The balance between exterior and interior is at its most obvious when it comes to materials, writes Des Breen, as he delves into a thumping tome on the retro-minimal world of MR Architecture + Decor
When David Mann set up his firm, MR Architecture + Decor, in New York in the mid-90s, he looked back eight decades for its guiding principles. In particular, to Germany in 1919, when Walter Gropius and his groundbreaking Bauhaus school came up with the idea of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’.
It may sound as pretentious as it is multisyllabic, but all it really means it total artwork, a synthesis of all the arts into one unit. For Gropius, an architect, the ultimate aim of all the visual arts was what he called the ‘complete building’.
At the time it didn’t really take off in the way intended — architects and designers continued to travel their separate ways. However, fast forward 80 years and the spirit of the Bauhaus was reborn with what is now one of America’s foremost design firms. The business model is simple: Design evolves out of a dialogue between client and architect, between the architect and the site. The results reflect the clients’ needs and desires — filtered through the MR vision.
Mann founded his firm at a time when architects looked down their noses at interior design — it was considered nothing more than the superficial finish to the building’s interior space, not something any self-respecting architect would bother with.
But Mann wanted to take his building projects as a single entity, to construct a harmony between the exterior and interior. This ensured that his architects had to stop being sniffy about furnishings, light-fittings, centre-pieces and artworks. So does it work?
To an extent, yes. While Mann claims there is no overarching dominant aesthetic, and the client’s needs are foremost, orthodox minimalism seems to be the default setting.
In this magnificently illustrated monograph, showcasing 18 of the firm’s projects, the doors are thrown open on residential properties in New York and its surroundings, from rural homes, through townhouses, to loft apartments.
In all examples, the balance between exterior and interior is at its most obvious when it comes to materials. One striking picture, a rural house in Duchess County, New York, brings the outside world into the master bedroom, with stone walls, white plaster and cedarwood ceilings, reflecting the external finish and even the surrounding countryside. A full-height glass wall allows the room to overflow with natural light, making for an airy, austere, space. And it’s this harsh look, often accentuated by minimal furnishing, that many designers might quibble with. MR’S rooms look great, but would you want to call them home?
In another project, there are featureless lobbies clad in floor-to-ceiling black leather, more reminiscent of an office than a living space. Perhaps this meets the requirement of their clients, but if MR is both an architecture and design firm, then many images here leave little doubt that the architecture comes first, the interior design second — Gropius’ dream has not quite been realised.
MR’S projects do bear a signature look, despite claims to the contrary: pristine lines and grids reflect architectural thought processes. This unashamed minimalism creates a presumably unintended, 1970s vibe. That’s not to say it’s an approach without merit — the hint of retro lends a trim and understated style to interiors.
The firm’s best work comes when accommodating the needs of its clients — it’s an approach they are proud of — calling in outside consultants when needed. When meeting the brief to refit a brick-fronted country home in Columbia County, dating from 1785, they simply used colour and pattern to provide a link to the house’s heritage, striking a balance between the needs of modern living and respecting the past. The orthodox modernism has, fortunately, been abandoned, and the result is a warm, original, and livable space.
Moving to an urban setting, MR really flexes its imaginative muscles when meeting the needs of a client in search of the ‘ideal batchelor pad’ — in the kitchen, sharp edges and silver worktops keep the look clean, while wood flooring softens the hard look. Designer light fittings — and tree-like dining room centrepieces — add an eye-catching quirkiness. Flourishes stand out because of their setting.
While the firm’s aesthetic remains minimalist, the look is personalised with carefully considered ornamental items. With more than 200 photographs, this is an inspirational book packed with ideas for fans of retro minimalism.
■ MR Architecture+decor by David Mann is published by Harry N Abrams and costs €30.