So metal: Industrial design’s use of metallic decor


When you play Mario (or Flappy Birds) a lot, you get the feeling that you’ve been looking at too many pipes for too long, something you usually ascribe to plumbers. Of course, when you design industrial-themed spaces like I do, you learn that looking at the pipes is precisely the point. And it extends to any other visually interesting bit of metal infrastructure.


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Metalwork features prominently in industrial design; it can hardly even be called “industrial” without it. Sleek and unpretentious, metal is an exemplar of the utilitarian paradigm that dominates this aesthetic. It is the substance that truly marks industrialization, being one of the most commonly used materials in industrial architecture and design. Steel girders, copper pipes, and aluminum ventilation shafts are prominent elements in old factories and warehouses, as are the metallic furniture and fixtures inside them.


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Metal, as used in industrial design, is typically geometric. One would usually find the smooth or textured surfaces and predominantly straight lines. Rarely do you see the flourishes that dominate the cast iron accessories of Victoriana (though they are not unknown, especially for those with more steampunk tastes).

The stark appearance of metal and its shapes tend to make it pop out, and it is a popular way of creating complementary contrasts in industrial design. Metals provide the neutral grays, blacks, and chromes to the industrial palette and look good in contrast to the browns and other earth tones of wood. The metal-and-wood combination is a popular theme in industrial. Contrasts between metal objects are also common: smooth metal surfaces give the appearance of cleanliness and precision while textured metal has the appearance of grit and resilience.

For more updates on the visual aesthetics of industrial interior design, follow me, Scott Jay Abraham, on Twitter.

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