Thoroughly Modernist Design Redefined at the L.A. Mart

LOS ANGELES, CAWhat's modern in design right now? Finding the answer to that question is like trying to determine the absolutely perfect diet, or exactly what's needed to fix the ills of the nation. Passionate arguments abound, frequently offered by people who insist their way is the only way and everyone who thinks differently is clearly mistaken.

Detractors of modern design see it as cold or excessively trendy, chasing ephemeral fads that nobody really cared about in the first place. Devout Modern-ists, on the other hand, herald it as the only escape from the land of the cluttered and ostentatious.

Metropolitan Home editor-in-chief Donna Warner suggests modern is more a state of mind than an insistence on all minimalist, all the time. Warner displayed examples of kitchens and baths that reflect the new kinder, gentler Modern in her November 17 appearance at the L.A. Mart, the western design center counterpart of parent company Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc.'s A & D Building in New York and LuxeHome in Chicago.

The breakfast seminar and subsequent book signing for the Metropolitan Home coffee table book, "Renovate," was part of the on-going Designers' Forum lecture series, whose 2004 roster also included acclaimed New York designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz and HGTV host and author Joan Kohn. The series is designed to inform designers and their clients of style trends and issues amid the atmosphere of the L.A. Mart, which features nearly 300 showrooms showcasing a wide array of kitchen and bath products, home furnishings, collectibles, lifestyle products and gifts.


When it comes to creating modern kitchens, bathrooms and other living spaces, "Simple materials used uniquely can express powerful ideas," said Warner. And indeed, pared-down simplicity combined with breathing room and light between objects seemed to be the hallmarks of the new definition of modern.

By-the-book minimalist looks may mandate utilitarian contemporary styling but the new modern can incorporate ornate and antique elements in kitchens, baths and other rooms, just in a more uncluttered, un-fussy manner than they'd be used in traditional design.

Examples included vintage signature pieces and Americana heirlooms that took on a more modern feel because of the emptiness and clarity that surrounded them. Country objects and textures were assembled in a spare, subtle way that gave them a hint of Andrew Wyeth-y desolation. An 1800s Pennsylvania house utilized elements of the home's history and surroundings for a look of rustic minimalism.

Overall, the trend is toward wood or concrete floors rather than carpeting, simple or non-existent window treatments, and an absence of artful clutter. Noted Warner, "you have to see how much you add by taking things away."


The first rule of the neo-modern kitchen seems to be, there are no rules. For instance, who says you have to have a row of upper cabinets? Instead, examples utilized storage in base cabinets, large islands and free-standing furniture pieces, leaving the walls as free space for art, small display shelves that showcased a few striking collectibles or just another opportunity for clean, plain space. Another interesting question posed was: Are doors really necessary? The presentation included photos of another home with a kitchen that was divided from other parts of the house with a sliding wall.

With the advent of great rooms and Loft style, the concept of the kitchen floor as a separate entity from the rest of a family's space also gets re-examined. In one example, polished concrete floors throughout a house and its outdoor living spaces helped establish a relationship between inside and outside, with perfect proportion and Zen tranquility. In another, polished concrete was inlaid with strips of limestone.

Neo-modern also borrows fixtures from industrial and commercial environments or just from other rooms. Examples shown at the presentation included big laundry-style sinks used in a master bath, industrial lighting fixtures to complement a pro-style range, and a stainless steel lav that seemed originally manufactured for use in, say, the bathrooms of a sports arena or airport, but fit perfectly in a modern residential setting.

And finally, "restraint is modern," noted Warner. In many of the showcased examples, this meant leaving materials close to their natural state. For instance, cabinets were presented as close to raw wood as possible, with just a hint of a finish. Vessel bowls were likely to be plain white, plain glass, plain stainless steel. Similarly, white ceramic "subway" tile provided a backdrop that felt both urban industrial and timelessly classic. A traditional shape such as a farmer sink with a cleaner, more streamlined look also took part in what Warner called "the play of old and new." For hardware, stainless steel and polished chrome rather than more exotic metals were prevalent.


Neo-modern also has a sense of humor, as exemplified by a playful, exuberant 1940s Miami house that used coral tones and a Mediterranean flair, including an outdoor dining pavilion bedecked with classic wicker. In another home, a table with animal legs lent a whimsical element to an overall elegant, stark room. Elsewhere, a dramatic, contrasting look was achieved with black-purple walls and white furniture.

Textures that distinguish different elements in a monochromatic color scheme strike another modern note. An unusual but subtle material, such as keystone (a fossilized stone) can also be another trademark of a modern look, making a powerful statement in the kitchen.

An unexpected signature piece, set apart by itself as the focal point of a room, is also a modern hallmark. Examples included a striking Mid Century Modern house that showcased gorgeous furniture from the era, including a George Nelson bench and Paul Frankel tables and chairs.

In the end, the punch line seems to be anything can be modern now if you do it with authority and verve. After all, noted Warner, "personal style is modern." .