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The Brass Revival

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The Brass Revival in Home Decor

Interior design has been long been in the chilly grip of stainless steel and other silvery metals. Now, brass's resurgence is making frigid finishes passé

Oct. 11, 2013 4:34 p.m. ET


Going for the brass Jamie Chung for The Wall Street Journal, Prop Styling by Rebecca Donnelly
In contemporary design, all that glitters is no longer silver. Nor is it nickel, chrome or mirror-polished stainless steel, the similarly cool metal tones that have outsold other finishes on everything from faucets to furniture for decades. Brass, last in vogue in the '70s, has been moving in from the margins, showing up on a pendant light here, a table leg there—exuding a certain cocky, outsider glamour. In recent years, it's started to make silver tones look, all too accurately, commonplace. And now, no metal is shining more compellingly: Brass is conclusively back.

Shown Above

1. Pencil Holder, $75, jaysonhome.com 2. Ilse Brass Box, $275 each, georgjensen.com 3.Auböck Bookend, $585 for two, shop.cooperhewitt.org 4. Candleholder, $248 for set of three, dwellstudio.com 5. 48-ounce Hammer, $60, globalindustrial.com 6. Origami Bowl, $199 for set of three, akmdcollection.com7. Stelton EM 77 Vacuum Jug, $149, huset-shop.com 8. Whisk, $8, crateandbarrel.com 9.Vase, $495, kellywearstler.com 10. Josef Hoffmann Candle Holder/Vase, $280, neuegalerie.org 11. Brass Gala Box, $198 each, jonathanadler.com 12. Hex and Block Paperweights, $95 each, daniel-emma.com 13.Icosahedron Paperweight, $148, michelevarian.com
Though copper and bronze, its pricier cousins, are also looking newly desirable, brass—a poor-man's-gold alloy of copper and zinc typically relegated to plumbing, tubas and Olde English doorknockers—has gained the strongest following. Leading designers from Jonathan Adler to Michael S. Smith, Kelly Wearstler to Celerie Kemble, all offer products in brass: burnished chairs, glowing desks, honeyed chandeliers, lamps, barware, desk accessories and more. Brass is also entering the mainstream, prominently featured in catalogs from such retailers as Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware. Relatively affordable, this ancient metal is nevertheless speaking to a 21st-century desire for luxury, timelessness and artisanship.
In a sure sign of its ascendance, the warm metal look is also popping up in electronics, where silvery shades generally go unchallenged: The white version of Lady Gaga's Heartbeats ear buds for Beats by Dr. Dre is distinguished by brass-toned studs, and demand for Apple's new gold iPhone 5s, whose plating could pass for brushed brass, has been so relentless that at least one website has emerged to help track its availability. Even car-makers are starting to see past silver (the most popular auto color for years,until it was topped by white in 2011); automotive paint manufacturer BASF has begun to develop several shades of gold for the Chinese market, and industry forecasters are predicting that the brassy and bronzy shades of '70s cars are ripe for revival in America.

Interactive: Top Brass

Some of the best ways to invest in the metal of the moment
Metal finishes are signifiers, said Mr. Adler, who currently offers more than 200 brass products, including a 60-pound sculptural peacock table. "Silver tones are cool, high-tech, Calvin Klein simplicity," he said. "Brass equals warmth, English clubbiness, Moroccan craft and Italian mid-century fantasy." In other words, brass has a more colorful past.
The new brass age arguably began nearly a decade ago with designer Tom Dixon. A Brit with fond memories of growing up in North Africa with the region's polished brass cookware, he began to experiment with the metal to enhance lighting designs. "It's human nature to get bored," he explained of his decision to use a warmer material. "Brass felt like a more human alternative to hygienic and cold stainless steel kitchens, chrome cars and aluminum electronics." Launched in 2006, his Beat series, a collection of vessel-shaped pendant lights made in India from blackened brass with polished hammered interiors, has sold in the tens of thousands and become iconic—primitive yet decidedly modern.

