Interior design

Industrial look for homes thrives as antidote to an excess of luxury

Industrial style combines austerity and recycling with natural materials to create a living space where room boundaries are blurred

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 4:44am

Rusty iron, raw concrete, bare light bulbs, exposed pipes. It sounds more like a third-world workplace than a cosy home interior, but the industrial look has been with us for a decade, perhaps more, and designers say it's not losing ground.

Factories and warehouses are an obvious candidate for the raw, rough and ready aesthetic, but it's crept into urban chic, too. Indeed, Shanghai-based design firm Neri & Hu, recognised masters of industrial-style architecture and interiors, can barely keep up with demand.

So, what's the attraction? Granted, austerity rules these days - industrial is a style that can (potentially) be achieved on a budget - and reusing and recycling are greatly in favour. But Lyndon Neri, founding partner of Neri & Hu, has another take: could we simply be fed up with all the bling?

In China at least, luxury has permeated society to the extent that we don't know what's real or fake any more, suggests Neri. "[It] caught on maybe because people are tired of all the gloss and ostentation surrounding them."

While the industrial look is epitomised in Neri & Hu projects -such as the Waterhouse Hotel, a converted 1930s warehouse in Shanghai's old docklands; Mercato restaurant on The Bund, an all-steel building stripped back to its bare elements; and the de-construction of a lane house back to its austere origins - it's a label that doesn't sit well with Neri.

"We are not so much interested in the industrial look - we are interested in natural materials," he said.

Given its history, China is the ideal place to explore this design genre, Neri says, but with this proviso: "If it's not done carefully, with an understanding of the spatial element, it could come across as really cheap."

How to achieve it? Of course, space is a bonus for an industrial aesthetic, but Keith Chan of design firm Hintegro finds that regular flats can benefit. A few points have to be considered, however, including the layout of the space. Be prepared to keep this as open as possible, even demolishing non-load-bearing walls if possible. This notion of "interlocking spaces" means that boundaries between rooms are blurred.

Certain materials "are essential", Chan says. Think rusty iron, bare concrete, exposed brickwork and plywood. "Plus some decoration - which can be non-functional - like a typewriter or construction tool, such as a shovel," says Chan.

Deborah Oppenheimer, of Deborah Oppenheimer Interior Design, agrees it's a look that is not done with yet. "Hong Kong has experienced a rebirth of light industrial areas later than a lot of cities, and there is a big financial advantage to this way of decorating in such an expensive city, quite apart from any aesthetic value," she says.

But what's it like to live with? The trick is to employ a cleverly layered approach, says Oppenheimer, by teaming, say, detailed elements in hardware with beautiful textiles. Keeping the proportions right is crucial. "I never use much colour in my interiors but beautiful bed linen, a gorgeous throw and clever accessories are a must," says the Hong Kong-based designer.

Indeed, her office in Wong Chuk Hang is a revamped industrial space, but designed so it could work as a home down the line. Oppenheimer "ripped everything out" of the old printing works, and reinstated the space to include a Carrera marble and white subway-tiled bathroom, Edison-style light bulb chandeliers made by Baroncelli in the UK, plain bronze window frames, and oversized door pulls. "The space has a wonderful, calm feel," she says.

Designer Anji Connell, who returned to Hong Kong in January last year after relocating to England for 11 years, loved the industrial look and feel of her London converted warehouse home so much that she's replicating it here, in a 1,200 sq ft Aberdeen studio. "We don't have children, so don't need to compartmentalise our living space," Connell says of the open-plan layout. "We like the feeling of wandering from the bedroom to the living space."

Connell, who runs an interior design, garden and landscape practice, is a fan of concrete floors and cement-board walls which she leaves "in their natural state". It's a cheap design trick that can "transform an interior in one day", looks clean and light and is warmer to walk on than tiles or marble, Connell said.

Her London home has exposed brick walls, but in Hong Kong, faux wallpaper can be a substitute, Connell says. "Andrew Martin of London has a fantastic collection of trompe l'oeil wallpapers in brick, wood, concrete, as does Tom Haga." You can also distress existing wall finishes by sanding them down to reveal different paint layers.

She also puts up sheets of weathered iron and tries either to expose existing plumbing and air conditioning pipes, or buy copper replicas. Statement lighting - such as an old schoolhouse pendant or iconic Hong Kong butcher's lamp - is perfect.

The designer's tip to soften the look is to add "shabby chic" furniture, such as an old, comfy sofa, and statement pieces from the likes of Timothy Oulton.

Another fan of this style is Russian architect Peter Kostelov. His no-nonsense Moscow apartment - a carcass of metal frames and factory fit-out - had a look he conceded to be "brutal and industrial". "Working with metal was extremely interesting at the time [2005], as it seemed almost impossible to apply this material to the interior of a living space. It became captivating and surprising," Kostelov said.

The apartment's utilitarian lines allowed a distraction-free space. It was also practical: he didn't have to worry about precious pieces being damaged.

Connell concedes it is not for everyone: you need to be able to live with imperfection, and lean towards an unkempt look. But if you want to make the most of a featureless Hong Kong flat, Connell has yet to see a better, easier or more affordable way.