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Specimen | Showroom


In showrooms, Specimen organizes displays of products at any scale, from textile samples to automobiles. It is a strategy by which customers can see and compare the full array of options available for a particular item. 


If a Specimen display also features the chromatic arrangement of the items it is displaying, it may also be considered a Spectrum1 display.

There are two main expressions of the Specimen Intype in showrooms. The first is the specimen box approach, in which the items are displayed isolated in cell-like enclosures. Although it is most common for all of the cells to be of the same size, it is not a necessity. The effect of the many items creates a striking display, although the physical isolation of the objects adds a clinical, scientific feel to the exhibition.

The second expression of Specimen is the taxonomic array, which discards the idea of individual containers in favor of carefully organizing related items on the same surface to make an aesthetically pleasing display. Although the items may be of the same form and size, it is less likely that they will be so in this type of arrangement. Both types of Specimen displays may or may not be displayed behind glass.  In showrooms, it is common practice not to place these displays behind glass so that customers can still interact with the product if they wish.

The primary effect of Specimen in a showroom is to create a visually appealing arrangement that also displays a large amount of merchandise. The organized display draws attention to the surface on which it is displayed. Since Specimen is most commonly mounted on wall surfaces in showrooms (although they may also be mounted on free-standing vertical partitions), this has the effect of rendering the product not fully accessible to the customer, working to distance the viewers from the products. The product now seems untouchable, making it seem precious and more important.2

In recent years Specimen has also become an increasingly popular strategy in retail design, where the specimen box approach seems to be the most popular. The retail installations tend to be more rigid in their adaptation of the Specimen Intype, in that all products and display framework are the same size. In 2011 the Pavé bicycle shop in Barcelona, Spain used white specimen boxes to display its wares, while the Australian shoe retailer Sneakerology displayed its stock in staggered wooden specimen boxes complete with numbers to help customers find the sneaker they want.3

Specimen evolved from Wunderkammer (German for "wonder-room"), a 19th century display strategy in which entire walls, and sometimes ceilings, were covered with artifacts. In early iterations, artifacts were not necessarily grouped according to any particular ordering principle; as the museum practice type evolved, it became standard practice to arrange objects by taxonomy. This approach meant that early exhibition spaces had an "apparent lack of rational classification," giving them a "bizarre sense of accumulation and juxtaposition."4 This concept was aesthetically appealing, if not particularly educational.

These early proto-museums were called "cabinets of curiosities" and predated art and natural history museums. The spaces were essentially the private collections of the wealthy; during medieval times and the Renaissance, collectors were fond of accumulating "natural curiosities thought to have magical powers related to healing, longevity, fertility, and sexual virility." As these collections evolved, so too did their functions. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the collections "showed signs of becoming research centers" as scientists began to realize the resources offered by these collections. Because of this, a shift occurred in the way objects were displayed. Although often still densely packed into rooms, the displays took on a more methodical organization. Such collections could be arranged aesthetically or according to technical classification. This often meant that items were arranged taxonomically in the case of biological specimens, chronologically in historical ones, and stylistically in the case of artwork. As these collections were intended for "the aesthete, the scholar, the collector and the craftsman," these displays lacked detailed labeling or background information typical of contemporary museum exhibits.5

Biological items in particular were often displayed in multi-compartmented Vitrines6 (Intype), or in glass jars filled with liquid, due to a need to keep specimens in a "still viewable, arrested state of being." In the case of natural history museums, this meant that taxidermy, pickling, and dehydration were employed with the vitrines so that the carefully collected samples of flora and fauna did not decompose. Specimen jars and Vitrines act not only as a means of protecting items from the elements and from visitors, but also as a distancing mechanism. The glass is a boundary, keeping the viewer at a "comfortable, voyeuristic distance," avoiding direct contact with artifacts that may be distasteful of gruesome but morbidly fascinating. This contributes to the museum effect by controlling how the object contained is seen. In fact, the state of being displayed in this manner may give an object "an aura of importance and authenticity, endowing whatever is presented with a sense of importance" even if is not displayed in a museum. This form of display also conveys the impression that the items exhibited have been carefully researched and evaluated.7

