New American Contemporary

by WOHe

Simplicity and elegance are key elements to New American Contemporary design, which takes its cues from a wide range of international influences.

For that reason, the study of 21st-Century international Contemporary design would be incomplete without considering the elegant rooms created by English and Italian designers, who are reinterpreting the pared-down, sleek look long associated with the word “Contemporary.”

While many designers rush to over-complicate kitchen spaces in a misdirected effort to define the essence of beauty, students of interior architecture have long appreciated the classic appeal of sumptuously simple spaces.

In the 1970s and 1980s, German and Italian manufacturers introduced this styling to the American public, typically specified with crisp, hard-edged materials. For example, gloss acrylics and polyesters as well as vibrantly colored cabinet fronts were the norm. These spartan Contemporary interiors emphasized shape and form first, rejecting unnecessary detailing. A key element then, and now, is the importance of lighting (both natural and artificial) to define the architectural elements of the space and capture the visual intersection of the various planes created within the room.

Today, this styling continues to make an important contribution to kitchen design. While great designers work throughout the globe with both domestic and international manufacturers creating products suited to these rooms this article will focus on the Euro-Cucina Show held last spring in Milan, Italy, as well as the impact of London Minimalism on these powerfully unified, innovative compositions.

Designers have asked me, “Why is Italy such an important part of the international design community?” Our appreciation of Italian design was summed up in Interior Designers Magazine’s April 2002 issue, which said, “Italian design is sleek, innovative, meticulously crafted and beautifully realized. The practical is beautiful, and the beautiful superbly functional.

“From the first decades of the 20th Century, Italian design was prominent in furnishings and craftsmanship… Italy’s post-war reconstruction, with its economic and political renewal, was reflected in the home, as well as in the public sphere. In the ’40s, Milan was Italy’s showcase, presenting influential exhibitions that exemplified the ideal of practical, flexible and efficient interior design.

“By the ’50s, Italian design was recognized internationally for its innovation and quality. Playful plastics and the exuberance of experimentation with revolutionary forms and colors mark the designs of the ’60s. It epitomized what was modern and what was called Modernist. With abstract forms, new materials and flawless surfaces, it was an elegant style.

“In the next decade, reacting to economic and social change, designers responded to the times with what was known in Italy as anti-design in North America called Post-Modernism. There was a great emphasis on the quirky and the handsome, odd scale and juxtapositions of form, assertive color and width. Today, colorful and innovative works are international in inspiration, but essentially Italian in artistry.”

At last year’s Euro-Cucina Show a sense of global design continuity was evident as the Italian-styled designs echoed the long, low horizontal forms seen in Asian-inspired design. New products abounded throughout the exhibit, with a special product launch introduced by the Italian cabinet manufacturer, Snaidero.

In addition to these specific kitchen products, exciting ideas seen on the show floor in Milan included the following:

  • Adaptable Furniture. Extensively exhibited in the Furniture building were multi-functional soft goods with various levels of adaptability. This was transferred to kitchen cabinetry. For example, in one display, a kitchen counter appeared to be an island at first glance, but it was actually rolled into an extended position, providing an eating table.
  • Resource Management. As always, in Europe there’s a strong focus on sustainable design and environmental concerns. Within the cabinetry this was evident in the predominance of recut, reconstituted and farm-grown natural veneers. Discussions in the literature talked about materials being recycled or the manufacturing process including the use of ecological glues and water colors indeed, one manufacturer talked about “ecological finishing” (hardwoods with a thin level of only vegetable oil and/or wax).
  • Material Interest. Materials showcased ran the gamut from hard surfaces,
    such as laminate, polyester and acrylic (a big change all matte; no gloss on the floor anywhere at this show) to brushed stainless steel, glass doors and some glass countertops.

Of particular note, a primary influence seen throughout the show was a focus on much more complex fibers and textures, as opposed to dramatic color wave changes. Additionally, we continue to see a tribal/Mediterranean/Hispanic influence everything but Western European in geometric woven patterns, natural patterns and materials in neutral colors. Lastly, metal was used on everything from leg caps to cabinetry hardware, from edge details to shelf systems as an accent and full cabinets and counters.
As far as woods go, there were great combinations of light and dark woods, creating a visual “woven” first impression. Round (1940s) lines were seen in many of the furniture pieces using North American Cherry as a primary wood resource. Everywhere we saw dark almost bark-colored brown finishes on tightly grained oak.

