Ask the Experts

Spare Style

I’ve always liked design and decorating–just one look at my dorm room or my room back home would tell you that–but I have to confess that I don’t understand the appeal of the “industrial” look. You know: minimalist decor, exposed brick, exposed rafters and pipes…what’s with that? Where did it come from? I’m genuinely curious about why my generation seems to like apartments, bars, and gathering spaces that look like warehouses or factories. What’s beautiful about those spaces? What’s comfortable about them?

How you feel about industrial and minimalist spaces is, of course, entirely up to you. But you are quite right that they’re popular. The “warehouse aesthetic” that you’re confused by is often called “industrial style,” and it rose to prominence in the 2000s and 2010s. These days, the look is so popular among home buyers that one study showed it pushed the prices of homes in Australia up by 20 percent! That’s a lot to pay to live in a home that makes some people feel like they’re in a space under construction.

Of course, the people who snap up industrial-style spaces don’t feel this way. And, to be fair, experts say there are some benefits to the style. Space is a huge factor in the comfort of a home, Australia’s Kalka home design company says. The way a room is laid out and the space between furniture, appliances, and other key things in a home has everything to do with how we feel when we’re in a space like that. With custom-designed homes, gaining space is easy–but with older spaces, it can be tougher. Stripping away drywall may not make a huge difference, but there’s certainly no denying that it maximizes the space between the walls. And while exposing rafters, pipes, and HVAC systems overhead may not actually increase headroom by much, it creates an airier impression by highlighting the negative space between those rafters and installations. Instead of the ceiling hanging below those things and hiding them, the “real” ceiling feels like it’s above them, giving the impression of a larger and airier room.

And while this extra space may seem to come at an aesthetic cost to you, not everyone agrees. Utilitarian work can be beautiful, some experts say, depending on the quality. Welding equipment manufacturer Lincoln Electric points out that welding is something as common in wrought iron gates as it is in industrial manufacturing. Industrial details can be precise and beautiful, to some eyes.

In some ways, industrial style is meant to evoke the historic, not the so-new-it’s-under-construction, experts recommend looking at old buildings for inspiration, for instance. Exposing the “bones” of an old building in the form of exposed bricks or weathered wood is a way of showing the pedigree of a space while also highlighting its modern conversion into a cutting-edge living space.

A third reason for the popularity of industrial design is the associations it conjures up. The warehouse aesthetic may be a choice in your favorite bar, but for homeowners in dense areas like New York and San Francisco, it may simply be the only way to live in the neighborhood. In fact, even smaller cities have seen surges in crowded urban spaces, with Birmingham, for instance, handling a 36 percent surge in downtown living. That has prompted some to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on conversions of commercial spaces–resulting in apartments and single family homes that, while pricey, are still cheaper than the existing residential spaces would have been. And since this is happening in hip urban centers, the design has become associated with the stylish and in-the-know. No wonder, then, that it has found its way to your favorite spots!

“In a minimal interior, what you don’t do is as important as what you do.” — Nate Berkus

Nancy Pearson is the President of Nancy Pearson Design.