Although we do not consider this era as ended, it has gone through some cyclical phases. Many of the Modern period's classic pieces and interiors were designed during the 1930s and 1940s as a reflection of the Bauhaus-the school of art, architecture and design founded in Germany. When Adolph Hitler closed the school, many of the professors fled to America where they continued teaching and designing.
During the 1950s, the United States was experiencing a time of peace, prosperity and-largely because of the influence of these former Bauhaus teachers-thoroughly modern design. Added to this scene were designs from the Scandinavian countries, beginning with the Danish Modern style. It was during this decade, more than in any other in the evolution of Modern style, that design was most revolutionary and daring.
The enthusiasm for clean, sculptural design paralleled post-World War II technological development. At no time in the history of the world were so many automatic gadgets invented and made available to the general, affluent public. Sleek interior furnishings complemented the new push-button automations with a neat, hand-in-glove fit. They were made for each other.
During the 1960s as the Hippie culture entered the scene, a generation of vocal, conscience objectors rebelled against everything America's new affluence represented. This group of avid I'll-do-it-my-way Baby Boomers made popular all things natural and earthy. By the 1980s, when this generation became 30-something, many of them decided the money and security their parents had sought was not such a bad idea after all. However, the Modern style of their parents' generation did not fit the ostentatious wealth of these now-called Yuppies. In fact, many sought traditional design as a symbol of new financial security and meeting their image of having arrived.
Ironically their children, Generation X or Generation Next, have come along and looked at all the old stuff their parents have come to love, and have decided the styles of the 1950s much more closely relate to their new world in the Age of Technology/Information. Hence, today, we have an entirely new generation of purist Modern aficionados. And the Modern circle is complete. We have come back to where we started, except today's lovers of Modern style have far more confidence. Today they (or should I say we?) boldly mix a plethora of modern styles, classic and new, with antiques or perhaps even a token of traditional style to make every interior unique.
Less Is More
Above all, this new generation of Modern style lovers embrace the philosophy that less is more, as do those who were closet Modern lovers all along and are daily joining the ranks of the younger generation now that it has become mainstream. Some examples of this thinking are:
• Less decoration equals more clean lines.
• Less clutter equals more space.
• Less traditional baggage equals more freedom of creativity.
• Less filled-in detailing equals more open space for thinking and mental soaring.
• Less stuff to dust equals more time for other pursuits.
• Less decorative look equals more emphasis on form and style.
• Less traditional furnishing equals Modern technological harmony.
It should be noted that the less-is-more style is the opposite of the Victorian era's organized clutter. We may have to retool our thinking to appreciate this philosophy, as it is opposed to much of the decoration that is pervasive in our culture today. It helps to think of this approach as purist, in which anything extraneous or superfluous not only is unnecessary, it is disdained.
Now, you may be thinking that this is a snobbish approach to design. Perhaps, but that attitude usually is the result of defensiveness on the part of decoration. All design styles and approaches are good when used with discrimination and appropriateness. The great fun in being an interior design professional is in helping people create their look on their level from their perspective. And where each of us may or may not embrace the Modern minimalist approach, at least we can appreciate this look for the great good it has done in making interiors clean, free of clutter and an environment for discipline, control and focus.
Making the Most of Spare
It has been said that a decoratively furnished interior if far easier to accomplish than a structural one. That is because when a room is filled with pattern and color, there is little room or desire to analyze whether it is well designed. It is furnished, and that is that. On the other hand, an interior based on the less-is-more theory is carefully scrutinized. Every item clearly stands on its own merit and must be of fine design to pass muster. Further, all items must have common bonds of clarity, simplicity and quality.
Here are some concrete rules about this new retro-active style that will help you accomplish it with skill and confidence:
• At the Window: Let the architecture show, even if it is simple molding or no molding at all. A frameless window is nothing to be ashamed of. Set window treatments inside the frame, or outside if the look is sleeker or less cluttered. Alternative window treatments, blinds, shutters and shades, alone or as undertreatments are solid choices.
Simple pinch-pleated draperies on unassuming hardware is always appropriate. For draperies, interesting abstract graphics were explored during the 1950s, as well as angular, conventionalized or stylized plant-inspired patterns. Interesting neutral textures or casement fabrics also are good drapery fabrics. If draperies don't suit the room or client's needs, don't worry about authenticity. During the 1950s window treatment choices were extremely limited. Today we have so many quality products to chose from any that are simple, sleek and handsome at the window will accomplish the new retro look.