  • Color Directions. Regarding color, there seemed to be three identifiable categories:
    The first was a definite focus on pastel colors. In some cases, these were used on accessories. In other cases, they showed up as a full finish surface. In contrast to these pastels was the use of rich textural earth tones. Finally, classic black, white and gray schemes continued to be an important part of major presentations.
    Notably, there clearly was a “marriage” taking place between sophisticated neutrals of the past and the bolder colors of the present. For example, Barbara Barry a Los Angeles interior designer who is well known for her collection for Baker Furniture chose a calming palette of celadon, taupe, topaz and moss, then introduced cinnabar on the throw pillows and lacquer trays in a recent product launch here in the U.S.
  • Kitchen Elements. The kitchen sets were “blocked,” with individual cabinet sections arranged in blocks of work centers (see illustrations, Pages 72 and 73). Oversized cubes of stone or other materials were used to create integrated sinks. Long, low, horizontal which is a new interpretation of the antique version tables were seen in many kitchens. These kitchens were really an updated version of a corridor space, with the back wall housing all of the equipment, and the island combining a work surface and table. Just as we’ve seen in years past, the countertops were either exceedingly thin or oversized, with 2″-, or even 3″-thick tops not unusual.

While we can gather great inspiration from Italian designers, another important resource for design inspiration can be found in the concept of minimalism, with its center of influence in London. You might wonder, with all of the Georgian Classicism, why has this minimalistic view been nurtured in London? Think about it for a minute: Whether you’re talking about Terence Conran’s habitat in the ’60s or Mary Kwan’s mini-skirt, London’s design history has always reflected the sensibility of a nation with a passion for utility.

One designer of note, John Pawson, is worth learning about. His recently published book, Living and Eating (John Pawson, Annie Bell and Christoph Kicherer, 2001), has a plethora of interesting information for those who want to learn more about minimalistic design.

Pawson’s latest book recognizes the influence of the Asian philosophy of architecture on his work, as he articulated this pared-down architectural form. As he explains it, “Minimalism is best defined as the perfection an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction. Thus, minimalism is the quality an object has when every component, every detail, every junction has been reduced or condensed to the essentials.”

In an earlier book, he stated the following key points about his philosophy:

  • Compositions are based on a large degree of repetition and tend to exhibit the quality of simplicity.
  • Pure geometry is another quality that seems to make simplicity more likely.
  • Minimalism is a study of emptiness, allowing us to see a space as it is, preventing it from being corrupted or hidden by the incidental debris of the paraphernalia of everyday life.

Another recognized minimalist designer today is Claudio Silverstrin. Silverstrin is Italian by birth, but lives in London. He has designed products for Dornbracht based on the interaction of three natural elements stone, water, light with space. and, in the September 2002 issue In The Bathroom Designer Magazine, shared with English designers the importance of light in any minimalist space.

Silverstrin began by explaining that the simplicity which characterizes his work comes from a desire to create a magical, almost spiritual environment that evokes an emotional reaction not something that just comes from a “devised set of design rules.” He is dedicated to natural materials and the playful use of sunlight, which casts deep, geometric shadows within his architectural designs, bringing a sense of calm and order.

In the article he states, “The materials I use appeal to the senses the way they look, how they feel and smell. In my opinion, the more natural materials that are used, the better. I prefer light, very natural materials such as wood and stone that bring a feeling of calm.”

Here in the United States, the work of noted architect Richard Meier reflects this dedication to simplicity, as well. Meier further comments on the importance of light in his book, Richard Meier Houses. “My continuing preoccupation has been with a vocabulary of opaque and transparent planes and the dramatic treatment of light. Painters, sculptors and architects have, through the centuries, expressed the mood of their times through the quality of their light. Only recently have architects been capable of designing large glazed surfaces of pristine quality. By this technical innovation I am able to wash living areas in a brightness that evolves all year long. I experiment continually with the source of daylight, such as the placement of a window that bathes an interior in golden light at a certain time of day, giving a magical quality to the spaces within.”

Clearly, a keen understanding of the important role lighting plays when designing these dramatic compositions is a foundation stone of the simplest of Contemporary designs.

When developing the initial space, the study of available natural light as well as the planned electrical system become key in the planning process.

To maximize light in your designs, consider adding strips of light artfully placed.

To take advantage of natural light, you may want to look at the following:

  • Backsplash glass sections.
  • Vertical light strips to accent cabinet sections.
  • Large glass expanses in place of traditional wall cabinets (replace typical wall units with floor-to-ceiling storage units).

When it comes to electrical lighting systems, the following ideas are worth looking at:

  • Wash a wall by back-lighting a cabinet section.
  • Build-out an entire wall and back-light the secondary support wall.
  • Illuminate specific cabinet sections much like a gallery lights a sculpture, with pinpointed display light sources.
  • Provide accent lights installed in the floor, as well as on walls or ceilings, to maximize their effect.

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist whose design and business leadership have helped to shape the kitchen industry over the past three decades.

A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two textbooks in the area of design education.Cheever manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies. She is a volunteer on NKBA’s Ad Hoc International Affiliations Committee and Ad Hoc Planning Guidelines Committee.

Cheever’s article is the fourth of a special four-part series, “Kitchens of the New Millennium,” appearing exclusively in K&BDN.

In 2003, Cheever will be leading the K&BDN-sponsored “Designing for Profit” series of seminars.

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