On Trend—Modernism Unbound
It’s time to eschew the predictable and rediscover the euphoria in modernism.
Years ago I lived in Calgary’s Sunnyside neighbourhood in a 1912 bungalow, with cave-like bedrooms that opened directly into the living room. Visitors were invariably charmed and baffled by some of the home’s odd features, such as the lack of counter space in the relatively enormous kitchen at the back of the house, where, in a seeming afterthought, the main bathroom was located. The place had warmth and quirky character—though my affection always dimmed on returning home from a visit with friends who lived in a classic modern home.
A spare, rectangular tribute to restraint on the exterior, inside, the home was a model of thoughtful modernism—a bright, smartly laid-out open plan with appliances hidden behind white panels, thought-provoking art showcased on gallery-white walls and a big, pistachio-green glass-topped island in the centre of it all. Sophisticated, practical and light-hearted, my friend’s home cured me of a long-held resistance to modernism. Having spent my formative years living in a century-old parsonage, I thought the best kind of house came with a variety of dark and inexplicable nooks and crannies. In her house, an Arthur Erickson aphorism came to life: “Modernism released us from the constraints of everything that had gone before with a euphoric sense of freedom.”
There’s no doubt a modern interior “lightens things up,” as Calgary designer Paul Lavoie puts it. Indeed, he believes a fresh, minimal interior can even make us feel younger. Lately, however, my experiences of modern decor have felt uncannily repetitive, a predictable catalogue of only subtle variations on flat-panelled kitchens, white walls and dark floors everywhere I go. Verboten as it feels to question the rightness of modernism, there’s something off-putting about the general consensus that this particular manifestation of modern is the only acceptable aesthetic.
It’s a danger that Lavoie himself, whose trademark is sophisticated modernism with a twist, has cautioned against. If we’re not personal in our approach to the modern, he says—if we squander the modern’s substantial decorative capital on investments in a generic look—we may soon squint back at the early 21st- century interior in the same derisive way we now consider the once-ubiquitous 1980s Santa Fe aesthetic.
The current “modern epidemic,” as Lavoie refers to the en masse domestic craving for generic, clean, sleek digs, took a relatively long time to take hold. He says that as recently as six years ago (about the time I discovered my neighbour’s house) most people walking through his door were afraid of the word modern. Now, his firm sees 80 percent of new home builders putting up on-spec modern-inspired homes, and the other 20 percent building what he calls “clean, Restoration Hardware traditional.” He’s been shocked by requests from loyal clients now in their seventies—people he admits he long ago slotted into a classic traditionalism category—suddenly asking for white leather sectionals. “Modern is all everybody wants now,” he says.
Lavoie credits Ikea’s unadorned offerings with making modernism so approachable. “Ikea is doing a good job at modern—the flat-panelled kitchen, that’s Ikea,” says Lavoie. Not that he’s entirely thrilled with the solid grip the look has on the mainstream. The recent, overwhelming popularity of modern interior trends is precisely what makes aspects of the aesthetic unappealing to Lavoie, who sees it as a designer’s job to “put a spin on anything that becomes too acceptable.”
A client after Lavoie’s own heart recently hired his firm to redo her modern, eight-year-old home when she saw dark-floored, white-walled interiors springing up all around her. “She asked us to take her home from modern to ‘fabulous,’” he says. It was a relatively easy job for the designer, who “took that modern shell and just let it grow by adding more detail and texture and interest.” Lavoie’s preferences tend toward vintage- or glamorous-modern, but ultimately, he believes, “a classic, themeless look that incorporates a client’s most meaningful possessions is always the best.”
Designer Kelly Deck agrees with Lavoie that, if we don’t come at it with “our unique story or language,” certain manifestations of modernism will run their course—though she describes a variation on modern fundamentals in Vancouver: “Here, the design vernacular is more northern European—all wide-plank, German white oak flooring, rather than the darker woods that I’ve seen more frequently when I’ve worked with Alberta clients.” As for the white, flat-panelled kitchen and millwork, she says it’s just as ubiquitous in Vancouver as it is in Calgary. “That’s been around since the 1950s—it’s timeless, and it’s not going anywhere,” says Deck, adding that it’s not the popularity of certain functional choices that creates potential burnout. Instead, the pitfalls of ubiquitous design occur when we “just look to media or popular design vendors and repeat what’s already been created.” Then, she says, “It’s inevitable that what we name ‘modern interior’ will become cliché.”
Ultimately, of course, any aesthetic that doesn’t involve risk (many designers say they wish more clients were willing to try new things) and a big dose of the personal is destined to soon look as tired as terra cotta walls and Navajo rugs do now. The way to avoid that fate, says Deck, “is to think about what you essentially find calming, peaceful, inspiring and meaningful,” and then combine that with fundamentals of modern design. “If you do that,” she says, “it’s impossible to not create something that’s uniquely yours.”WL