Over the past decade, residential design has been undergoing an industrial revolution. The sewing stool, the weathered workbench, exposed concrete floors – these features have showed up everywhere, not just in converted lofts, but also in new condos and suburban houses.
Now architects and designers are employing a new tool: the industrial window. Framed in black steel, divided into a grid of rectangular lights, such windows are borrowed from the factories of the early 20th century. And now, as that era fades into history, some of us are choosing to recall it in the design of our homes.
In an age of laptops, spreadsheets and telecommuting, the idea of real work – the kind of work our grandfathers did, with tools and hot steel and hunks of wood, the kind that today’s professionals have never done – has an attractive tang of nostalgia.
Architect Gloria Apostolou recently used black steel windows in a renovation of a Victorian house in Toronto. As she explains it, the client, a single lawyer, did not ask for anything edgy for her house in the Cabbagetown neighbourhood. “She loved natural materials, and wanted to be modern without being clinical,” Apostolou says. The architect’s response was to restore some details of the original house, but add materials that have industrial connotations: concrete counters, stainless-steel shelving and those windows and doors. These open to the backyard, where a deck also shows off a steel structure in black-painted steel.
“It’s one interpretation of Victorian design,” Apostolou explains, which draws from the industrial rather than residential work of the period. “I think they give the house character without being ornamental. There are imperfections to these materials, too – they are a bit rough, and they have personality.” And the homeowner? She loved the idea.
Even a decade ago, that would have been an eccentric choice. Steel windows were historical artifacts – and indeed old versions are still visible in places like Vancouver’s Gastown. “The steel window, at the turn of the 20th century was the go-to window for factory design,” explains architect and artist Michael Awad. “It was originally for practical reasons – if a bolt goes flying off a machine and breaks a window, you’re not replacing a huge pane of glass.”
But the ideas of Bauhaus helped turn them into aesthetic objects – among them, factories by Peter Behrens in Germany and later Albert Kahn in America. “Kahn’s factories – the ones built for the auto age – the expanses of glass are truly impressive,” Awad says. “Perhaps we had to forget about that aesthetic in order for it to come back. For a long time, people would reject anything that spoke of industry.”
But by now the idea of living in a loft has become a mainstream taste. Since artists in New York of the 1960s first moved into empty industrial spaces, the loft has been associated with a creative mindset. Over the generation that followed, loft living went from being a form of squatting to a sign of luxury. Today, even ordinary residential buildings are marketed as “lofts.”
The steel window is, in more sophisticated developments, becoming a sign of loft-ness. A new residential condominium in Toronto called The Harlowe will have a façade of red brick and large expanses of black-framed windows. According to Babak Eslahjou of Core Architects, the windows speak directly to the history of the downtown neighbourhood, which is filled with loft buildings. “We’ve tried to get the windows as close as possible,” Eslahjou says, “to what would have been [here] on a warehouse.”
However, the new building’s windows, unlike their ancestors, will use double-paned glass and insulation. That was also true in Apostolou’s house project, for which she ordered ready-made commercial products from the manufacturer Bliss Nor-Am. Just the fact that you can buy such things is a sign of changing tastes. Why is this? Awad’s theory is that it’s a turn away from the massive, seamless glass panels that dominated contemporary design in the 1990s and early 2000s. “This is a reaction – a desire for something with a finer grain, something you can touch,” he says.
Awad himself helped design a 30-metre wall of steel-framed windows for the Drake One Fifty restaurant in Toronto – which brings a vaguely vintage interior to a curtain-walled 1980s office building. Those steel windows replaced a bunch of 4.5 metre-tall panes of frameless glass. “To get them out, we actually had to break them,” Awad laughs.
Out with the new, and in with the faux-old.