Minimalism has held a tight grip on the modern design industry for the past decade. We embraced the Apple aesthetic, extolled the logic of Helvetica, and worshiped at the church of Dieter Rams. It served its purpose, most recently, as a correctional to the excesses of the 1990s. But lately, as dispatches from Milan Design Week have shown, asceticism has given way to audacity.
Every April, hundreds of thousands of people trek to Milan for its trendsetting design week, which ultimately influences the furniture, accessories, and textiles that make their way into homes, offices, hotels, restaurants, and virtually every other interior. This year the artistic influences ranged from ’30s art deco to ’70s eclecticism. Designers and manufacturers experimented with digital fabrication–like 3D knitting–and rediscovered artisanal craft techniques, like lacquering, metal casting, and jacquard weaving. But one thing was consistent: They’re embracing luxurious materials and textures, testing ambitious silhouettes, and piling on the details to yield products and furnishings that are visually enticing and emotionally evocative.
In other words, minimalism is dead; maximalism has arrived.
The reasons behind this shift are just as nuanced as the designs themselves, and mirror many of the societal shifts we’re experiencing today.
David Alhadeff, founder of the design gallery and retail store The Future Perfect, couldn’t be happier to see people embrace the bold colors and vibrant patterns associated with maximalism. He credits changing tastes, in part, to a healthy economy.
“There’s been more widespread acceptance of eclecticism in interior design and mixing periods and styles certainly trains the eye to appreciate maximalism,” he tells Co.Design. “When the economy feels bubbly and high, the appreciation and consumption of the wild and crazy goes up accordingly. Markets will bring what they can bear.”
The Future Perfect has been riding the recent economic wave for all it’s worth. It began in 2003 as a small storefront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, focusing on work from emerging local designers, but moved to a more high-profile location in Manhattan’s NoHo district in 2009, expanded to San Francisco in 2013, and opened a high-concept gallery in a Hollywood Hills house in January. The roster of designers grew to include international practitioners and the sophistication level of products increased over the years, too. Now the store sells a mix of high-end production products and one-of-a-kind collectible design pieces through its gallery program, which includes prismatic glass sculptures by John Hogan, Christopher Stuart’s monolithic metal tables inspired by computer glitches, and marble slab pieces by Lex Pott. One of the most popular products for a maximalist approach has been lamps. “Overall, people seem to be looking for unique sculptural lighting,” he says.
The interest in sculptural lighting was evident at Euroluce, the lighting show within the larger Salone del Mobile trade show. There, the New York-based brand Roll & Hill introduced an addition to the Kazimir collection from Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, a series of pendant lights composed of iridescent, geometric glass plates. The designers call the collection an exploration of “elemental complexity.”
“The quality and complexity of materials, techniques and colors is not something we’ve shied away from, and is actually an element of the creative direction and inspiration behind the founding of the Roll & Hill brand,” Jason Miller, the company’s founder and a lighting designer himself, says. “When the only goal is minimalism, you eventually end up with nothing.”
While a strong economy can support more adventurous design–while during leaner times, consumers are more frugal and make purchases that aren’t likely to fall out of fashion–another reason for the emergence of this more eclectic work is simpler: Designers like designing it. It gives them the opportunity to flaunt their creativity.
Over the years, the New York design studio Apparatus has found itself less interested in minimalism and more interested in maximalism. It prefers to use natural and tactile materials like marble, blown glass, horsehair, leather, and brushed metals, and assembles everything by hand in Manhattan.
“We are definitely in a moment where design is reconnecting with a more decorative impulse,” says Gabriel Hendifar, Apparatus’s creative director and co-founder, with Jeremy Anderson. “Our tendency as a studio over the past few years has been towards minimalism–silhouettes that feel paired down to just their essential elements, and restrained color palettes. But I’m finding myself more and more attracted to large-scale pattern, rich colors, and ornamentation.”
Recently, Hendifar found himself drawn to the early 20th century, especially the work of the Wiener Werkstätte (a group of Austrian artists and designers active from about 1903-1930), the Bauhaus, Eileen Gray, and Adolf Loos. He mined these sources to create the Segment table, which is composed of a slick oxblood-red lacquered top, a cast-resin base, and brass fittings; the Metronome lamp, which features a brass shade atop a suede base; and the Lantern pendant, which has a ridged slip-cast porcelain shade and brass structure.
“For our launches in 2016, we were looking to the shapes and textures of art deco and the plush sexiness of the ’70s, which feel like they came together most brilliantly in the iconic Rue de Babylon interior of Yves Saint Laurent,” Hendifar says. “This year, we’re exploring lacquer, finely fluted porcelain and buttery suede, all of which push the language of our studio in a more-is-more direction.”
The art deco era was also alive and well in Dimore Studio‘s installation. The Milan-based interior design firm, whose furniture is distributed in the United States through the Future Perfect, cited the era’s style as an influence for its series of rooms done up in maximalist splendor. One room featured tubular metal chairs painted with peach lacquer beneath enormous Japanese lanterns covered in a floral fabric. Another room, with a blue-and-yellow linoleum floor, had an orange silk-and-velvet chair set next to a green table lamp. Elsewhere, the designers layered reflective tables next to vintage paper-cord chairs. One room with a rust-brown shag carpet, geometric curtains, satin pillows, and lush plants recalls a ’70s Fern Bar.
