The Ingredients of Industrial Style
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
Thirty years since it first appeared, the industrial look has become a staple of architecture and interior design. Its palette of raw materials and functional components is a trope of fashion retail and contemporary home interiors, and absolutely obligatory, it seems, for independent coffee shops.
Like all styles, coherence and consistency are key to getting the industrial look right, requiring understanding of the form, its infuences, language, references and conventions. Like all styles, complete commitment is required - wimp out on any of the ingredients and methods, and risk undermining the entire rusty, jagged-edged confection.
A Past Life
“True” Industrial style requires a space converted from an earlier industrial use. Wherever you are working, whether factory, warehouse or suburban semi, focus on uncovering rather than applying. All finishes that softened a previous use must be removed entirely, unless they are already severely damaged - a hint of dereliction helps the cause. Distress to Impress.
Brutish and impolite
Brickwork and steel are exposed, as are air ducts. Floor joists are left without ceilings beneath them, preferably with rusty joist hangers visible. Electric cables are shown like vascular diagrams, concrete is a default internal finish, preferably exhibiting a botched fair-faced casting.
When detailing, think of speaking a foreign language without the nuances of idioms of a native speaker. Think monosyallabic, rather than poetic.
Reveal for Appeal
Function and activities that were once “backstage” are not protected: the open kitchen of many restaurants, on show for diners, is an expression of the industrial aesthetic.
Feeling brave? Try it with a domestic bathroom. Baths must be free-standing, showers semi-enclosed, preferably behind poorly-cast concrete, corrugated steel, safety flooring or paving slabs. .
A Bareable Minimum
It is critical that the notional conversion that underpins this industrial environment has been carried out to a bare minimum. Fitted carpets are anathema to the industrial look, with perhaps the exception of a shag rug thrown on the battered timber floor. This presents a problem when it comes to kitchens. Bathrooms can be haphazard, but kitchens can’t. An unserviceable kitchen will breed grime, become stained, smelly, unpleasant to use. One must at all maintain coherence: this as a place of industry and work, not domesticity. A mass-produced fitted kitchen is out of the question (an unacceptable concession to comfort), but a robust lump of concrete as a work surface,
(with an assemblage of metal lockers) maintains the rigour of industrial.
There is no Mission
Do not confuse industrial with the grand projets of modernism, classicism, art deco, etc. The Lloyds building of Richard Rogers, the Sainsbury and Renault Centres
of Norman Foster with their Hi-tech machine aesthetics, are grounded in modernism. They flash guts and tendons in muscular architecture, utopian, up-front and centre. Industrial offers an alternative view of the
relationship between machines and man, uncovered by dispensing with the niceties of decoration, and slough off the clean things that contain us. Modernism and Hi-tech architecture speak of money invested in a show of strength and purpose. Industrial speaks of money unspent, money not spent on plaster, paint and prettiness. Industrial is an archaeological reading of surface and space, but without an ongoing narrative. There is no lightening of the burden, no release from a tyranny of stuff (as minimalism promises), but instead alternative sets of stuff, with a common origin that they were not designed for an aesthetic purpose. It makes no sense - stop expecting it to.
Searching my memory for a first conscious awareness of a industrial look, I think of David Cronenberg’s 1986 B-Movie The Fly. Jeff Goldblum’s character, a twitchy, vulnerable and ultimately malevolent human-insect-genius brings Geena Davis home to a barely converted warehouse, which is permanently swathed in mist. The doors to his living quarters are the first signs of industrial. Sliding roller-doors on tracks, oversized. We know in an instant that he doesn't live in a house, he lives in a warehouse! How edgy, how urban. To really hit the right note: a hyper-industrial object, like a matter transporter, in the living room, helps a lot.
Some standards of the industrial look have become fixtures of educated middle-class, bourgeois taste, transcending categorisation. Oversized steel light fittings, pigeon-breast grey as the default colour for anything. That’s not a bad thing, fetishisation of the industrial comes as a relief in many ways. The fake homeliness of furnishings from retailers such as MFI and Sofa Workshop has been swept away. Habitat failed to see this and was duly steamrollered by IKEA, whose understanding and incredibly skilful collage of industrial and quaint covers more bases than I can think of.
But that's for another blog..