The Brutalist style was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s but was first coined as an evolution of the French “béton brut” (meaning “raw concrete”) – Le Corbusier’s definition of his favorite material – and the term was made popular by architecture critic Reyner Banham in the 1950s and 1960s. Today’s resurgence is due in part to 1970s-inspired fashion trends in films like “American Hustle”and disco music. Brutalism is defined by hard edges, jagged shapes, rough surfaces, patinaed and burned finishes, asymmetrical, organic designs, spiky silhouettes, and metallic color palettes. In the production of furniture, the term has come to mean that the welding and torch cutting are carried out in a “brutal manner” — meaning that the artist performs his or her basic action on the piece in a given moment and does not tamper with it afterward, thus leaving the art piece raw, and literally ,“scrappy”. To carry this out, the artist needs a thorough knowledge of what action is about to be taken, how to perform that action, steady hands, and most importantly, a Zen like attitude towards the creative process. Today we’re seeing Brutalist furniture emerge through statement pieces that can blend into a variety of design styles. The look is popular with designers Kelly Wearstler, Johathan Adler and Blackman Cruz, and is most commonly manifested in lighting, wall sculptures, and concrete pieces, but you can find a variety of vintage and contemporary consoles, sideboards, and armoires that exhibit characteristics of Brutalism.
One master of Brutalism was American-born sculptor, furniture designer and artist, Paul Evans (1931 – 1987). Famous for his contributions to the American Craft movement of the 1970s, his inspired sculpted metal furnishings set him apart from others in the world of design. Not easily categorized, Evans was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and spent his early childhood in New Hope, Pennsylvania. His father was head of a Quaker school’s English department, and his mother, a painter. He eventually attended Cranbrook Academy near Detroit, Michigan, and afterwards demonstrated metalworking techniques at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. In 1955 Evans set up business in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he experimented in numerous stylistic phases and techniques. He collaborated with his friend Philip Powell on several pieces of furniture, combining gnarled wood forms with gilding and metal filigree. Eventually this led to covering cabinets with raw metal knobs, starburst forms and mirrored surfaces. Evans was able to tread several very fine lines, his work being, at once, “stunningly beautiful, stunningly ugly, stunningly tacky, and stunningly sophisticated”, qualities which one almost never encounters uttered in the same sentence. His pieces can be characterized by his multiple aesthetics: verdigris, wavy, forged, perforated, geometric and fish scaled. Says gallery director Tara DeWitt “Evans career has a really interesting trajectory, from very craft-based in the 50s to very flashy in the 70s and 80s”. Although his patrons tended to be intellectuals, the market for Evans’ furniture eventually cooled. Evans discarded much of his archive, but collectors managed to rescue documents and vintage works from trash piles. Today has seen a major resurgence in Evans’ work resulting in record prices, inclusion in world famous collections and even a 2014 documentary film of his life. Evans passed away in 1987 at the age of 55.
Paul Evans at work
Evans’ armoire of welded and etched aluminum
Other notable practitioners of Brutalism include the American artist(s) Curtis Jere (Curtis Freiler and Jerry Fels), known for playful, delicately-fused collage style wall art, Silas Seandel, and Tom Greene, known for torch-cut multi-tiered chandeliers with stalactite points, scrappy lanterns and burnished Cubist pendants.
Brutalist interior by Carlo Scarpa
Brutalist architecture flourished from 1951 to 1975, having descended from the modernist architectural movement of the early 20th century, resulting in rough, somber, post-apocalyptic concrete fortresses of raw, unrefined materials designed to project a sense of strength, like those created by Le Corbusier, Merril W. Baird, A. Quincy Jones, and others. The term is also applicable to wood carving, sculptures of different materials such as bronze, glass, steel and iron, always with a raw, rebellious, and purposefully awkward look to them. Brutalism remains one of design’s most controversial and difficult styles to date, yet still manages to appear fresh, perhaps because of its highly expressive forms and the element of the unexpected and unrefined.
“Habitat”, Expo 67, Montreal, Quebec, constructed of prefabricated forms, and an example of Brutalist architecture