Discover the storied treasures of industry style

Raw Beauty

By Gretta Louw

Just a whisper of the words Industrial Style  is enough to set many a design lover’s eyes alight. But if you could snap a picture inside their minds, chances are that each image would be different. For some, it’s all about minimalist, hard-edged spaces. Think converted, open-plan lofts with exposed brick and polished cement, kitted out with massive metal bookcases and tufted leather Chesterfield sofas . For others, the focus is on an eclectic grouping of historical artifacts, steeped in the experiences of bygone eras: a well-worn oak bench  from a church; an adjustable spotlight  from a naval ship; a molded plywood chair from a midcentury classroom; a steel cabinet from an English haberdashery . The many proponents of industrial style may have their distinct preferences, but they all share a reverence for the past and a steadfast dedication to celebrating substance over surface. And each individual take on industrial style proudly proclaims, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

The very name industrial style alludes to the Industrial Revolution, that historic period when a large portion of the world’s population was transformed into workers within the exponentially expanding factory system. Given the significant investment associated with opening a new factory in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s no surprise that the interior furnishings and fixtures were invariably made as plainly as possible out of the most hard-wearing materials available, predominantly metals and timbers, markedly devoid of decoration. Dominated by sharp lines, exposed joints, and straightforward constructions that favored function over ornament, these original factory fittings—the bedrock of contemporary industrial style interiors—began their lives purely as utilitarian objects. But as times have changed, this formal purity has taken on a nostalgia-fueled aura in reaction against today’s proliferation of all things shoddy and expendable. 

Hungarian dealers Ákos Szabó and Sára Kóger from newcomer shop Arteria are well-versed in this contemporary mining of the past. For their part, the duo supports the hypothesis that what is now called the Industrial Style developed decades ago and through necessity. In Manhattan in the 1960s and ‘70s, artists were on the hunt for large, affordable places to both live and work—including notables like Judd, Warhol, and Basquiat—and began to colonize old warehouses and workshops. Along the way, they embraced the straightforward aesthetic of abandoned factory furnishings. Similar trends in real estate occurred in London, L.A., Berlin, and beyond. As the Arteria founders say, “it wasn’t a predetermined style but more like a natural adaptation to postindustrial circumstances, which later became so cool and trendy.” As gentrification progressively reclaimed the artists’ spaces for the middle-to-upper classes, people began to realize, as Szabó explains, “these treasures—with their simple, geometric lines and clean, raw materials—are extremely rare; the aesthetic transitioned from utilitarian to desirable.” It certainly wasn't any coincidence either that the rise of the obsession with industrial style hit just as the consumer market was flooded by slick and—some would argue—personality-free products in spotless chrome and high performance plastics. For many, an alternative was needed to restore some soulfulness.

While the trend for industrial style continues to grow, each interpretation is personal. The duo behind Arteria, for example, are explorers and artisans. Upon returning from London to Hungary, they set about putting together the perfect nest for themselves to showcase their values. They assembled a collection of “rusty pipes for the kitchen counter, salvaged table lamps for the work station, workshop stools in the dining room,” and it wasn’t long before the compliments came rolling in, often accompanied by the question, where did you get this?

The truth is that Szabó and Kóger had liberated much of their new décor directly from an abandoned factory not far outside their hometown. The couple cite the discovery of forgotten places as their main source of inspiration; “It is indescribable when you find an amazing space so well preserved by time and dust.” With love, skill, and highly attuned eyes, these alchemists turn refuse into gold, repeating the mantra, “people like to know that there is a history behind their furniture.”

There’s another element, though, to the widespread attraction to the industrial style, a much more practical one. Jacqueline Latham from Welsh vintage shop Unique Vintage Industrial sums it up when she explains that her original passion for industrial furnishings lies in “having been brought up with a ‘waste not, want not’ family attitude.” That is to say, Latham loves to find a new life for the discarded. And, as Szabó and Kóger put it, “people have started to realize that consuming less and making something useful out of something you already have is really cool.”

What I love is when you find something that you’ve not seen before. Patina and originality are everything. Industrial style, then, is an eclectic blend of brocantage, antiquing, creative upcycling, and retro-inspired, hardware-store-sourced new creations. In some instances, pieces are uncovered in perfect condition, or they require just a careful cleaning and slight restoration that respects the original patina. An 1890s architect’s drafting table  from British interior designer and dealer Drew Pritchard, for example, would add a dramatic counterpoint to any contemporary kitchen, eye-catching as a rustic centerpiece topped with a lush bouquet. Other pieces are hybrids, merging remnants of history in new ways, like a table from Unique Vintage Industrial marries vintage stacking crates and reclaimed timber. Sometimes the greatest impact is in simply repurposing obscure pieces, giving them a new function; take for example this 1950s Gymnastics Jumpseat from Dutch dealer Mass Modern Design, which could become a one-of-a-kind entryway stool, a boho-chic plantstand, or a warm and welcoming interior accent.

Industrial style is wonderfully adaptable. While devotees might hanker for the immersive experience of an ex-industrial loft warehouse, there are also many ways to incorporate a touch of industrial flair to any interior. Pritchard is a maestro of combining industrial style pieces with objects from a variety of historical eras to create an atmosphere that is more classical than cutting edge, but still with that irresistible hint of rawness. When asked how he achieves these melodiously blended, eclectic looks, Pritchard modestly explains, “I don’t think about it that hard. I’m not interested in fashion or trends—it’s the clean lines; something that has a bit of heart.” But that spot-on, instinctual taste doesn’t come out of nowhere. “My father, who was an artist and a sign-writer, taught me at a very young age to really look at a thing," Pritchard remembers. "I ask myself, 'what’s wrong with it, or what’s right with it?' I knew by the age of 11 that I wanted to be an antiques dealer.” So what is the highest priority for a dealer who’s been in the business for decades, sells to top international interior designers on a daily basis, and is currently working on projects as varied as a house for a rock star and a hotel in China? “What I love is when you find something that you’ve not seen before. Patina and originality are everything.”

Most agree that an authentic patina is what imbues industrial style objects with magic—which is why all the reputable dealers will encourage collectors to ask about the source and provenance of each piece they buy. Some dealers even offer a customized sourcing service to suit clients’ specialized interests. Anna Hopson, from English shop Wolf & Hare, says they are “drawn to the unique character of each industrial vintage piece we stock. Unlike modern replicas, we believe that better craftsmanship has allowed them stand the test of time… giving each a charm and originality that adds to their story.”

Whether it’s the sense that an object carries intimate details of an intriguing history etched into its surfaces, or whether it’s the trendsetting, elusive cool of boundary-breaking artists, there’s so much about the industrial style that makes it massively appealing: the stability, solidity, presence, history, and authentic patina; the honest exposure of its own purpose and materiality. Perhaps it is the fact that these qualities seem so rare in our media-saturated, digital age. Or that qualities of durability and utility are a welcome antithesis to planned obsolescence and throwaway culture. Or even as Latham gushes, “it just oozes gorgeousness.” Whatever it is, industrial style is here to stay, and the options for creative interior design are practically endless.


  • Text by

    • Gretta Louw

      Gretta Louw

      A South-African born Australian currently based in Germany, Gretta is a globetrotting multi-disciplinary artist and language lover. She holds a degree in Psychology, and has seriously avant garde leanings.