Over time, this particular display strategy evolved to a less rigid expression. As institutions other than natural history museums began to adopt Specimen as a display strategy, reiterations began to change and adapt based on the needs of the exhibition. Because the traditional Wunderkammer was visually overwhelming to patrons, items in Specimen displays began to be more generously spaced, and the display would comprise a single wall, rather than all four. Additionally, when the objects displayed were not biological in origin, it was no longer necessary to place them in specimen jars or vitrines to stave off decomposition. If the exhibition was at eye-level, the glass would often be retained anyway to keep the artifacts safe from the hands of curious patrons. However, in other cases, it was often enough to organize items in cells reminiscent of traditional specimen boxes, or in a taxonomic array.


Specimen as a showroom display aesthetic operates on the same principles as its museum counterparts. Objects can either be individually contained within cell-like enclosures, or they can be arranged together in an aesthetic display reminiscent of the taxonomic displays in old natural history museums. The former option is a descendent of the specimen boxes and jars used to display and preserve biological samples. The isolation of the objects from each other makes it easier to consider each item on its own, as well as with the rest of the display in mind. Specimen most often takes on a grid organization, a simple way to arrange the "cells" and still have the display appear organized rationally. This arrangement does not usually feature any sort of glass barrier, as the cell-like containers are often enough to imply full enclosure, making patrons hesitant to touch the objects even if they are allowed to do so. In showrooms, this type of display tends to be more popular when displaying furniture and other larger items.
The taxonomic array discards the idea of individual containers. Instead, related items are carefully organized to make an aesthetically pleasing display. If the objects displayed have roughly the same form, they are often arranged in a strict grid organization. If the items vary in size and shape, this grid will often be adapted to accommodate the differing forms, or will be ignored in favor of another ordering principle that allows for the neat arrangement of the items. Unlike in the above-mentioned Specimen type, the items are not individually isolated, and as such form what is known as a "mass display," in which a large amount of product is used to create an aesthetically pleasing arrangement.8 In showrooms, Specimen tends to be more popular when displaying objects smaller in scale than furniture because of the amount of product required to create the necessary effect.

Visually, Specimen is another example of a visual display of information in "small multiples" as explained by statistician and information designer Edward R. Tufte. In this case, the item displayed is held constant, while the change in form or color is the change of information. This allows for an "economy of perception" as the relevant information changes. As Tufte explains, "As our eyes move from one image to the next, this constancy of design allows viewer to focus on changes in information rather that changes in graphical composition." The repetition of elements next to each other "enforces local comparison within our eye-span" by allowing customers to see differences and understand contrasts. Having all variations of something right next to each other means that viewers no longer have to rely on memory. All comparisons can be made with a single glance for "uninterrupted visual reasoning." Small multiples allow customers to "see, distinguish, choose."9 In the particular case of Specimen, similar forms are placed adjacent to one another, emphasizing the differences between them. Additionally, having the full array of a particular product immediately allows the customer to understand what variations are, and are not, available.

Chronological Sequence

Specimen is one of the oldest interior archetypes used in showroom design. This is most likely because it is a direct appropriation from natural history museums, which had been using the display strategy for centuries. However, Specimen is difficult to trace, due both to lack of showroom documentation, and to architectural photography that may depict a Specimen display from an unflattering angle.

One of the oldest showroom interiors comes from well-known architect Morris Lapidus. He favored hotel and resort design in his later years, but his early career was spent designing retail stores and showrooms. One of these was the private showroom for Seagram Distillers, who opened offices on two floors of the Chrysler Building after the end of Prohibition in 1933. Although Lapidus designed the offices of the company in an "Elizabethan style," the showroom was "completely modern". It also had a bar. The end wall was made of "black ebonized wood" with a Specimen display of liquor bottles. The wood was punctured by round display openings organized in a grid configuration and lit so that they glowed brightly in stark contrast to the dark wood. In each "cheese hole," as they would later be called, was placed a single bottle of liquor.10 Although not actually behind glass, the organization and detail of the display made it clear that the bottles were not to be touched. This particular display was for aesthetic purposes only-any actual samples of liquor were procured at the bar.

