Minimalism

The Loft Years
by Belinda Lanks

The 1980s may call to mind excessive ornament and oversize luxury, but there was actually another decor movement afoot—one of contrasting restraint, resourcefulness, and functionality. If mirrored walls and cabbage-rose chintz (the interior-design equivalents of shoulder pads and leg warmers) were the symbols of Upper East Side wealth, exposed pipes and factory lamps were the hallmarks of Soho loft living. Starting in the ’70s, artists began furnishing their spaces with elements recycled from humble industrial settings. They cooked on restaurant stoves, ate on diner stools, and slept under movers’ blankets. Designers of the era—Ward Bennett, Joseph Paul D’Urso, and Alan Buchsbaum, to name a few—scoured supply retailers for hospital sinks, laboratory beakers, and stainless-steel storage carts. (Dwell-style hipsters may be surprised to learn that they weren’t the first to take a shine to casters.)

But soon after the style was recognized by the mainstream and baptized “high tech,” the movement died a sudden death. By the mid-’80s, clients were getting richer, and as a matter of survival, interior designers adapted to the tastes and whims of their patrons. In a 1987 article in the New York Times, the French designer Andrée Putman explained high tech’s demise: “High tech died from its dryness, its coldness, its success. Wealthy people do not want to look poor, and if a great living room looks like a turn-of-the-century factory, it is too extreme a joke.” And though high tech was never fully resurrected, it didn’t suffer the disgrace that befell the slick, lacquered interiors that followed.

Going Lux
by Martin C. Pedersen

It’s hard to guess the date of a Richard Meier house, a John Pawson apartment, or a Michael Gabellini showroom. Their brand of rigorous minimalism is a bit of a magic trick: an aesthetic dance aimed at suspending time and compressing experience. They are classicists at heart. And their seminal projects from the 1990s—Meier’s Getty Center, Pawson’s flagship store for Calvin Klein on Madison Avenue, and Gabellini’s work for Jil Sander (above)—mark a paradoxical moment when minimalism became a kind of lifestyle choice for wealthy sophisticates. “Less is more” was no longer a philosophical stance but a literal fact, Mies to the nth degree. “Minimalism is not about doing without,” Gabellini said in a 2003 Metropolis profile. “Call it compassionate minimalism.” We’re not sure “compassionate” fits here. (“Luxurious” might be more accurate. Or “austere,” if you’re the type who prefers a bit of … decoration.) To be fair, the high minimalism practiced by these designers—rich people’s apartments aside—works particularly well for high-end fashion and art. It is the ultimate framing device. And it hasn’t gone away; it’s just been driven into cultural hibernation by a sour economy. Who knows? It could swing around again.

Celebrating the Ordinary
by Mason Currey

In 2006, at the same time that craft was enjoying a resurgence
in popularity, Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa curated a small exhibition of furniture and housewares at the Axis Gallery, in Tokyo. Called Super Normal, it gathered together a range of modest-looking everyday objects, from a stainless-steel ashtray and a simple plastic bucket to a Muji bicycle and chairs by Enzo Mari and the Bouroullec brothers. In certain ways, the selection represented the opposite of craft: instead of rustic-looking pieces that displayed the stamp of the artisan, these were mass-produced goods made from industrial materials and designed to look unobtrusive and even anonymous.

But anonymous does not mean boring. Indeed, Super Normal isn’t exactly about stripping things to their most basic, unadorned forms. Rather, it embraces beauty, bold color, and a subtle cheekiness—think of Fukasawa’s doughnut-shaped humidifier for Plus Minus Zero—provided these attributes don’t overpower an object’s function. As Morrison wrote in a 2006 essay, “There are better ways to design than putting a lot of effort into making something look special. Special is generally less useful than normal, and less rewarding in the long term.”

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