The retro style de-emphasizes top treatments. The hardware that was exposed above the glass for operating draperies was not handsome, but functional. The credo, "form follows function," was inherent, though it didn't always yield sophisticated results. Today we can achieve a great deal of finesse at the window for two reasons: 1) The gamut and quality level of today's alternative window treatment product selection is the result of four decades of intense research and product development. 2) We have the confidence not to be fettered with restrictions. We can select from more contemporary products and hardware, achieve a simple and sleek look, and have a higher quality product than anyone in the 1950s dared dream possible.
• As Upholstery: Keep the styling simple, and use solid textures (this is a general rule). The most favored upholstery during this era was leather, followed by sturdy textiles such as frieze (fra-zay'), tweeds or perhaps matelasse. Overall, a tight, simple upholstery covering, even a duck fabric that is smooth and precise was favored.
Often the upholstery was on frames of exposed wood-perhaps just the cushions were upholstered. At least the legs were exposed (tapered legs as found in Danish Modern styles are appropriate). The scale of furniture was light, precise (in many cases the lack of a skirt will give this feeling), although the backs and arms also were small scale.
Today, consider the scale of the interior and match the upholstery scale to it. In the 1950s, the rooms generally were small, most often with ceilings no higher than eight feet if there was a good amount of floor space. In today's taller rooms and larger spaces, a heavier scale is warranted. Pillows are good choices, and are discussed under accessories.
• On the Bed: Simple coverlets or bedspreads, generally not deep or fluffy, were the order of the day for beds. This was before the mass-merchandising of the unmade bed look, so it may seem very spare today. Pillow tucks around the pillows give a conformed look. Throw pillows are OK and might be a good way to add color (see accessories below).
Avoid the ruffles and fussiness of bed skirts or dust ruffles. When one views the bed, it should be precise and uncluttered, tailored and dignified.
• As Accessories: Included here are throw pillows, area rugs and two- and three-dimensional artwork. Do have fun with the patterns-abstract should top the list-and colors can be shocking or at least unexpected in delightful combinations.
There were many new synthetic colors in the 1950s that have returned such as lime green, turquoise, bright yellow, shocking pink and many other intense or unusual colors. These vivid colors of the '50s were the result of dyestuff and chemical research began for the war effort in the 1940s and carried forth as research for new products and marketing during the 1950s.
Today the acceptance of bright, eccentric colors (intense and softened) suggest we have a populous that has become accustomed to bright colors on the computer screen, in graphics and as a result of the optimistic, free-spending society we live in. Bright colors are fun, lively and entertaining. Mix colors with unabashed delight. The great thing about colorful accessories is that they can be changed so quickly at a relatively small expense.
In creating rooms that have long-term appeal remember the Law of Chromatics, a rule that will stand the test of time. It states that the largest areas are for the most neutralized colors of the scheme, and the smaller the area the more intense the color becomes. This means medium intensity or brightness for upholstery or bedding and bright colors for accessories.
• On the Floor: The original flooring of the Modern era was hard. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1970s that long-term new construction loans allowed for carpeting. So during the 1950s, the upscale interiors had stone, tile, brick or wood floors with area rugs. Today we can add to that list vinyl or faux wood flooring.
The look should be natural, similar to quarried stone, and neutral as not to attract attention. The hardness of the floor was in line with the other controlled lines and shapes in furnishings.
However, area rugs were and are now an important player in the Modern style. Scandinavian rugs were early key elements: the flossa (a very long, thin pile), the rya (an artistic, hand-made, deep, thick shag rug), the rollikan (a Scandinavian modern/folk design-a reversible tapestry rug not unlike the dhurrie). Goat hair rugs, sheared, then woven, also are authentic.
Today, designer rugs that smack of cubistic, fauvist or abstract artwork in deep pile, short pile and flat weaves also are great. Unlike the 1950s, when furnishings were few and far between, today we may overlap or layer rugs and give the interior a far more cozy or furnished appearance (just a dollop of Victorian clutter for the sake of creature comforts).
Form Following Function
Fitting this look to today's window and wall covering offerings is not difficult. It is a matter of mind-set first, then of looking at every item in an utilitarian fashion. Everything we use in the interior should be useful. All items are functional. That is why very few top treatments exist, but alternative window treatments are prolific-they do the job of providing privacy, light control and varying degrees of temperature and sound insulation. Gadgets that simplify a task or make it more automatic are right on track. Examples would be easy-to-use controls and especially remote control options for window coverings.
The price one pays for the form-follows-function approach is not cheap. But when complete, the interior is somewhat pricey in appearance because thought, care and quality have gone into each selection. So whether the retro look is selected out of nostalgia (the look many remember from their early childhoods or their grandparents' homes), or because it suits so well the Technology/Information Age, it is a time-tested and proven style, right for the few becoming the many. It may never be the most popular style in America, but as a mainstream player, it now has gained substantial respect.
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.