Jeni Sandberg is a dealer, appraiser and consultant in 20th century design. She has worked in museums, was a Senior Specialist at Christie’s, and also appears on WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow. She writes about fun objects on her blog. In this series, she will explore the history of decorative objects.
Metallics are having a moment in contemporary home decor, so it makes sense that bold Brutalist designs are making a comeback. Once the toast of the 1960s and ‘70s, Brutalism’s positively post-apocalyptic look found its way into everything from architecture to jewelry and lent texture and edge to homes of the period through distinctive metalwork wall sculptures and light fixtures. Today Brutalist works make perfect high-impact, of-the-moment statement pieces, and collectors are snapping up wall sculptures and chandeliers to add a little edge to their own abodes.
The roots of Brutalism can be found in the post-World War II work of artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Louise Nevelson, as well as architects like Louis I. Kahn. Indeed, the name derives from Le Corbusier’s use of the term béton brut (raw concrete), which described the construction material in some of his stark post-war housing complexes. These works differed greatly from the shiny, space-age optimism seen in other designs of the same period.
The Brutalist style is generally characterized by the use of repeated geometric or abstracted organic forms, often arranged asymmetrically; rough textures; and a dark, earth-toned palette. The slight irregularities of Brutalist design suggested connection to nature and handcrafting rather than the sharp precision of machine production. Brutalist metalwork generally eschews bright, shiny and sleek objects in favor of weathered, burnished and textured examples.
Brutalist metalwork became especially popular as home decor. Many designers formed chandeliers, wall sconces, lamps and sculpture from sheet metal cut with a torch, which left a rough, melted edge. The flat surfaces were often patinated with a chemical wash to create further variety in color and texture. Rough edges provided the added feature of unusual patterns of shadow and light projected into the room.
Sheet metal was readily available and relatively easy to work, but some designers opted to explore the artistic possibility of cast metal. For instance, Don Drumm, an artist and designer in Akron, Ohio, utilized cast aluminum to create both sculpture and home goods such as casseroles and candlesticks. The plasticity of the metal could be employed to create a rough surface texture and repeated geometric shapes, but it was lightweight enough to produce utilitarian objects without the heft.
Brutalism was not a style for everyone in its own time, and it certainly isn’t “pretty” enough to suit all tastes. Still, this harsh and robust look has enjoyed a revival of interest and a broad range of items in this style can be found on the market today.