Home decor goes through an industrial revolution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2012, 12:00am


We've had shabby chic, minimalism, modernism, art deco and black and white as overarching design trends that have come and gone with all the mainstream saturation of catwalk trends.

The latest look coming back into focus is industrial-inspired furniture. Although the industrial look has been around for decades - think whitewashed loft spaces with exposed pipes and metal fittings - designers are increasingly choosing to use the aesthetic as their inspiration for furniture collections.

In its broadest context, this look is characterised by hard, industrial materials - steel, tin and other metals - fashioned to appear weathered or beaten. Often factory fittings, given a contemporary gloss, are used.

The recent rise in interest in this look can be attributed to a few factors - not the least being the need among consumers to strive for individuality in their homes.

'I'd say that if you want to try the industrial look, it's an easy way,' said Kelly Fallis, the chief executive of RemoteStylist, a United States-based international online interior design service. 'Pipes are permanent, furniture can be relocated. It's more interesting than living in an industrial space.'

The inherent dramatic appeal in industrial-inspired furnishings can add immediate zip to pretty much any space.

'People have been smothered with the Pottery Barn or one-store look for years,' Fallis said. 'It looks exactly like the store - so uninteresting and, more importantly, too many people have it.'

As a result, Fallis has seen a spike in demand for industrial-inspired pieces, which is being met through brands such as Blue Ocean Traders and Go Home products, which RemoteStylist sells through its website.

From Blue Ocean Traders comes a console table fashioned from a textile mill table; a tailor's rack recycled as a mobile trolley table; and an iron dentist cabinet that looks like it would work within just about any design framework. Many of the pieces made available by RemoteStylist through their vendors are moderately priced. The textile mill table retails for HK$8,150, a Boucher wardrobe is HK$22,330, and a light fixture over a crate table is HK$2,180.

Fallis said that in seeking out the look, it was important to focus on what she described as 'manly qualities' - metal, tin, steel, anything she described as 'heavy and rudimentary, basic, tough and weathered'.

Among the pioneers of industrial furniture was Donald Deskey, who died in 1989, introducing modern design to the US in the 1920s. Among his more important contributions was the use of materials such as tubular steel. He also made tables and lamps from metal, something hard to find in the late '20s. A collection of his work is exhibited in the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York.

Bob Campbell, founder of British-based Stig Industrial Art Furniture (stig-art.co.uk), a sculptor and furniture designer working in this style, said that much of its resurgence could be attributed to the movement against consumerism, with more people wanting to recycle.

He said: 'People today are looking for something different to the usual Scandinavian flat-pack furniture that everybody can own. They want to show their individualism and one way they can do this is by seeking out unique pieces of furniture and art to reflect this.'

Campbell focuses especially on the original materials, which for him go far beyond reconstituted factory fittings. He sources old and otherwise redundant mechanical, industrial and machinery parts - cogs, drive chains, hooks - and turns them into dramatic and eclectic pieces for a living or work space.

Because his workshop is in southern Yorkshire, a part of England that was a centre for engineering and steel production before it fell into decline in the 1980s, finding the raw materials was easy. They are literally the sort of thing that might be found in a scrap heap somewhere.

'The finish that I use is also very important,' he said. 'I like to give them a highly polished look of old steel, which in itself is aesthetically pleasing.'

Indeed, there is something alluring about some of his work, which has an almost cult following worldwide. There is, after all, a sensibility among people who might be drawn to, say, a metal table with a pair of workmen's scissors encased in glass on its surface, or a chair whose back is a pile of stubby metal screws.

Because of the customising, his prices are high, ranging from HK$12,280 to HK$122,800 for the chairs and HK$9,210 to HK$37,800 for coffee tables.

'I create furniture that has a sculptural quality to it,' Campbell said. 'So one or two pieces in a room can create a real visual impact. They are not a replacement for your sofa.'

The movement in this direction has had other repercussions.

Tirso Lighting (tirsolighting.com) is a New York-based lighting design firm that works with home owners and on hospitality projects to create ambient lighting. Its chief executive and lead designer, Tirso Pelaez, said that the trend had given his company a boost recently.

'It's been part of our design ideas over the last year and half,' Pelaez said.

Some among his clients who want to incorporate this look into their spaces have asked him to design the lighting to go with it.

He chooses what he describes as 'grungy materials with a fine edge'. So frosted glass might be illuminated from inside a piece of furniture to give a glow, but, he said, it was important to add a 'secondary texture'.

'Definitely anything that has a rougher texture is what would classify as something in the industrial design category,' Pelaez said. 'It might be something you find on the side of a road or at a swap meet. Finding reclaimed and repurposed material is definitely a direction that more designers are going in.'

He suggested looking for pieces that were reminiscent of factory fittings - anything with nuts, bolts, washers - and then finding a way to add a modern twist to them.

Still, Fallis said that the key to experimenting was not to do it simply because it was trendy, but to really love what you buy.

'Be madly in love with the pieces or don't even contemplate it,' she said. 'And make sure you know the story behind it, where it came from, who made it, what it's made of. Industrial pieces are always noticed and the subject of small chat - with guys, especially - so perception is everything. You need to appear to know your stuff.'

She also advised mixing and matching an industrial piece with classical furniture.

'It will anchor a space but stand out at the same time,' she said. 'And you can never have too much.

Move it around your home to places for which it was not intended, she added. You'll be surprised how many interesting spots you'll find. Also, because big industrial pieces can easily overwhelm a room, make sure you match them with other styles for counter balance. Otherwise it will consume the space.