The 1961 Alfred Dunhill showroom took a more taxonomic approach to Specimen. In order to evoke the long history of the company, designer Patricia Harvey evoked an "old-world charm" through the use of elements that were reminiscent of the 19th century. All the cabinets in the showroom were made of a darker wood, and the brown-toned color palette was maintained in the sandalwood carpeting and beige vinyl walls. Along one wall, was a large cabinet with a Specimen of the company's pipe collection.11 The pipes were arranged evenly spaced in ordered columns. The direction in which the pipes were displayed alternated every two rows so that the slanted lines of the pipes drew the eye of the viewer to the center of each of the four display windows. This usage of Specimen illustrated the array of pipes sold by the company, as this configuration let customers see and compare many different pipes side by side. A Specimen of a different sort could be found in the office of the president and chairman of the board. Behind the desk, was a framed display of antique pipes, carefully arranged, labeled and mounted on the wall. This Specimen was meant for display only, to be seen and appreciated.

The Specimen in the 1966 Ernest Treganowan carpet showroom was not so derivative of natural history museum displays. The display was designed only to show the "fine carpeting" of the company. To this end, designer Otto Ganttner created a space that was kept largely open so that larger rugs could be "shown full length." The floor of the showroom was also carefully considered; each different area of the showroom had a different texture so that each group of rugs could be displayed to the "best advantage." However, most interesting, was the display of broadloom carpet samples. The squares of carpet were attached to specially constructed rollers, so they could be pulled out easily to show customers. When not in use, they could be pushed out of site into square shelving units, where only the front square of carpet was visible.12 This organization strategy resulted in a Specimen of carpet samples, as each square was contained within its own wooden cell. The multitudes of broadloom samples were hidden, revealing only a select few; the grid of the display unit imposed a rigid order, while allowing the mechanism of the rollers to be concealed. In this instance, an aesthetically pleasing display was secondary to the functional needs of the showroom.

The "specimen box" approach became a popular method of displaying objects in showrooms. Because the gridded display unit imposed order on the objects displayed, designers found that they could group objects of dissimilar forms, although the type of object being displayed remained constant. In this way, designers extended the display of Line-Up (Intype), stacking multiple arrangements on top of one another until whole walls were filled. This is how Specimen was conceived in the 1970 Fritz Hansen showroom. The floor was divided into six display areas by a "modular system of pre-fabricated divider panels" with openings at eye-height. These areas housed vignettes of furniture in deliberately "room-like" settings. Along a wall a "series of wall compartments" comprised the showroom's Specimen. These compartments housed all of the stackable furniture made by the company.13 In some compartments, stacking was demonstrated as multiple pieces, which sat snugly on top of another. The use of Specimen here organized the products, while also drawing attention to them; they would not be as noticeable if they had merely been placed around the perimeter of the room. Instead, the isolation of individual products within cell-like display units drew attention to their discrete forms, and by proxy, their stacking functions.

During the 1970 and1980 decades, Specimen waned in popularity, but it never fully disappeared as a strategy. For the Beylerian showroom (1981) designer Wendy Moors aligned displays vertically with the ceiling grid to enlarge the amount of open floor space. To create a "focal emphasis," she placed furniture groupings "singled out for priority promotion" immediately within customers' line of sight upon entering the showroom. One of these displays was a series of chairs in a Specimen configuration arranged on clear acrylic shelves suspended from the ceiling.14 Although not contained within the clear material, this particular display was subtly reminiscent of the old specimen jars and Vitrines used to keep biological samples in natural history museums. The verticality of this particular display opened up floor space within the showroom, and also thrust the product into the customer's line of vision, ensuring that the display could not be ignored.

The Shelby Williams/Madison Furniture showroom had to function as two showrooms in one space. To avoid creating a disjointed space, designer Richard M. Glick decided to keep the showroom as open and neutral as possible. Thus, the walls were painted a dusty salmon, and the ceiling was sand colored. The only permanent walls were for the conference room, which also functioned as a display of conference furniture. In an attempt to make the showroom "aesthetically pleasing," Glick designed a series of "plastic display cubes" that each held one chair. These were aligned against the walls of the showroom-one for each of the companies. The Specimen for the Shelby Williams area was placed against a mirrored wall, and the chairs were all upholstered in a neutral, "dusty pastel" colored material. In the Madison Furniture area of the showroom, the chairs were arranged against a salmon colored wall and upholstered in a burgundy color, like the rest of the Madison products.15 The resulting displays unified the showroom while highlighting the differences between the two manufacturers.

