The answer is that the Retro Modern mix may be right for where we are today. Its appeal crosses age groups and is based on technology and clean lines. But let's look at where this style came from and what are its elements.
International Modern was a style that developed between World Wars I and II and evolved first in Europe. As the name implies, the style crossed international borders and drew inspiration from several European schools of thought from the DeStijl movement in Holland to the avante garde French architect LeCorbusier -- whose motto for his stark white and black houses was, "A house is a machine for living in." International Modern was a blatant break from Victorian gingerbread and bric-a-brac, and its philosophy was at the far end of the pendulum swing.
The Bauhaus school opened its doors in Germany during this same time frame. (It was closed by Hitler, a frustrated artist.) The Bauhaus was staffed by architects, artists and furniture designers who later became heroes in America including Mies Van der Rhoe, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius.
The challenge given to the teachers and students of International Modern design was to produce prototypes for quality designs that could be mass produced by machines using man-made as well as natural materials that would stand the test of time. Chrome, steel, glass, wood, plastic, leather, stone, tile and bricks were examples of materials that fit the criteria.
Above all, clean lines were paramount and simplicity was considered essential to well designed mass produced goods. A "frank use of materials" meant exposure of these "cold" materials as structural elements (weight-bearing, essential) and as trim (never considered decorative, however).
Most lines are rectilinear -- vertical and horizontal -- with an occasional sculpturally controlled, no-nonsense curve. At the window, blinds -- especially vertical blinds -- roller shades and simple draperies or alternative window coverings that appear as simple draperies are fantastic choices. In particular favor are treatments that can stack off the window to fully expose the broad expanse of glass (remember picture windows?), or at least not to compete with the architecture but to structurally frame the view, if any. Valances are kept to a minimum. Where fabrics are used, plain, sleek materials are preferred over complex or sensual textures and patterns.
Fewer furnishings and a stark or spare look are in tune with the "Less is more" credo first espoused by American architect Louis Sullivan. Noticeably absent in International Modern interiors are things like moldings, wall coverings, ruffled throw pillows and ornate frames. Lavish use of fabric -- anywhere -- is taboo.
In place of all these traditional furnishings, the Retro Modern style offers sleek, understated elegance, plain plaster walls, achromatic color schemes (black/white/ gray), simple furniture and small accent art pieces with punches of color. Often, furniture featured legs and arms of tubular steel reminiscent of designs by Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, David Rowland and Warren Platner.
Floors often are hard, but may use area rugs. Overscaled leather sofas and chairs balance the lightweight scale and add comfort. Indeed, Retro Modern is more comfortable than the original look of the '50s and '60s, but it is true to its spare, clean qualities.
So who likes this style and why? Just a few years ago we were hard pressed to find any examples of International Modern -- either authentic or updated -- in shelter or decorating magazines. Today, however, life has changed. As nearly everyone has (enthusiastically or reluctantly) entered the information age, we find ourselves flooded with stimuli, data and technology to the point of saturation, and sometimes overwhelmed confusion. After all, we still are finite humans. There is a limit to what we can absorb and comprehend and to how much we can take.
Slick, clean, unadorned interiors counterbalance all this stimuli. Add to this a new, younger (20- to 30-something) generation of technologically savvy customers who equate the Retro Modern look with the sources of their livelihoods and entertainment: the machine. This age group did not live through the early struggling years of this style when coldness, starkness and awkward design was abundant. Today, this style often turns off those in their mid-40s and older (been there, done that).
The question is, can those who don't care to re-live this style be open-minded to change and evolution and think of the Retro Modern style as a new modern style for the late '90s and a new millennium rather than a rehash? If they can, these customers will be happy campers.
Realistically, however, there always will be those who will reject this style. Granted, it is the antithesis of Victorian nostalgia (it was intended to be). It lacks the warmth of traditional interiors and furnishings. And the bottom line is that those who don't like it, don't want anything to do with it!
Careful respect for each customer's opinion and enthusiasm for the styles they like will ensure your success as a professional.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.