All-American Style: Brutalist Interior Design
From the Red Scare to 1960s Era University Buildings to Kimye’s Mansion, Brutalist Interior Design Has Left Its Cold Mark on American Style
Brutalist interior design has been associated with everything from European socialist housing to 1960s college campus protests to Kim and Kanye’s former Calabasas mansion. Raw and unadorned, Brutalism has left its cold mark on American style. While Brutalist design fell into the shadows after its initial rise, it has come back into design conversations in recent years. However, today the term is often thrown around and misused. Brutalism may not be what you think it is. Brutalism is not contemporary. It is not mid-century modern. And, it is not industrial. When discussing any interior design style, it is important to know the rules and history around it. As I continue along my cross-country road trip to discover all-American interior design styles, I decided to make some stops at college campuses and even Kimye’s house to learn more about the Brutalist interior design movement in America. Here’s what my team of Austin interior designers and I learned about Brutalist style elements and history. Plus, we share our thoughts on the likelihood of Brutalism ever trending again.
Elements of the Brutalist Interior Design Style
At its core, Brutalist interior design honors raw materials—showcasing the honesty of construction. Brutalist Architect Peter Smithson explained that “Brutalism is not concerned with the material as such but rather the quality of materials and seeing [them] for what they were.” Rather than adorn interior walls with trim, paneling, and wallcoverings, Brutalist designers allow the raw construction materials to speak for themselves, highlighting concrete, glass, steel, and hewn stone.
In line with the principle of architectural honesty, the Brutalist design style pares down buildings to their most basic forms—relying on simple geometric shapes for visual interest. While Brutalist construction can appear stark and cold, it provides opportunities to treat designs as modern sculptures. The art of Brutalist design comes from the shapes formed by positive and negative space.
Since Brutalist design strips away any superfluous ornamentation, interiors rely on textures to achieve an interesting and layered look. As a result, rough concrete, reflective glass, and even exposed piping become art forms in their own right, creating impactful visual interest with the most basic building materials.
When it comes to Brutalism, less is more. Brutalist interior design removes any excess finishes and furnishings for a stark and almost Spartan appearance. Therefore, only the minimum amount of pieces needed for comfort and function will be included in the design plan.
Focus on Function
While Brutalist designs may appear boxy and haphazard from the exterior, the design plans are carefully planned around function. Brutalist design focuses on how people will move through and use the space, creating specific zones that tie together cohesively. While other design styles may include elements and structures for their own sake, Brutalism strips architectural planning down to the bare necessities.
Historical Influences of the Brutalist Style
The Brutalist movement originated after World War II in the United Kingdom as post-war construction projects began and gained popularity through the 1950s and 60s. (Similarly to Georgian interior design, it seems like most American design styles come from across the pond!) Brutalism spread throughout Europe as war-torn countries searched for cost-effective ways to rebuild. Since steel was an expensive material at the time, designers turned to concrete—where Brutalism got its name. Brutalism comes from the french word béton brut, meaning raw concrete.
While Brutalism was taking off in Europe, Americans were embracing the Modernist movement. In many ways, Brutalism directly rejected the clean lines, bright colors, and futuristic thinking of mid-century modern builds. A T Magazine article explains, “Where Modernism was poised and polite, often incorporating white plaster and walls that concealed the buildings’ internal logic, Brutalism evolved into something bold and confrontational, its heavy, rugged forms forged of inexpensive industrial materials that disguised nothing at all.” With deliberate transparency, Brutalist designs of the era felt heavy, cold, and even threatening.
Some negative associations towards Brutalism may have come from the fact that most soviet era government housing and buildings were constructed in the Brutalist style. However, that didn’t stop the movement from traveling to Cold War era America during the Red Scare. By the early 1960s, many American universities were constructing Brutalist campus buildings due to low construction costs and quick timelines. As 1960s campus protests erupted in response to the Vietnam War, Brutalist libraries, commons, and dorms served as menacing fortress-like backdrops to the movement.
Brutalist design started to fall out of favor by the 1980s. Many of the original structures became closely tied to totalitarian atmospheres and aged poorly in a short amount of time. Concrete exteriors became discolored, cracked, and adorned with graffiti. Soon, Brutalist construction became associated with urban decay and the roughness of city life. America moved on to the suburbs and embraced the bright colors and shabby chic styles of 1980s interior design trends. Goodbye concrete jungle, and hello Valley Girl!
Will Brutalist Interior Design Come Back in Style?
By the late 2010s, Brutalism was set to make a comeback. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West embraced Brutalism trends in their Calabasas mansion remodel, sparking several stories about their empty living room, barren hallway, and stone slab sinks. After the initial shock, Americans began embracing minimalism full force. We cleaned out our closets with Marie Kondo, we painted our interiors white and gray alongside HGTV, and we packed away our cherished collections that had been deemed “clutter.”
However, the minimalist scales were tipped (or knocked over completely) with the rise of the 2020 pandemic. Upon spending more time at home, many of us realized the importance of creating a cozy, well-adorned home. As a result, design trends shifted in the opposite direction, giving rise to the return of the shabby chic and cottage styles. I, for one, am fine embracing a little bit of maximalism. While Brutalism’s return to the design scene was short-lived for now, it remains a prominent landmark in American design.
What Makes Brutalist Design “All-American?”
Whether you love it or hate it, Brutalist design has made lasting marks across the country. For some, Brutalism brings back images of a post-WWII era. Others stroll through college campuses on their way to class with fortress-like concrete structures defending the sanctity of learning along the way. A few of us like to embrace the style full force in our homes, lounging in cavernous living rooms to binge our favorite reality show. While the Brutalist movement began in Europe, these designs have impacted American culture and remind us of times throughout history. Will Brutalism make its way back into American homes anytime soon? I’m not sure. But for now, I prefer cozying up on a plush sofa next to a charming fireplace.
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Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.