Finish Lines

What Your Fixtures Say About You
That same year, fashion duo Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana opened Gold, a Milan restaurant decked out in brass and frequented by the apparel and décor industry. "It was the first time I'd seen polished brass used so prevalently in an interior in many years, and I was surprised at how fresh it felt," said New York-based interior designer Laura Kirar , who attended the restaurant's opening. "After that, I had a new appreciation for the material." Ms. Kirar now uses it in collections for Kallista bath and kitchen fixtures and lighting and accessories for Arteriors Home.
The taste pendulum has swung from cooler to warmer metals, or vice versa, before. "Brass was a big look in the Victorian era," noted English designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, "but it lost favor to chrome in the Art Deco period." The tawny alloy reasserted itself in the mid-20th century (see Italian modernist Gio Ponti and Austrian brass smith Carl Auböck), but by the '60s, "anything that stood still long enough was chrome-plated," said Los Angeles-based designer Michael Berman. Furniture innovators like Milo Baughman and Karl Springer re-popularized brass in the mellow '70s, but, soon after, silver tones began their dogged four-decade reign.
Unless it is lacquered, brass tarnishes, and most designers are just fine with that
"At some point, people looked at yellowish metals and thought they were too mums-y and traditional," said interior designer Cliff Fong, a co-owner of Galerie Half in Los Angeles. "The '80s was an era of stainless steel and gelled hair. Everything was hard and slick." Homeowners embraced the clean look and easy upkeep of silvery stainless steel appliances and nickel hardware, and they clung tight. Meanwhile, technology was increasingly influencing design trends. As Apple's computers morphed from creamy beige to pale aluminum, silver tones became firmly associated with high performance and revolutionary thinking. Yet, along the way, these icy, futuristic finishes became so ubiquitous that, for some, they began to look cheap and dated. These days, a silver iPhone can seem almost quaint.
Brass, however, evokes the pre-digital era of hand-wrought craftsmanship. "In a traditional setting, nothing authenticates a room like brass," said Atlanta-based designer Stan Topol, who particularly likes brass sabots on the feet of chairs. "It is the hallmark of a quality piece of furniture." In more minimalist design schemes, brass adds romance. "There's a history to brass that can feel unbelievably classic, like an old French hotel," Michael S. Smith, a Los Angeles designer, observed.
Ms. Kirar sees brass as an essential component of what is being called organic modernism, a more textured, luxurious look that is rooted in natural materials such as leather, stone and wood. "It is not as cold and austere as the minimalist aesthetic that emerged in the 1980s," she said. Low-slung white enameled media units need not apply.
Unless it is lacquered, brass tarnishes, and most designers are just fine with that. "The fresh take on brass is to use it un-lacquered," said Mr. Berman. "Let the metal age and turn gorgeous tones of bronze, brown and olive green with a dull luster that is soft and velvety." Mr. Dixon likes to use brass in hardware and pieces that can be touched, which speeds up the tarnishing process. "Boomers are embracing the softer and more mottled qualities of brass," added Mr. Berman, "not polished or lacquered, but aging gracefully like the generation buying it."
As the home-furnishings market gets brassier, designers are finding other applications for the metal. Manhattan architect Matthew Bremer recently upgraded a standard stainless steel elevator to brushed brass for a 160-year-old townhouse. "This is not the shiny polished brass of past decades that appeared showy and fake," he explained. "It's contemporary but has the authentic beauty of an orchestra instrument that shows its wear from hours of practice."
Increasingly, manufacturers of bathroom fixtures are offering warm metal finishes again (see sidebar below), and many designers are specifying shower door frames in brass instead of nickel. Even in the kitchen, where copper pots and sinks are status symbols, brass, which is naturally germicidal and antimicrobial, is making inroads. Los Angeles custom homebuilder John Finton, author of the 2013 book "California Luxury Living" (Images Publishing), recently completed a kitchen inspired by a black-lacquer and brass La Cornue range. And Kelly Wearstler installed a 1/8 -inch-thick brass countertop with an integrated sink basin in the glossy turquoise kitchen of her client Cameron Diaz's Manhattan apartment.
"I can't see brass appliances being very far away," declared Mr. Dixon, who built a brass bar that can seat more than a dozen for chef Jamie Oliver's London steakhouse, Barbecoa. "We've clad existing refrigerators in sheet brass and they look like Donald Judd sculptures."


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