Industrial Chic

by Autumn McGarr

Industrial chic, the style that has roots in yesteryear’s gritty sweatshops, has emerged as a very cool look for kitchens. The style takes as many forms as the lofts, textile mills, fisheries and factories that inspired it, but certain elements, such as bricks, concrete and metals are staples, and somehow, in designers’ hands, they can create kitchens that range anywhere from relaxed to refined and from strictly functional to wildly glamorous.

Leigh Ann Raines of Chic by Design, in Clemmons, NC feels that the style works especially well for kitchens because it focuses on function and yet offers so many opportunities for excitement. “I love that it finds beauty in aged and worn materials,” she says. “It’s so relaxed. Kids and pets are okay in a kitchen like that. At the same time, you can turn on the chic with texture contrasts and quirky vintage accents.”

She thinks nostalgia plays a part in the style’s appeal. “I think there’s enormous appreciation of our country’s industrial heritage,” she states. “We love the inventiveness, toughness and energy that made us the engine of the world. Look at the way people are now gravitating toward rehabbed commercial buildings in downtown areas. Yes, part of it is the convenience of being in the midst of everything, but there’s also history to savor. Imagine the stories those walls could tell.”

Recycling is another factor in the industrial style’s popularity, according to Liz Whall, a designer who works both in New York and California. “Re-using materials and spaces is a powerful motivation,” she says. “Homeowners love the idea of being less wasteful, and that’s exactly what they achieve when they go for a converted commercial space and keep the exposed brick walls, ducts and pipes. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that such spaces can also be so exciting.”

Heavy metals rule

Photo: Peter Rymwid

Even a 150-year-old farmhouse can go industrial. Here, designer Peter Salerno incorporates salvaged antique finials and wood beams to warm the space. Dramatic contrasts take center stage, while a 10′ island features an unusual grain.
Photo: Peter Rymwid

New Jersey-based kitchen designer Peter Salerno has a different take on the industrial trend. He thinks that the plethora of cooking shows is largely responsible for homeowners loving lots of metal in their kitchens. “Be it Emeril or Bobby Flay or Giada, they work in functional spaces, often actual restaurant kitchens,” he notes. “People see that and think ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ We find that one out of 50 will want a kitchen like that after watching one of those cooking shows. And, by the way, they want it even if they don’t cook. Why, we even see people who admit they don’t cook insist on a $65,000 La Cornue range.”

Recently, Salerno’s ways with industrials, especially metallics, brought him all the way to Moscow. An ice hockey player in the U.S. hired him to design the kitchen in his new house back in Russia. True to form, Salerno designed an extraordinary island as the centerpiece of the kitchen. Crafted from pewter, it features riveted legs, a look borrowed from airplane construction. 

Stainless steel, however, is his favorite metal. When a homeowner expresses interest in an industrial kitchen, Salerno often designs a core of appliances, island and cabinets entirely clad in gleaming steel. This may look right at home at Iron Chef Central, but it is amazingly versatile. It even suits a 150-year-old New Jersey farmhouse with stone walls and beamed ceilings, another recent Salerno project. Here, the kitchen’s island is 10′ long and the steel is treated to appear grained. Iron forged to look old is also used in the space, as are some salvaged architectural finials. The photos of this kitchen on the firm’s website have caught attention from far and near. 

“I just had a phone call from Oklahoma,” tells Salerno. “They like my ways with industrial kitchens. So I am going there. That’s how I got to go to Moscow, too.”

Photo: Philip Ennis Photography

In this Moscow, Russia kitchen designed by Peter Salerno of Peter Salerno, Inc., the unique pewter island features legs that are riveted in the manner of airplane parts.
Photo: Philip Ennis Photography

Salerno warns that industrial kitchens can look too functional if the ratio between metals and warmer elements is wrong. “No kitchen should look and feel like an operating room at a hospital,” he notes. “I usually go with a ratio of 40 percent metals and 60 percent warmer elements. The best way to bring warmth into the space is with wood. A wood floor, wood cabinets or beamed ceiling will always do a good job of warming up a kitchen.”

The importance of metals in industrial kitchens is repeated by designer after designer, but Steven Abeles, an interior designer, dealer and owner of Balsamo Antiquities in Pine Plains, NY and New York City, makes a deeper connection. A noted specialist in industrial antiques, he explains that it was the popularity of loft living that gave birth to the onslaught of stainless steel appliances. “Those industrial lofts with restaurant ranges and other oversized elements became impossibly chic,” he says. “Shelter magazines started showing them off in their pages, and appliance makers took note. So did builders. They adopted the lofty ceilings and big windows for homes all over the suburbs and beyond.”

