Min­i­mal fuss

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

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - Interiors -

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.

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