By the 1990s designers experimented with Specimen iterations without the grid-like display unit that had been so popular in previous decades. The Brayton International showroom (1991) is a good example. Although the majority of the space within the showroom was taken up with a large Plinth for displaying furniture, one wall was dedicated to display using Specimen. The company had a collection of "half-scale model chairs used as sales tools and thought they might somehow fit into the showroom's new scheme." Designers Larry Berger and Michael Rait mounted the model chairs in a wall in a three-by-five grid, displaying fifteen models in all. The shelves were made of one-quarter inch steel supported by cables, for a minimally invasive display mechanism. The result was a Specimen array of chairs that allowed customers to "see at a glance not only a healthy selection of chair styles, but also a range of the leathers that compose part of the textile offering."16 The display also had the added benefit of creating a visually appealing focal point on the wall, ensuring that not all of the customers' attention was drawn to the central Plinth.

The Benetton Sportsystem Showroom (1994) took an approach that was even more reminiscent of the old taxonomic displays. The challenge in designing this particular showroom was that it needed to house sporting goods from eleven different firms in one "relatively small" space. To do this, The Phillips Janson Group devised a single display system that would unite all the exhibitions of the products. They collaborated with graphic design firm Mobius Inc. to create a system "endowed with the utmost flexibility." The solution was a "freestanding backdrop of sandblasted glass" with "pegboard-like perforations" in a twelve-by-twelve inch grid that worked in conjunction with various mechanisms to hold items in place. This arrangement allowed "mutable assemblage, quick rearrangement and forms fit for items ranging from ski boots and rollerblades to tennis balls/racquets and sunglasses."17 The use of Specimen unified the displays of the different sporting goods manufacturers; the space planning of the showroom allowed customers to differentiate between the brands. Thus, the showroom came across as on coherent space, rather than a shell hosting eleven different companies. The careful arrangement of items also elevated the status of the products, creating a more formal atmosphere for the space.
The idea of the specimen box was reinterpreted in 2000 for the Danilo Dolci Showroom in New York City. Designer Stephan Jaklitsch planned to incorporate the practical and aesthetic needs of the showroom into a small space. Because his solution divided the space into "individual sales sectors" with an area for executive offices, he needed a way to unite the space. He accomplished this by creating a "perimetric wraparound skin" made of frosted acrylic panels. The element was "scored vertically and horizontally with metal grids" into which the showroom's Specimen display was built. Square display cabinets were aligned along the longest wall. Every other inset cube held a single black handbag, creating a pattern of dark points within the soft glow of the cabinet wall.18 This particular display of Specimen isolated the products by not filling every available cube with a bag. The restraint in the amount of product on display was a strategy to demonstrate the high-end nature of the establishment, because it is generally understood in retail design that the less product on the shop floor, the more upmarket the product. The choice of black added visual uniformity to the display, allowing the shape of the handbags to vary without ruining the effect of the contrasting black and white.

The largest scale example of Specimen occurred in the 2003 Munich Mercedes Benz Center-or more accurately, outside of it. LAI Lanz Architekten und Generalplaner used Specimen, not for the showroom, but rather for "car drivers going past the building on arterial and ring roads." The exterior of the building itself acted as "one big showcase" for new cars; the main façades were constructed to act as "glass shelves" to exhibit automobiles so they could be seen from the exterior of the building.19 Silver cars were grouped for display through the transparent façade; each visually isolated in their own window. Although not actually contained within individual cells, the display was coordinated with the lines of the architecture to give this effect. And although people who drove by might not have the time to carefully consider each car, the message sent by the company was clear: the cars are things of glamour, like a museum artifact, to be admired and coveted.

