Minimal lite for the space age

How to get that empty feeling in a room? Put in plenty of cupboards and remove the handles.
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The Independent Online

Take two designs. The "crate chair" is just the ticket for a loft in fashionable Hoxton. It is "made from low-grade, single-thickness timber normally used for making crates" and sold as a flat-pack. The designer would prefer you to leave it unpainted. Next, a dining room that might come from the minimalist maître John Pawson. Consisting of a rectilinear table and chairs "stripped of all embellishments", the sole decoration is a wavy line on the carpet. What could be more cutting edge? In case you're overcome by a desire to snap them up, perhaps I should add that they were cutting edge in the mid-Thirties. Both are to be found in the V&A's National Collection of Designs. A new volume selected from this treasure trove, Designs for 20th Century Interiors by Fiona Leslie (V&A, £25), reveals how designers lead the world in recycling.

Take two designs. The "crate chair" is just the ticket for a loft in fashionable Hoxton. It is "made from low-grade, single-thickness timber normally used for making crates" and sold as a flat-pack. The designer would prefer you to leave it unpainted. Next, a dining room that might come from the minimalist maître John Pawson. Consisting of a rectilinear table and chairs "stripped of all embellishments", the sole decoration is a wavy line on the carpet. What could be more cutting edge? In case you're overcome by a desire to snap them up, perhaps I should add that they were cutting edge in the mid-Thirties. Both are to be found in the V&A's National Collection of Designs. A new volume selected from this treasure trove, Designs for 20th Century Interiors by Fiona Leslie (V&A, £25), reveals how designers lead the world in recycling.

As an architect concerned with developing the ideal "minimal dwelling", Eileen Gray (1878-1936) produced a Transat armchair ( illustrated above) in 1924 which would be ideal for any minimalist home today. Made of creamy padded leather with a lacquered wooden frame and chromed-steel fittings, the big selling point of the Transat (short for Transatlantique) was it could "easily be folded and stored away when not in use". Moving forward 40 years, David Hick's "interior design for Lord Cholmondeley's library" from 1965 might appear in the terminally trendy pages of Wallpaper magazine. With its long, low Robin Day sofas, bead curtains and spindly bookcase with four tiny shelves, this cool, uncluttered space is a prime example of the "contemporary" style currently enjoying a revival among hip thirtysomethings.

The 20th century was the first era to be consciously designed, but another force came into play at the same time that was destined to mar the clean lines andempty surfaces advocated by architects. Fiona Leslie explains: "A larger proportion of the population than ever before had the money and time to spend on choosing and purchasing products for the home."

Many of the self-consciously stylish homes featured in the myriad books on urban interiors published this autumn illustrate the clash between architectural elegance and accumulated clutter. Frank Gehry's armchair in cardboard, a latter-day relation of the crate chair, appears among a host of design classics in the Fulham residence of designer Rolf Sachs, which resembles a rather cramped art gallery. Equally, "Lockheed Lounge", Marc Newson's bulbous chaise-longue in rivetted aluminium, looks uncomfortably alien in a Georgian house in Hampstead.

The interiors portrayed in these through-the-keyhole publications have a curious, otherworldly quality. This is characterised by a remark made by Solange Azagury-Partridge, chatelaine of a gaudily luxurious, meticulously composed flat in Paddington: "I love the chaos the kids bring to my life." One of the oddest room sets features a creepy version of the hard-edge "contemporary" style. This is the "gloriously defiant shag pad" of a "bona fide bachelor", which includes a "Playboy playpen" in the living room and shop-window mannequins posing in the kitchen and office.

But one interior stands out. John Pawson's much-photographed London house has a luminous, empty perfection. We learn this most austere of architects recently received a commission to design a Trappist monastery. Judging by the "limestone bench extending the length of the living room" and the never-lit wood fire in the hearth, the result might be slightly lacking in creature comforts even for the holy fathers. In a series of photographs, the entire possessions of the Pawson family seem to be: a limited quantity of plain wood furniture; one small print; three children's drawings; a bowl of small dark fruit; two pan-scrubs.

A slightly less puritanical approach, minimalism lite so to speak, is suggested in Practically Minimal by Maggie Toy. She reveals it is possible to attain a minimalist look and still retain a few possessions: a Fiat Cinquecento is suspended over one London living room, the kitchen of another dwelling contains a couple of dog bowls - though these are stainless steel and very likely designed by Corbusier. Not every interior comes off. The height of a Tribeca loft is "emphasised by the low seating pieces". It seems a heavy price to pay if visitors must perch on foot-high cubes. Yet, the glass-lined bedroom overlooking Los Angeles, the glass-walled kitchen opening on to an austere gravelled courtyard in London, even the neo-baronial hall in Seattle are undeniably seductive.

Achieved at great effort and enormous expense, these gloriously barren interiors are probably beyond the grasp of most of us, nevertheless the book is replete with readily pinchable ideas. The key appears on page 182: "Storage is unquestionably the most vital feature of the minimal interior." This can have another advantage, which is remarked on by James Fenton in the introduction to yet another enjoyably prying volume, New York Living Rooms by Dominque Nabokov (Turnaround Press), in which the abodes of Manhattan celebs prove to be surprisingly cramped and unremarkable. Fenton notes that the thieves who broke into the home of a London minimalist architect came away with nothing. "Being unversed in minimalism, they were fooled into thinking they were in an empty apartment - none of the drawers had handles, none of the cupboards had knobs."

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