Even if the phrase is unfamiliar, many Canadians know, although don’t necessarily love, brutalist architecture.
The often-maligned style was popular from the 1950s to the early 1980s, with famous (and infamous) landmarks in major cities across the country. Habitat ’67 in Montreal, Arthur Erickson’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver and Toronto’s Robarts Library (the one that’s shaped like a giant concrete turkey) are prominent examples, each demonstrating a trademark starkness and quintessential palette of raw, simple materials – concrete and glass, mainly.
The aesthetic also spawned a parallel furniture movement, with tables, chairs and sofas that echoed the architecture’s bold, overscaled geometries and rough-hewn finishes. Late American designer Paul Evans was one of the most famous proponents, with his swooping, zany, Mad Max-esque pieces.
Although brutalism has been out of favour for decades, the furniture, at least, is making a comeback (some of the architecture, on the other hand, is facing demolition or being resurfaced with less severe materials and colours). Singer Lenny Kravitz and interior designer Kelly Wearstler are among the many celebrity boosters of Paul Evans’s work. And contemporary designers around the world are playing with new ways to perfect the space-age style.
These days, the look is much softer, and plays on brutalism’s best qualities – its eccentric geometries and expressive forms – with sleeker lines and gentler edges. The update still has heft, but isn’t heavy, awkward or inhumane. In short, it’s gorgeous. Here, six standout pieces.
The Tron armchair, by New York designer Dror Benshetrit, is made from recycled plastic but is meant to mimic the raw, rocky world of the 1982 Disney film. The shifting, overscaled volumes of the seat give the chair a commanding presence in any room, while the streak of spray paint adds a touch of humour. Price upon request. Through studiodror.com.
If the Gem side table by Britain’s Tom Dixon were cast in concrete, it would be a convincing scale model for a Brutalist skyscraper. Because it’s fashioned from a glinting, nickel-plated aluminum, it looks much lighter. The diamond-like facets cast deep, ever-shifting shadows. $1,670. Through klausn.com.
Paris-based fashion designer Rick Owens, in collaboration with the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, has created a limited-edition series of furniture that’s a bit like brutalist couture. Each piece, like the pictured day bed, is expressive, handmade and crafted from exquisite materials, such as ancient, petrified wood. Price upon request. Through carpentersworkshopgallery.com.
With its new line of cabinetry for Spanish manufacturer BD Barcelona, London studio Doshi Levien was inspired to make something beautiful out of something ugly – corrugated metal. But instead of using actual sheets of rusting tin, it softened the look with undulating panels of MDF painted in soothing grey tones. $8,415 (€5,575). Through bdbarcelona.com.
Rafe Mullarkey’s Juglans chest of drawers has an undeniable toughness to it. Not just because it’s made from hardwood – American black walnut – but because the folds on the front look a bit like armour, or the defensive skin of an armadillo. Price upon request. Through larkbeck.com.
The DY10 Lamp by Paris-based Elomax has a lovely contrast between rough and refined. The post-industrial shaft is poured concrete. The elegant shade is beautifully grained ash wood. $648. Through elomax-agency.com.