On February 12, Khaite held its fall/winter 2023 runway show within the brand’s new store in SoHo. Models weaved in and out of Richard Serra–esque industrial metal sculptures, their furry heels traipsing across glazed-concrete floors. Editors admired the sculptural shape of a shearling coat, its meticulous cut emphasised by the monochromatic grey surroundings. Except for a porous concrete table and sleek black clothing racks, the space was devoid of decoration. Among the austereness, all you could focus on were Cate Holstein’s clothes.
The flagship was designed by Holstein’s husband, architect Griffin Frazen. His vision? To create a setting where his wife’s aesthetic vision would be uncompromised by its surroundings. “In a space with few distractions, the customer can become aware of the subtle qualities of the clothes,” Frazen tells Vogue. “The design was a process of stripping away rather than adding to arrive at something essential and honest. Luxury can be less rather than more.”
To accomplish this deliberate plainness, Frazen used industrial materials that became “very rigid and monolithic.” He bent hot rolled steel into curved enclosures and covered the walls with plaster made from troweled cement combined with poured concrete. In the process, he made a point not to mask any imperfections. “We preserved a lot of the material’s visible marks of making, which suggest a history and a bit of mystery. The space is not too polished or sterile,” Frazen explains. “We preferred texture, roughness, depth.” The design of the store was met with immediate acclaim, receiving several glossy articles in the fashion press (and—an honour for any New Yorker—a fawning Instagram post from Keith McNally).
Frazen cites modernists with an emphasis on craftsmanship, such as Serra, as his main influence. But another, more controversial inspiration also played a role: brutalism. “When it was coined, brutalism was as much an ethic as an aesthetic and had a strong political agenda,” Frazen says. “But there was a belief in purity of structure and truth in materials that we identify with.”
The brutalist movement first emerged in the 1950s. Led by French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, its central tenants were the use of concrete, unfinished industrial materials, strong structural elements, rigid shapes, and a monochromatic color scheme. (The name was derived from the French term for raw concrete: béton brut.) Brutalist buildings and interiors were intended to project a utilitarian image, with famous examples including the now Frick Madison in New York City, the Barbican in London, and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco. Yet although the movement had noble intentions of eschewing ornate features for minimalist, honest construction, many communist regimes embraced the style, leading many to associate brutalism with totalitarian politics and eventual decay. By the 1980s, it had fallen firmly out of favour.
Fast forward to 2023, however, and brutalism is making a serious comeback. In the Oscar-nominated Tár, a brutalist Berlin apartment gathered just as much audience intrigue as Cate Blanchett character of Lydia. When Vogue published its annual interior-design trend report, multiple designers noted they’d seen an uptick in its signature stark hallmarks, such as concrete floors and the use of raw industrial materials. One designer, Colin King, explained he had used everything from exposed bulbs and pipes to materials like bronze, plywood, and cement in recent projects. “I have historically been impacted most by [architectural features] that feel monolithic—I want stuff to be big, strong, and silent,” he says.
Growing up in Venezuela, architect Maurizio Bianchi Mattioli of Studio MBM was surrounded by brutalist buildings; now based in New York, he finds himself regularly weaving its elements into his projects. In a recent Manhattan loft project, for example, he crafted a sink with boxy stone inserts and a giant partition separates the vanities, while a cast-iron column acts as a kind of found object within the space. Outside of Park City, Utah, Mattioli is also working on a mountain home with a wedged roof and a pared-back interior with concrete floors. Like Frazen, Mattioli makes clear that his work is not a carbon copy of the 1950s movement nor does it have any political agenda. Rather, it’s a modern interpretation of the movement’s original ethos. “There’s something to be said about the zeitgeist of brutalism’s heyday—there was this heightened aspiration for the future and collective optimism around what that might look like,” he says.
Indeed, these neo-brutalist designers are avoiding the mistakes of the past by carefully selecting the aspects of the movement that translate well to the present day. After time labeled many brutalist interiors and structures as, well, ugly and cold, their new iterations in 2023 juxtapose these elements with organic accents. King, for example, complements them with Swedish or Baroque antiques, whereas Frazen planted a tree in the corner of the Khaite store. King and Mattioli also point out that brutalism extends beyond architecture and interiors—a piece of furniture or decor can also bring a more subtle brutalist-inspired touch to a space. Mattioli makes a three-legged steel stool, for example, whereas King has a fondness for working with a Le Corbusier concrete lamp or a Rick Owens bronze table. (Owens, by the way, has his own brutalist-style home in Concordia, Italy.) Concrete floors too are often micro-topped—or covered with a coating that gives them an elegant sheen.
Giampiero Tagliaferri, the former creative director of Oliver Peoples who recently founded his own design firm, says he too has been weaving softer touches into his brutalist-influenced interiors. “Compared to the past, the new brutalist style conveys a softer approach that incorporates natural elements like wood, stones, plants, and sustainable materials, resulting in a warmer and more welcoming aesthetic,” he says. Mattioli even jokes it may be time for a new name: “Perhaps the new version is a type of cute-alism.”
But why is the interior-design trend making a return in the first place?
At its core, it is a movement about honesty. There’s no ornamentation, no clutter, no flashy upholstery nor busy wallpaper. Nothing is covered up or pretending to be anything it isn’t. Add in the fact that most of the world was born and has lived fully among the industrial elements it harnesses, and this approach can be strangely comforting. “There is a purity and simplicity to it,” says King. “Perhaps it’s the appreciation for contrived forms juxtaposed with raw materials or the desire for something that feels solid and grounding. Brutalism honours the process of designing by exposing its very construction, and I think there’s something fascinating and subversive about that.” It turns out brutalism doesn’t need to feel brutal at all.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.