The 2006 Janus et Cie showroom in Houston, Texas by Peter Jay Zweig Architects used Specimen as the display system for the company's array of chairs. To partition the space, the design team created over-sized display shelves, which merged the product and the architecture of the space. The "eleven-foot-tall units" acted as dividers between the showroom's vignettes, and also served as "perfect little stages for individual chairs." The large units were inserted with square shelves, twelve per unit, each containing a single chair lit from above, so that the individual cells glowed warmly in comparison to the rest of the space. In this case, the use of Specimen gave the showroom a museum gallery-like quality that allowed the product a permanent presence on the occasions that founder and president Janice Feldman cleared away some of the vignettes to host "lavish 40-person dinners"20 in the showroom. Specimen was an efficient way to display the large array of chairs manufactured by the company, without having to dedicate a large amount of floor space.

In showroom design from the 1930 to 2010 decades Specimen was one of the most rigidly interpreted archetypical practices, with very little variation seen in the chronological sequence. While there is little doubt that it will continue to be employed in showroom design, it will be interesting to see whether designers will take more liberties with how they interpret such a sturdy and robust Intype.21

end notes

  1. 1) The Spectrum Intype describes a display technique in which items are arranged chromatically. Courtney Cheng, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design" (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2012), 186-207; The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, (accessed Oct. 13, 2011).
  2. 2) James Putnam, Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001), 36.
  3. 3) Pavé [2011] Joan Sandoval, architect; Barcelona, Spain in Lydia Parafianowicz, "Pavé by Joan Sandoval," Frame, June 2, 2011, (accessed Jul. 1, 2011); PhotoCrd: Joan Sandoval; Sneakerology [2011] Facet Studio, architect; Sydney, Australia in John Pavlus, "Sneakerology, A Sneaker Store Where Kicks Get Museum Treatment," Fast Co. Design (13 Jul. 2011): sneakerology-a-sneaker-store-where-kicks-get-museum-treatment?partner=co_newsletter#3 (accessed Jul. 1, 2011); PhotoCrd: Katherine Lu.
  4. 4) Putnam, Art and Artifact, 8.
  5. 5) Edward P. Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Function of Museums (Nashville: The American Association for State and Local History, 1979), 9-10, 41.
  6. 6) The Intype Vitrine describes a glass showcase for the display of significant or ordinary objects. Kristin Malyak, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Retail Practices in Contemporary Interior Design," (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2011), 232-95; The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, (accessed Oct. 13, 2011).
  7. 7) Valerie Casey, "The Museum Effect: Gazing from Object to Performance in the Contemporary Cultural-History Museum," (paper presented at the annual International Cultural Heritage Meeting, Paris, France, September 8-12, 2003), 2; Putnam, Art and Artifact, 34-37.
  8. 8) William R. Green, The Retail Store: Design and Construction (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc., 1986), 38-39.
  9. 9) Edward R. Tufte, Envisoning Information (Cheshire: Graphics Press, 1990), 28-33, 67-68.
  10. 10) Seagram Distillers Showroom [1933] Morris Lapidus, architect; New York City in Deborah Desilets, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy (New York: Rizolli, 2010), 114; PhotoCrd: Morris Lapidus Archives.
  11. 11) Alfred Dunhill of London Showroom [1961] Patricia Harvey, architect; New York City in Anonymous, "Showrooms," Interior Design 32, no. 4 (Apr. 1961): 176-78; PhotoCrd: Hans Van Nes.
  12. 12) Ernest Treganowan Showroom [1966] Otto Ganttner, architect; New York City in Anonymous, "New Showrooms," Interior Design 37, no. 4 (Apr. 1961): 214; PhotoCrd: Anonymous.
