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Is Brutalist Lighting a Thing?

How an Architectural Style Became a Decor Buzzword

March 01, 2019
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Is Brutalist Lighting a Thing?

How an Architectural Style Became a Decor Buzzword

March 01, 2019

It's always been a slippery word, Brutalism

As an architectural style, it was at first praised and then reviled within its own heyday ('50s-'70s) and abandoned, with many of the buildings eventually being demolished or never built as intended in the first place. But with the rise of visual culture on the internet and the last decade's wave of nostalgia, its towering buildings have garnered a whole new generation of admirers. The movement's undergone a reappraisal, with online fan communities and blogs, magazine articles and books and monographs continually coming out, and groups organizing to establish Brutalist buildings as historic landmarks before the wrecking ball takes them down. 

As just one example of its ongoing trendiness, Elle Décor recently gave Kate Bolick a column as Aesthetic Detective to investigate "design crimes." Her first assignment? You guessed it: Brutalism. 

Though it exists solely as architecture or as a set of ideas about architecture, the word is now applied to all manner of things, including sofas, tables, and light fixtures. But when someone calls a chandelier "brutalist," it may mean something very different from the word applied to sixties housing developments in London.

 



Barbican Estate, City of London: Cromwell Tower, 1970, (Chamberlin Powell and Bon)
John Maltby / RIBA Collections
via architecture.com

It began with Alison Smithson appropriating the term "The New Brutalism," a strange phrase being bandied about by the British intelligentsia in the early fifties. In 1953, she and her husband & design partner Peter Smithson designed a house for a property in London's Soho that would embody the term, but problems with adjacent property owners prevented its ever coming to fruition.

No matter, though, because they got the shot they were looking for the next year when they won a competition and were given free reign to design a public school building. They put the concepts of this architectural philosophy into practice in the triumph of their Hunstanton School, which was completed in 1954 while they were in their early 20s. It was immediately praised by other influential and respected architects, like Philip Johnson, and is still loved and used today. This was essentially the only building to ever be proudly called Brutalist by its creators, and it looks nothing like the kinds of buildings we imagine when we hear the word today. 

Soon after, clever design critic Reyner Banham wrote a famous essay, largely focused on this school and establishing a definition for The New Brutalism, which so far only existed in this building and the Yale Art Centre by Louis Kahn. He had three criteria going forward into the future for a building to be termed Brutalist (ahem, and we quote):

  1. Memorability as an Image
  2. Clear exhibition of Structure
  3. Valuation of Materials 'as found'

 


Assembled by Michael Abrahamson (who really knows his stuff). From his article, "Brutalism: The Word Itself and What We Mean When We Say It" via Critic Under the Influence

Then, a funny thing happened.

Nobody who actually practiced architecture or whose work was called "Brutalist" agreed with Banham's definitions or identified as "Brutalist."

Rejected by those whose work it most accurately reflected, it's a label that has a certain level of judgment built into it. As shorthand for depressing government structures or housing units made of oppressive concrete, the "brut" in Brutalism, derived from béton brut, French for "raw concrete," came to be understood as what the ear hears: "brutal" (i.e. "grossly ruthless or unfeeling," or "very bad or unpleasant" to take two definitions of the word from Merriam-Webster).

 


Rendering by Lasse Lyhne-Hansen of Paul Rudolph's unbuilt City Corridor (1967-72), a plan for a Manhattan that would accomodate and minimize the damage of the also-unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), a major road planned by Robert Moses and stopped by Jane Jacobs that would have destroyed Soho and the Lower East Side | via designboom

Paul Rudolph, the style's American figurehead and perceived as something of a Roark from The Fountainhead, actively despised the term and refused it as a label for any of his buildings. The Smithsons, responding to Banham, downplayed the material aspects and tried to reclaim their more abstract philosophical definition in the same journal in which his famous essay was published:

“Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” [Alison & Peter Smithson, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design (April 1957)]

Kahn, Rudolph, Corbu, and Breuer (most famous now for the Wassily and Cesca chairs) set the tone with large buildings, civic and academic, in what has (more generously) been called a "heroic" style. As Timothy Rohan puts it in his book, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, "Rudolph was one of the foremost developers of the expressive, concrete monumentality known as brutalism that became the primary language for modernist public buildings in the 1960s."

