At Poets House in SoHo, architect Louise Braverman put the writing on the wall
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 9/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Louise Braverman's treatment of Poets House is an architectural haiku: efficient, economical, and speaking volumes through a few well chosen lines. On a starving-artist's budget, the architect has carved out five offices and two reading-meeting rooms, leaving an airy, light-filled space for exhibits and events at the SoHo nonprofit, cofounded by poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray as a literary center, poetry archive, and gathering spot.
Braverman had been working with Poets House since 1990, when she designed its reading room and office. The staff increased from two to seven, and quarters grew so tight that not a single extra book could be wedged onto the shelves by the time the organization could afford to lease more real estate across the hall, bringing available square footage to 5,000. Braverman sought to make the most of the additional space despite the modest budget. "Every move has some kind of multipurpose benefit," she says. She reupholstered donated chairs and scoured discount shops for contemporary furniture. "Ikea was our store," she reveals. Braverman's palette consists of pumped-up earth tones, and the walls are tattooed with lines of poetry: vinyl letters with adhesive backing. "This wasn't just, 'Let's slap some poems on the wall,'" she explains. "Each verse was carefully selected. The space isn't supposed to look like the 'academy,' all dark paneled walls and musty volumes."
The spare design was compelled not only by cost but also by mission, which managing director Jane Preston sums up, poetically enough, as "making room for the poetry." Poems and fragments of verse wrap around walls and inhabit nooks, waiting to be discovered and appreciated word by thoughtfully placed word. From "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams, a single line ("of what is found there") is parsed into five cubbies that form a display shelf. A snippet of Emily Dickinson ("The Spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather…") marches across a wall, but you have to turn the corner to find to the last word, "Paradise." Even the storage room provides a dose of inspiration, with a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem over the photocopy machine. "Late at night, when you're getting out a grant proposal, you can look up and read Hopkins and remember that 'sheer plod makes plough,'" Preston says with a laugh.
Braverman incorporated several quirks, such as a cockeyed window in the children's room, to serve as a metaphor for the way that poems can take the mind in unexpected directions. "It's about layered meanings," she says. "The movement of words across a plane is like a human body moving through space."