his travels to the near east to furnish his home Olana (now a historic house museum open to the public in Dutchess County, New York). Olana itself, built in the 1870s, is loosely based on the Persian architecture.

John Singer Sargent was also a traveling painter fascinated by the east, as shown by his painting “Ambergris Smoke” (1880). William Merritt Chase didn't go to the Orient but that didn’t stop him from painting “The Moorish Warrior” (1878), in his Greenwich Village studio. . . .


From Evolving Period Colors: Beyond Neutrals
American Bungalow, Spring 2002

There's an art and a science to picking historic paint colors. You need to do some research but pick colors you really like. The good news is Arts and Crafts colors were wilder than you may think.

From The Postwar Phenomenon
Masterpiece Magazine (London) Autumn 2000

From car boot sales to museum pedestals in one short decade. Some now regard the postwar period as the most important in modern design.