Material Palettes - Glass and Metal

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With my last blog, I raised the idea of material palettes as an alternative to color palettes in the worlds of interior design and furniture selection. This implies a shift from painting or coating over things towards leaving them exposed, which correlates with larger ideas about authenticity and transparency that are becoming more and more familiar to businesses and designers as consumers demand them.

With this blog, I am beginning a several part series of blogs about specific material palettes and what types of history and connotations they include, starting with an examination of what we will call the “glass and metal palette.”

This palette took off with the imagination of Architect Mies Van Der Rohe in 1922 when he conceived of skyscrapers clad entirely with glass, basically making a transparent building. Several iterations later, I.M. Pei made this idea an acclaimed reality with his sculptural, glass clad buildings that became prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the glass and metal palette is synonymous with corporate architecture in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other.

Sketch for a glass skyscraper by Mies Van Der Rohe, 1922

Louvre Pyramid by I.M. Pei, 1989

Glass and metal are almost always cladding and structure, respectively. This denotes a consistent tectonic relationship of platform-barrier and support that lends itself to an architectural or structural interpretation. This is furthered by the exposed connections between these materials, like stand-offs and spider clamps, which are designed functionally around the properties of glass and metal, but which have an inherent aesthetic appeal based on this functionality. This tectonic, functional aesthetic constitutes the essence and appeal of the glass and metal palette.

Glass and metal stand-off connection, illustrating the tectonic, functional aesthetic

Glass and metal are perceived as cool/cold and hard/unyielding. They stand as antipodes to the warmth and softness of traditional or craftsman style wood interiors that have curving forms, complex geometries and are centered around the hearth. The glass and metal palette usually comes with simpler geometries and angled forms and brings a colder, more impersonal feel that lead traditionalists to associate it strictly with the corporate world that has so embraced it. This naturally leads them to reject glass and metal for domestic interior design because it lacks the warm appeal of traditional wood palettes. However, the inclusion of the glass and metal palette into residential and domestic interiors and furniture has become more and more common place as the modern, international and post modern styles’ ideas about form, function, geometry and transparency gain footholds in the common aesthetic consciousness.

Glass House by Phillip Johnson, 1949

Functional, sleek, corporate, structural, architectural, tectonic, transparent and cool are all concepts associated with the glass and metal palette. As time goes on, these concepts will open up into more applications and connotations as the use of the glass and metal palette broadens its appeal and moves further into the domestic sphere. The future of glass and metal palette is probably one of ever increasing breadth of application and acceptance as the current associations and preconceptions with this material palette change with its increasing prominence.

Here are just a few of the hundreds of contemporary furniture options on that celebrate the glass and metal palette.

The Mercier Dining Table features a sculptural chrome metal frame and clear glass top for a more expressive, less geometrically rigid glass and metal piece.

The Finland Dining Table features glass standoff connections around the top of the frame and a clear glass top.

The Sabrina Shelf brings the glass and metal palette into the word of shelving with the classic metal structure / glass platform setup.

The Gibson Glass Desk has a structure and platform of glass, with metal connectors and reinforcement. The metal connectors become sculptural accent pieces in their own right with this desk.

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