Salerno agrees with Abeles’ interpretation of recent design history. “Yes, I remember when homeowners wanted to hide their appliances behind paneling so they were practically indistinguishable from the cabinetry. And then – bam! – all that changed. Appliances came out in the open and stainless steel became king.”

Industrial purity

A rehabbed 1,300-sq.-ft. loft in New York City’s Soho district shows off industrial chic in its purest form. Here, Liz Whall created a home that respects the industrial history and bones of the space and yet functions as a beautiful, interesting home for a young man who’s a law student and gourmet cook.

“We kept the outer brick walls, original high windows, wonderful pine board floors and ducts and pipes,” she notes. “We also unboxed the original columns and found they had gorgeous capitals, so we kept them in their natural state. Altogether, this is a very authentic space.

“In the kitchen we installed top-notch appliances, including an industrial range, a rotisserie and wine storage. A wall of white subway tile holds open shelves, and a work area with desk space is part of the kitchen. To create a visual separation of that area, we gave it a background of powder-coated steel. Both the desk and dining table are tree slices, complete with the bark still on. The space is organic, natural and warm, even though it’s full of industrial design features.”

Photos: Nicholas Calcott

Industrial chic is seen here in a classic New York City loft. Designer Liz Whall kept its time-honored features, such as old pine floors, iron columns and brick work, while adding top-of-the-line appliances.
Photos: Nicholas Calcott

To create an industrial chic kitchen, Whall thinks it best to start with a neutral palette, such as grays or whites. Then, to add softness, she suggests layering in warm wood tones. Woods that have some wear – even scratches, knots and nicks – add to the authenticity of the style, she maintains. The overall palette should reflect the hues found in metals, wood, leather, rope and other elements typical of the old industrial complexes. For a contemporary twist, she suggests adding a bright accent color, perhaps a citrus tone.

When Leigh Ann Raines was asked to update a mid-century guest house-studio in California’s Hollywood Hills, she settled on the simplicity of an industrial kitchen. 

Photo: Chic by Design

A mid-century modern kitchen in Hollywood Hills, CA goes industrial in the hands of designer Leigh Anne Raines of Chic By Design. To give the space an organic feel, she had the concrete floor lacquered and installed light gray wood cabinets.
Photo: Chic by Design

“The most prominent features of the space were a stunning window wall, a spiral staircase and exposed metal structural components,” she says. “But I found the space on the sterile side. It needed more of an organic feel. So I chose light-colored wood cabinets with quartz countertops, lacquered the concrete floor, put a rug into the eating area and found chairs and art work that would add some yellow accents.”

Elle-H Millard, CKD and spokesperson for the Hackettstown, NJ-based National Kitchen & Bath Association, explains that it’s finding real beauty in exposed imperfections that makes the industrial kitchen so special. “An unveiled look at the inner workings of the space always provides an element of surprise,” she says. “And raw materials  that are sturdy and durable, yet have a hand-made feel, add to the look. Thomas Edison’s bulbs with visible lighting filaments are must-haves. It’s this raw, naked form that makes an industrial kitchen truly chic.

“Having said that, it should be remembered that industrial kitchen design can take many forms and cross many boundaries. It can go more modern, or it can go more rugged,” she adds.

Mixing it up

Dan MacFadden of PB Kitchens, in Geneva, IL agrees with Salerno that homeowners are mostly motivated by the cool vibe of industrial design. “But in our area, we’re finding that homeowners prefer subtler versions of the look,” he states. “I’d even say they like some rustic notes mixed in.

“The good news is that industrial chic needn’t be an all-encompassing design style. If you’re not completely committed to the look, you can still mix individual elements with any other type of design, from contemporary to traditional. And when you do, the result is usually a ‘wow’ factor. Metals are an important part of the look, and we like to use hand-crafted items, such as iron bands for beams, supports for shelves, ornamental pieces and, most of all, gorgeous range hoods. We’re fortunate to have a lot of fantastic metal artisans in our area,” he adds.

Photo: PB Kitchen Design

Lots of metal, judiciously softened by wood, brings industrial chic to this award-winning kitchen designed by PB Kitchen Design.
Photo: PB Kitchen Design

A kitchen in McQuon, WI exemplifies PB’s industrial aesthetic. Featuring a vaulted ceiling with exposed trusses, a handcrafted steel hood, honed granite counters, stainless steel appliances and a unique metal bridge for lighting, it is striking, yet welcoming. MacFadden says it was specifically designed to serve large parties as well as quick family meals. That kitchen came in first in the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s annual design contest.