  13. 13) Fritz Hansen Showroom [1970] Fritz Hansen Inc., architect; New York City, in Anonymous, "Market Spotlight: The Classic Look of Modern," Interior Design 41, no. 1 (Jan. 1970): 38; PhotoCrd: Anonymous.
  14. 14) Beylerian Showroom [1981] Wendy Moore, architect; New York City in M.G., "Redefining the Focus," Interior Design 52, no. 4 (Apr. 1981); 292-93; PhotoCrd: Mark Ross.
  15. 15) Shelby Williams/Madison Furniture Showroom [1981] Richard M. Glick, architect; New York City in R.P., "Light and Lively," Interior Design 52, no. 8 (Aug. 1981): 252, 253; PhotoCrd: Norman McGrath.
  16. 16) Brayton Showroom [1991] Berger Rait, architect; New York City in Edie Lee Cohen, "Brayton," Interior Design 62, no. 1 (Jan. 1991): 118-21; PhotoCrd: Mark Ross.
  17. 17) Benetton Sportsystem Showroom [1994] Phillips Janson Group, architect; New York City in Monica Geran, "Phillips Janson Group," Interior Design 65, no. 5 (May. 1994): 206-211; PhotoCrd: Whitney Cox.
  18. 18) Danilo Dolci USA Showroom [2000] Stephan Jaklitsch, architect; New York City in Monica Geran, "Wrapping Caper," Interior Design 71, no. 5 (Apr. 2000): 242-44; PhotoCrd: Catherine Bogert.
  19. 19) Mercedes Benz Center [2003] LAI Lanz Architekten und Generalplaner, architect; Munich, Germany in Christian Marqhart, Mercedes Benz Brand Places: Architecture and Interior Design (Ludwigsburg: AVedition, 2004): 96-135; PhotoCrd: Hans-Georg Esch.
  20. 20) Janus et Cie Showroom [2006] Peter Jay Zweig Architects, architect; Houston, TX in Edie Cohen "Garden of Earthly Delights," Interior Design 77, no. 3 (Mar. 2006): 134.
  21. 21) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Specimen in the showroom practice type was developed from the following sources: 1930 Seagram Distillers Showroom [1933] Morris Lapidus, architect; New York City, in Deborah Desilets, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy (New York: Rizolli, 2010): 120; PhotoCrd: Morris Lapidus Archives / 1960 Alfred Dunhill of London Showroom [1961] Patricia Harvey, architect; New York City, in Anonymous, "Showrooms," Interior Design 32, no. 4 (Apr. 1961): 176, 177; PhotoCrd: Hans Van Nes; Ernest Treganowan Showroom [1966] Otto Ganttner, architect; New York City, in Anonymous, "New Showrooms," Interior Design 37, no. 4 (Apr. 1961): 214; PhotoCrd: Anonymous / 1970 Fritz Hansen Showroom [1970] Fritz Hansen Inc., architect; New York City, in Anonymous, "Market Spotlight: The Classic Look of Modern," Interior Design 41, no. 1 (Jan. 1970): 38; PhotoCrd: Anonymous / 1980 Beylerian Showroom [1981] Wendy Moore, architect; New York City, in M.G., "Redefining the Focus," Interior Design 52, no. 4 (Apr. 1981); 292; PhotoCrd: Mark Ross; Shelby Williams/Madison Furniture Showroom [1981] Richard M. Glick, architect; New York City, in R.P., "Light and Lively," Interior Design 52, no. 8 (Aug. 1981); 252, 253; PhotoCrd: Norman McGrath / 1990 Brayton Showroom [1991] Berger Rait, architect; New York City, in Edie Lee Cohen, "Brayton," Interior Design 62, no. 1 (Jan. 1991): 119; PhotoCrd: Mark Ross; Benetton Sportsystem Showroom [1994] Phillips Janson Group, architect; New York City, in Monica Geran, "Phillips Janson Group," Interior Design 65, no. 5 (May. 1994): 210; PhotoCrd: Whitney Cox / 2000 Danilo Dolci Showroom [2000] Stephan Jaklitsch, architect; New York City, in Monica Geran, "Wrapping Caper," Interior Design 71, no. 5 (Apr. 2000): 242, 244; PhotoCrd: Catherine Bogert; Mercedes Benz Center [2003] LAI Lanz Architekten und Generalplaner, architect; Munich, Germany, in Christian Marqhart, Mercedes Benz Brand Places: Architecture and Interior Design (Ludwigsburg: AVedition, 2004): 104, 119; PhotoCrd: Hans-Georg Esch; Janus et Cie Showroom [2006] Peter Jay Zweig Architects, architect; Houston, TX in Edie Cohen, "Garden of Earthly Delights," Interior Design 77, no. 3 (Mar. 2006): 134; PhotoCrd: Jorge Castillo.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) Cheng, Courtney. "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design." M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2012, 160-85.