This sort of language is more consistent with how the architects would have considered their Brutalist/Heroic structures.

Defining aspects of these buildings include

  • their monumentality
  • their abstract geometries
  • their use of concrete

But, in the public consciousness, it always comes back down to this concrete. Rough concrete and towering forms. 


Brielle by Mitzi

Enter Brutalist lighting, stage left.

What is it? Is it even a thing?

Is it this glorious piece of Corbu-inspired kitsch from the '60s

Is it this famous torch-cut chandelier by Tom Greene for Feldman, also made in the Brutalism heyday of the sixties?

As we covered in our extensive post a few years back, Brutalist buildings don't have much truck with decorative lighting. Architectural lighting, not very sophisticated yet at the time, did most of the lifting in the illumination department, working in tandem with the spaces' emphasis on natural light through well-placed windows.

Since there's really no such thing as Brutalist lighting, the answer is that it's whatever people say it is. As the linked listings above show, if the word is used to describe a certain item, then that's what it means, language police and architecture snobs be damned. 

The word moved on to describe certain other pieces of interior décor, such as the chunky, blocky, at times totemic and sculptural furniture of Paul Evans—especially sideboards and credenzas.

Hudson Valley Lighting Group's loftiest brand and its most attainable brand have both entered the fold with lighting you might call Brutalist, and they straddle these two different categories—the torch-cut fortress-like drama on the one hand, the concrete-in-miniature accents on the other.


Confidant by Corbett Lighting

New to Corbett's collection this year are Confidant and Luma, both of which contrast black metal with gold-leaf edges in forms that are ragged and distressed, and Magic Garden, from the Martin Lawrence Bullard collaboration. True to Corbett's M.O. of creating art that happens to light the room, these new pieces take cues from couture. Drama, presence, and impact. There is something of that fortress feel and celebration of raw material that comes with the word Brutalist. Confidant's rough edges and blackened metal contrast with a smooth linen diffuser. Luma nests wavy lines in a more nature-based interpretation of the influential style.

Luma chandelier by Corbett


Luma sconce by Corbett

Martyn Lawrence Bullard's Magic Garden takes this couture inspiration even further, combining his secret passion for Coco Chanel's beloved camellia flower with Brutalist lighting sensibilities. Iron flowers forged by hand contrast with satin black, graphite, and bronze. Maintaining a traditional hoop shape with some visible bulbs and some hidden light sources, Magic Garden softens the Brutalist idea and pursues beauty. 

(You can learn more about Martyn Lawrence Bullard's collection here, and get a recap of its launch in High Point last fall here.)


Magic Garden by Martyn Lawrence Bullard for Corbett Lighting

But if Brutalist is high design shorthand for "concrete"—and it is—Mitzi has all kinds of ways to slip a touch of Brutalism into an eclectic space without overwhelming it. 

The newest brand was born out of the Hudson Valley Lighting Design Studio in 2017, and with its first collection, it was trying the idea out. Layla, a lamp available as a floor or table variety, comes with a smooth, heavy base of concrete. As you can see below, it fits comfortably in with a contemporary space with other midcentury items. 


Design & Photography: Eri Sabalvoro


Design & Photography: Eri Sabalvoro

It was a hit! And, to be honest, we fell in love with the idea. If The Smiths were right and "Barbarism Begins At Home," maybe it could also be true that there's space for a little Brutalism at home?

As Iris and Lynn show below, the answer is yes. Concrete and terrazzo, once the material of grand civic works, can now be placed into a home to give another layer of texture and raise the sophistication level of a room, while still feeling cozy and welcoming.


Design by Kristina Lynne Interiors | Photo by Tracey Jazmin Photography | Iris lamp by Mitzi


Designer: Megan Pflug | Lynn lamp in terrazzo by Mitzi

Emboldened by the increasing popularity of Brutalism, Mitzi's team of designers have come up with several cool ways to work a little concrete into your home. Most are lamps, but there are some new sconces and pendants, as well. Check them out below. 


Ripley sconce (ADA) by Mitzi


Nikki by Mitzi


Margot by Mitzi


Devon by Mitzi


Brielle by Mitzi


Macy by Mitzi


Gigi By Mitzi