It doesn’t take much to give a kitchen an industrial vibe. Linda Liebenow of LLJ Interior Design in La Verne, CA proved that when she created a kitchen/family room for a homeowner who loves to entertain.

“The galley kitchen in the home she purchased wouldn’t do at all,” tells Liebenow. “So we blew out the space, taking down the wall between the kitchen and family room, and created a 9′ island with plenty of room for hanging out. The island’s cabinets are dark espresso and the wall cabinets are cream with a coffee glaze for an aged effect. The quartz countertop, sink and faucets are also dark brown, and to get that New York loft look, we installed a brick veneer backsplash. For some restaurant aura, we added open shelving.”

Photo: Vanessa Rodriguez

An antique film projector
and other quirky finds accessorize the mantel in this Tampa kitchen designed by Fort Lauderdale designer Dagmara Rodriguez.
Photo: Vanessa Rodriguez

Another example of the wide range of spaces that can benefit from an industrial makeover comes from Tampa, FL. There, a backlog of vintage bungalows are being rehabbed, and Dagmara Rodriguez of Ma-hu Design in Fort Lauderdale helped a college student make one of them a fun and functional home. Rodriguez describes it as industrial meets boho. “That’s what I love about industrial,” she says. “It mingles well with so many other styles.”

“In the bungalow, we kept the old hardwood floors and used lots of metal accents,” she explains. “Industrial pipes supported shelving, lighting consisted of vintage bulbs and we hunted for industrial furnishings, such as a wheeled factory cart that became a table.”

Accessories count

All styles improve with the right accessories, and industrial is no exception. But Raines, Rodriguez and Whall point out that in the accessories category, “industrials” is a catchall phrase. It’s wide ranging, encompassing fixtures, building elements, equipment, tools and implements from old factories, foundries, machine shops, laboratories, hospitals, stores, schools, farms, shipyards, airports and even streets.

Wheels and gears and architectural salvage, such as columns, pediments and finials, are extremely sought after for industrial kitchen design. Also popular are molds and patterns for cast iron parts and lighting from photo studios, factories, labs, hospitals and schools. 

“But that’s just for starters,” notes Abeles. “There are myriad additional specialties. If it’s old and graphically striking, it becomes an artifact.” 

Artist Larry Ruhr even turns industrial artifacts into sculptures. Typical art pieces of his include anvil shears, wrenches and paint brushes, and many have even made it into prestigious museum collections. One remarkable piece of his is a Chicago manhole cover with the original glass pieces still intact. 

Still another form for industrial accessories comes from MotoArt in Torrance, CA. That company crafts industrial sculptures, lamps, tables and wall art out of scrapped planes, including iconic B-17s. 

Barry Dobinsky, a prominent antiques dealers in Bridge-hampton, NY says he never passes up an opportunity to snap up machinists’ tables and tool cabinets. “The tables make great dining tables for people who like large dinner parties,” he says. “Some of them can seat 14 to 16 people. And the tool cabinets offer fantastic storage. Machinists used to have their own tools, and often they built their own cabinets. They make wonderful accents.”

In fact, some items, such as wheeled foundry trolleys, which make great kitchen carts, and tripod lamps, have gone so mainstream that they’re being reproduced by Restoration Hardware. 

Photo: Leigh Anne Raines

Hand-crafted counter and table tops featuring tobacco leaves.
Photo: Leigh Anne Raines

Designers often go regional when they choose industrial accessories. Raines likes to frame photographs from old factories and institutions. “Los Angeles, for example, was a hubbub of hat making,” she notes. “And, of course, there is the early filmmaking to celebrate with all sorts of artifacts. In Florida, boats and fisheries are sources for marvelous artifacts.

“Here in North Carolina, we have a strong tradition of tobacco growing and manufacturing. These days, the tobacco industry has given birth to another industry: handcrafted tops for kitchen and bar counters. Tobacco leaves are laid down in a pattern, embedded in resin and then lacquered. You know the effect from amber with embedded fossils? The countertops are stunning and making inroads in North Carolinian kitchens.”

So, where do you find the artifacts? Antique dealers stock them, but flea markets and salvage yards as well as yard and estate sales can also be rich sources for future designs. ▪

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