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Neo-Industrial Minimalism

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)

What is “neo-industrial minimalism”? It’s a style that originated in an unlikely place and time. I coined the phrase yesterday while driving in my car. I was thinking of my under-40-year-old clients. When describing their visions, they have something in common. They often use the word “industrial”. And, without exception, follow it with another word, “but”. They like industrial but with warm colors, not cool. They like industrial but with more wood, less steel. They like industrial but they also like Mid-century modern. What they’re describing is a new take on industrial style and warm simplicity.

My thoughts wandered as I thought about styles and trends, in general. It’s fascinating to observe who follows which ones and why. I don’t have any answers other than trends come and go and come around again. Some styles are rejections of the styles that immediately preceded them. In my experience, preferences often depend on where clients live. Regardless of age, my San Francisco clients request more formality than those in Marin or Napa. Makes sense. The architecture and the lifestyle in the City are more formal than its northern neighbors. My Marin clients usually want to incorporate some kind of water reference as a nod to the Bay they see outside their front windows. Napa, of course has a casual and, in some cases, agricultural, theme.

Throughout history, some styles and trends have been so strong that they turn into Movements or Periods with titles that are capitalized. Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus, Gothic, Renaissance, and Beaux Arts for instance. In recent years, I’ve had many requests for a farmhouse style. It’s been so popular that I bet it will soon be capitalized as well. Farmhouse makes perfect sense living in the Napa Valley. It’s homey, casual, comfortable, welcoming, and user-friendly. But I’ve also worked with strict and strong Moderne devotees - perhaps because of the many Eichler and Eichler-copied homes in the Bay Area. Early in my career, Mediterranean interiors were very popular. In later years, Asian décor overtook this popularity.

Because trends go in and out of style, it can be a little unnerving to anyone contemplating a change. After all, this can be a hefty financial investment. How do you know that what you want to create isn’t going to be a fleeting fad? As I’ve written before, good design is good design no matter the style. The key is to establish a good foundation.

In the case of neo-industrial minimalism, what would such a foundation be? Ideally, the interiors would have one or two significant, architectural elements to set an industrial tone. Perhaps exposed “I” beams or an exposed brick or rock (but not log cabin river rock) wall, or maybe concrete floors or countertops. Think of commercial buildings south of Market Street in San Francisco that have been converted into condominiums. Or think of New York lofts. In the Napa Valley, think of old barns that have been remodeled into very cool residences.

Neo-industrial style furnishings resemble pieces from the 1950s like the Eames chair and ottoman. Mid-century furnishings, in turn, resemble iconic pieces from the 1920s - like I said, trends come and go and come around again. Pieces like the Barcelona chair come to mind. While under-40 clients want sleekness, they also want to soften the lines with wood or upholstered accents. Chrome tables, plumbing and lighting fixtures now take a second seat to copper, burnished brass, or matte black steel. Light fixtures are typically retro-1950s in style with clear glass and Edison bulbs.

If you’re still wondering what neo-industrial minimalism might be, think of clean and functional vintage with a half-drop of rustic flavor.

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