The New Luxury: How Architecture Redefines Extravagant Living
No longer about opulence, today’s luxury signals personal wellness, harmony with nature, and rich, dynamic experiences.
When we think of architectural luxury, an example that comes to mind is likely something grand and glam, replete with opulent drapery and baroque cabinetry. But as furnishings and goods in general have become more commonly available, the notion of luxury, which, at its core is about the unattainable, has also continued to evolve.
Today, the fine life is less about possessions and more about experiences. And while consumers expect that such experiences continue to signal status (luxury’s classic charge), there is also the newly emergent expectation that markers of luxury contribute to the aspirational development of a smarter, healthier, and all around deeper self.
Architectural luxury falls in line, with interiors that strive for an unencumbered, minimally programmed spaciousness, where meaningful, often charmingly simple moments can unfold freely. From homes to hotels to workspaces, as broader cultural values shift, design amenities increasingly reflect an appreciation for quality of life, while spaces tend to signal a yearning to connect to nature and to our communities.
“People spend more and more of their time in virtual space. They are missing that kind of real connection to people and place,” says architect Greg Mottola, a principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) in San Francisco. “The design briefs we get from clients, they don’t necessarily state it this way, but I think they’re hungering for things that feel more real, that ground them.”
In kitchens, architects are seeing requests for restaurant grade equipment that allows their clients to indulge their cooking passions at a fine dining level, or they are taking their kitchens outdoors. “It is not so much about having something that’s flashy,” says Mottola, “it’s about these experiences, so we help them by making it possible in the spaces we are designing.”
Mottola brings up a recently completed project—a single-family residence in Los Altos, California—which exemplifies the approach. A modernist reinterpretation of the Northern California ranch style home, the home’s kitchen design allows for sous vide cooking while a wood fire bread oven outside allows the owner to indulge in his bread making passion. The meal can be enjoyed on the custom-made dining table of Claro walnut, sourced collaboratively with the client. Incorporating passive ventilation, advantageous solar orientation, and renewables on the roof that help heat water and generate power, the home is also a testament to the elite consumer’s environmental consciousness. A wall of sliding glass doors in the main living room speaks to an ever-growing desire to connect to the outdoors.
“Clients are interested in ways that design can help them engage with their surroundings more. Like having the ability for large sections of their house to open up and connect very directly to the outside,” says Mottola. “And as technology in glazing systems has improved that’s becoming more and more possible.”
From residences to hotels, projects by Stuart Narofsky—principal and founder of New York-based Narofsky Architecture—also reflect a strong desire for an indoor-outdoor connection. Planted flat roofs are fully accessible. Outdoor terraces abound as do tons of glass. A consistent request for water features, like the series of reflecting pools in the Sands Point Residence, a project completed in 2017 in Old Westbury, New York, “extends the inside-outside quality of the house,” says Narofsky, with light bouncing off the water onto the glass and into the interior.
Materials that are natural, tactile, and, in some cases, kept in their raw state, speak further to a longing for the real over the temporarily riveting. “Faux finishes have gone away in favor of real materials with texture and quality,” says Narofsky, who incorporated local Comanche stone, flagstone, and wood into his award-winning Atix boutique hotel in Bolivia. “In the hotel, luxury translates as durability,” Narofsky says. “We tried to use materials that could have a more timeless quality, of being in the place.”
Just as material choices signal a desire to “dial it down,” as Narofsky puts it, in these projects, high-tech is increasingly repositioned as low maintenance. “As much as everyone seems to want integrated technology in their project,” says Mottola, “it needs to be really intuitive and really simple at the end of the day. Some of the folks we work for have lives in high tech industries; but for their homes they actually want it to be very simple. They don’t want to need to call IT support to turn on their lights.”
Back at the Los Altos house, a wooden Japanese soaking tub built into the deck off the master bedroom, points to health and wellness as the new aspirational mantra. (Think of so many celebrities and their respective life-style brands built solidly around wellness). “But it’s not a Jacuzzi with jets and all that, just a very simple beautiful wooden tub, “says Mottola. “It’s meant to be a place to reflect and be quiet, almost meditative in its quality.”
Simpler, quieter, grounded in a more principled value system, the new luxury vernacular has moved beyond the bigger is better mentality to a more human, and sensitive approach, past the old displays of opulence towards new ones of wholesome experiences.
“The days of luxury being more of a flamboyant style are waning,” Narofsky says. “Now, people are more appreciative of simplicity, elegance, and timelessness.”