The layering approach and mixing of different motifs is also appearing in mass-market brands, like West Elm. Creative director Johanna Uurasjarvi spearheaded the company’s New Modern collection, which launched earlier this year. While many of the pieces are midcentury-inspired, they’re upholstered in materials like velvet, and feature a mix of pastel hues with metallic and mirrored accents.
“We’re entering a new era that embraces personality, rather than minimal perfection,” Uurasjarvi says. “Layering new modern pieces with other objects in our homes–existing furniture, art, photos, childhood and travel mementos–brings it all to life.”
Consumers’ desire for more personal expression, and not necessarily rejecting minimalism outright, is driving a few of the maximalist pieces at Ligne Roset, a French furniture manufacturer.
“Our business of design is to create something high-end, nonconformist, usable, and creative,” says Antoine Roset, the brand’s managing director. “It’s not a ‘boredom’ with minimalism; it’s a look at what else is possible.”
Technological advancements are also making maximalist details possible. For instance, tooling at Ligne Roset’s factories is becoming more sophisticated. Earlier this year at Maison & Objet–an interior design trade show in Paris–the company launched the Cover sofa by Marie Christine Dorner. Upholstered in sumptuous maroon velvet (it also comes in dove gray and ivory), the piece features elaborate tufting that was only achievable through the development of proprietary machinery. Ligne Roset also reissued two older designs, a Pierre Charpin armchair from the ’90s and a Annie Hiéronimus sectional from the ’80s, two decades known for their brash designs. Ligne Roset had discontinued these pieces since they were too cumbersome to manufacture at the time, but revisited them today because its factories and materials have become advanced enough to make them.
Technology, too, plays an important role in maximalism’s emergence at Moroso, an Italian manufacturer of fashion-driven design. An interest in more elaborate, ornate design began about four years ago when they were able to create an industrial-scale version of a Jacquard loom–a 19th century technique for creating decorative fabrics like brocade, damask, and matelassé. Maximalism was further expressed in the Double Zero collection by David Adjaye for Moroso, a series of chairs made from twisted tubular metal, and the Pipe collection by Sebastian Herkner, an oversized chair wrapped in what looks like teddy bear fur.
“Maximalism became a trend, slowly but powerfully,” says Patrizia Moroso, the brand’s creative director. “It is influenced by everything that surrounds us—even the air.”
An increasingly global design culture is playing a role in the surge of maximalist design as well, driving the creation of more unique, modern pieces that appeal to different tastes. While some manufacturers are still targeting high-net-worth consumers, other luxury companies are expanding their markets. Ligne Roset’s recent business strategy involves both urban and suburban consumers, and the company is building out an e-commerce arm, hoping to increase brand awareness. “Because of this, we’ve worked hard to make many of our designs customizable–in different upholsteries, colors, patterns, sizes, finishes, etc.–to suit many types of homes,” Roset says.
The Middle East and Asia are becoming more and more important for the Italian design brand Cappellini. “In the past, these markets preferred classic furniture, but now the new globetrotter generations are very attentive to contemporary pieces of furniture,” founder Giulio Cappellini says. “In the global market, the boundary between design and decoration is always more and more fragile, and that is why nowadays design objects are less rigid in the shapes and more captivating in the use of materials.”
The tension Cappellini teases–between design and decoration–can’t be ignored. Once someone has filled their home with essentials, they no longer need to buy new things. Appealing to impulses, as maximalism does, could also be interpreted as a consumerist strategy to get more people to buy more design.
To some studios, that’s a dangerous strategy to take–a slippery slope to creating bad design and, ultimately, to creating waste.
“This whole sense of commercialism around furniture as fashion and taking cues from the fashion world that every season is a new thing [is at the root of the problem],” Rossana Hu of the Shanghai-based multidisciplinary design firm Neri & Hu, told Co.Design during the 2016 edition of Salone.
Right now, we’re grappling with a host of challenging political and environmental issues–the United States is launching missiles in Syria, excessive force and police brutality are running rampant even after high-profile cases exposing these systemic injustices, and there’s so much garbage in the ocean that scientists estimate it’ll outweigh all of the fish in just 30 years.
Political and social awareness isn’t something for which the luxury design industry is known. That said, Moroso exhibited pieces at Salone fabricated by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Greenlight workshop–a creative education program targeted toward refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. Additionally, a handful of designers referenced ’30s movements, like art deco and surrealism, which originated during an era fraught with a similar populist political climate as today. Maximalism is certainly a beautiful distraction, even if most of us can only momentarily experience the work through pictures, given their astronomical prices. It’s pure escapism, and a welcome break from the atrocities befalling the world. To some companies, design is even framed as a form of self-care. (An argument I find highly suspect.)
“Design is often led by feeling,” Giulia Molteni, a spokesperson for the Italian brand Molteni&C, says. “And maximalist design invokes maximum senses. Bold color is not only for the eyes, it’s for the soul. Interesting materials and textures are not only felt, but also seen. Right now, our senses crave more, crave something different.”
Design–like the economic, political, and social forces influencing it–travels in cycles. While maximalism is making a statement today, restraint will likely return when we need a palette cleanser. Sometimes less is more and sometimes less is a bore. But right now, I’m glad to see modern design embrace its expressive side.