The End Of Minimalism

COVER STORY: DESIGN 2004

THE END OF MINIMALISM

SPARE AND SLEEK ARE OUT. THE LATEST TREND IN DESIGN CALLS FOR CHANDELIERS AND VELVET WALLPAPER

BY RANA FOROOHAR
WITH ANNA KUCHMENT IN NEW YORK

Remember the less-is-more esthetic? Until quite recently, all things hip--suits and chairs, homes and hotels--were defined by purity and sleek restraint. No longer. Just check out Sketch, the London restaurant where Algerian owner Mourad Mazouz has spent [Pound sterling]11 million to create a look that can only be described as maximalist. The sound of chirping birds greets visitors to the art-gallery-cum-eatery, housed in an 18th-century mansion near Savile Row. Swarovski crystals line the restrooms, laser lights project poetry onto walls and desserts are displayed like jewels in a glass case. The dining room is decorated with chandeliers, velvet wallpaper, mosaic floors and video art. Prices are in the stratosphere and critics have called the food "pretentious tosh." But the design itself is turning heads; last month, Sketch scooped up a gaggle of industry awards, including one for best restaurant design.

Restaurants, of course, are supposed to provide escape from the everyday. But lately fashion, furniture, interiors and architecture have all been moving away from austerity, and toward a richer, more colorful, more emotional kind of design. In stylish homes, poured concrete floors and discreet spot lighting have been replaced by Moroccan rugs, chandeliers and hand-painted period wallpaper. Lofts of steel and glass have been abandoned for cozy townhouses. Flamboyant fashion designers like Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen rule the runway. Jewelry fitted with brightly colored stones--rather than simply cut diamonds--is the rage.

Globalization has helped fuel the trend, disseminating a broad range of cultural influences around the world. In the process, some unexpected cities--among them Bangalore, Beirut and Tallinn, Estonia--have joined the ranks of standbys like New York and Milan in becoming centers of design chic. An exhibition highlighting the best European design of the past two years, currently on display at London's Design Museum, includes chandeliers shaped like tree boughs, a bathroom constructed with flowerpots and a foxtail socket plug. In short, more has become more. "Minimalism is definitely ending," says Alice Rawsthorn, head of the Design Museum. "After a decade, people have simply become bored with it, and young designers have begun leaning towards a more decorative esthetic."

The things we typically think of as minimalist--like Ian Schrager hotels and Jil Sander suits--are products of the 1990s, but the minimalist esthetic has been with us for much longer. It grew out of modernism, which emerged at the end of the 19th century as a reaction against not just traditional design but also traditional politics and social mores. "Modernists wanted to strip away decoration as a way of breaking through barriers of class," says Jane Pavitt, a senior research fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "They felt that an object should look like what it does, and only that."

The 1990s-style minimalism grew directly out of the dot-com boom. The rush of Internet wealth created a new kind of young, busy (often single) consumer who possessed significantly more money than time or taste. Like a Gap T shirt, minimalist homes of concrete and steel were a way for the Silicon Valley tech geek or the London investment banker to be stylish in a safe way. Since many of these people worked long hours and weren't home much, the fact that the glass staircases scuffed or their $200,000 kitchens had to be scrubbed for hours after each use didn't really matter. "I think this highly mannered and unnatural way of living was reflective of the self-obsession of the 1990s," says Peter Fiell, an editor for the design publisher Taschen. The attack on the World Trade Center changed that. "Post-9/11, there's been a real shift in values," says Fiell. "There's a return to the realities of family life, and people want homes that they can actually live in."

At the same time, the dot-com crash and global recession took their toll on the customers who once bought into luxurious austerity. James Thorp of Thorp Design, which creates high-end homes, says that 10 years ago 75 percent of his clientele were investment bankers. Today's customers are typically older entrepreneurs who've made their money and have families, and they want lavish but livable homes. "I'm doing quite a lot of work for our Russian friends," says Thorp, "and of course, maximalism is key there." Glass staircases are out; polished wood wine cellars, hand-painted fabrics and gilt mirrors are in. New clubs, like Soho House in Manhattan, are decked with chandeliers and mahogany beds. "What we're looking at is still a modern space," says design guru Ilse Crawford, who created the decor. "But we want things to be modern and emotional at the same time."

That's a sentiment shared by many young designers who are combining historical elements with high-tech techniques to create cutting-edge objects that are warm and welcoming. Take Dutch designer Tord Boontje, who was austere but says having a child made him interested in warm, natural environments. His Garland light, sold recently by the U.K. retailer Habitat, was so popular it had to be rationed to three per customer. The intricate floral pattern, draped over a light bulb to create a glowing tangle of leaves and buds, was made by spraying acid onto photo-etched metal at high temperatures. Other designers are working with polycarbons that allow the "skin" of a building (like London's new Laban Dance Center) to change colors depending on the light.

Already, the new maximalism is on display at hip stores like London's Selfridge, where windows are filled with chandeliers, boudoirs draped with Asian fabrics and damask wallpaper. The department store has also commissioned architect-of-the-moment David Adjaye to build a special pavilion for its top fashion brands. The result, to be unveiled later this month, is a giant red tunnel leading to a Moroccan restaurant and smoke shop, which will be run by Sketch's Mazouz. As diners contemplate the colorful fashions of Dolce & Gabbana through the glass box of the teahouse, they can also enjoy a water pipe. If that's any indication, the new esthetic may be most accurately likened to a souk--and it doesn't get any more maximalist than that.

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