At Optima, our affinity for modern design and style stretches through all of our Communities. In the past, we’ve explored the history and identity of modern furniture, but we’ve never touched on the defining elements of modern decor. So, if you’re looking to elevate your home with a modern eye, look no further:
Like design, remember that with modernism, form follows function; this means that every decor element you have should always reflect its intended purpose. Avoid inserting decor that doesn’t add supplementary function or purpose to your home. However, this doesn’t mean that your decor has to be limited; many modernist designs also embrace vibrant colors, unique shapes and various materials.
Embrace The Light
One key trait of modernism is utilizing and celebrating a space’s natural light. For windows, modesty is key; even with curtains, use soft and sheer fabrics to keep it minimal. Another great way to stretch the natural light in your home and manipulate space is by adding mirrors to your interior. Hang mirrors where they’re most practical in your home. Rooms that have limited light and feel small may benefit from a large mirror, and it might make sense to place a mirror across from your home’s beautiful view or a statement piece.
Introduce Texture & Color
Whether you start with the living room or the bathroom, introducing organic textures to your home is a great way to welcome modern design. Bring the outdoors in with furniture and decor elements that feature natural wood and stone. Other warm textures like leather and natural fibers make fantastic options for complimenting other modern features of your home. Modern design and warm elements don’t have to conflict with one another.
To some, modernism is only associated with monochromatic tones like gray, white and black, but extending pops of vibrant color throughout your home is a great way to add life to the environment. Place a bright-colored rug in the center of a large room or go all natural and bring in lush greenery and foliage.
Modern decor and design continue to be timeless templates for accessorizing homes. Whether you start utilizing your home’s natural light or mix in a splash of color, there are countless ways to embrace modern decor throughout your home.
As we continue to tour the public spaces at Optima communities to highlight the impeccably-curated collection of Modernist furnishings, it is always a delight to set our sights on Tulip tables, designed by the luminary architect, Eero Saarinen.
Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), the Finnish architect who conceived the St. Louis Gateway Arch, along with many other well-known structures including the Washington Dulles International Airport, also received enormous recognition for his modernist furniture designs produced by Knoll, including the Womb™ Chair.
Legend has it that Saarinen approached Florence Knoll in 1955 with his desire to explore new approaches to furniture design, evolving from his background in sculpture and a desire to create a table with a single leg.
So in the late 1957, Saarinen proved true to his word and broke tradition by introducing a collection of tables, initially referred to as Saarinen Tables. They feature a single central base, made from single pieces of cast aluminum and finished in black, white or platinum, that appeared to “grow like a flower” with a stem-like base, as opposed to having the more traditional standing legs. With this simple, organic shape that included a slender neck and elegant, organic proportions, the base became the focus of a large series of tables that came to be known as Tulip Tables.
With options for circular and oval tops with tapered edges in a variety of sizes and heights, Tulip Tables were conceived from an integrated design framework that supports a cohesive human experience. They were an immediate hit once they became commercially available, in part because the single base provides visual lightness while inviting people to gather around a table unencumbered by legs. Tulip Tables delighted both residential and commercial furniture buyers with an array of color choices as well, with tops constructed of laminate or wood veneers, or made from natural materials like granite or coated Arabescato marble.
While design trends come and go, a precious few furniture pieces remain timeless and iconic. Saarinen’s Tulip Tables are among those — ever-elegant, minimal and sophisticated.
What can we possibly say about the Eames Lounge Chair that hasn’t already been said before?
There’s not a collection of modernist furniture design anywhere that doesn’t feature the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman — and this is certainly the case with the curated furnishings in every Optima community. It’s always a pleasure to spotlight this timelessly beautiful expression of art, architecture, materiality and technology that sprang from the creative genius of Charles and Ray Eames.
Enter the Kazam! Machine
To appreciate the evolution of the Eames Lounge Chair, it’s helpful to understand the design process that Charles and Ray employed. It began when the couple turned their Los Angeles apartment into a workshop in 1941 and began building a device for molding plywood. Their goal at the time was to develop the capacity to apply pressure to plywood without breaking it, which would give them the opportunity to produce a host of objects that interested them at the time — chairs, sculptures, aircraft parts, leg splints and children’s furniture and toys. After many attempts and failures, the Eameses mastered the three-dimensional molding process with an apparatus for bending wood — a kind of curing oven made from wood scraps and spare bicycle parts. They called it the Kazam! machine. With its hinged and bolted curving plaster mold, the Kazam! machine allowed them to create a glued sandwich consisting of several layers of veneer, which was then pushed against the plaster mold by a membrane which, in its turn, was manually inflated by a bicycle pump.
The Kazam! Machine
Putting the Kazam! to Work First produced in 1956, the iconic Eames Lounge Chair draws inspiration from a classic English Club Chair. It consists of a bent-wood frame atop a six-legged base, constructed using the Kazam! machine, and tilted at an optimal angle for comfort and ergonomics. It’s topped with supple leather, which the Eameses described as providing “the warm redemptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt,” in their vision to make the chair “a special refuge from the strains of modern living.”
Part of the permanent collections at New York’s MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chair and Ottoman have been the subject of numerous documentary films and books, and continue to be featured prominently in contemporary design curation.
Iconic and Forever Fresh
Authentic Eames Chairs are still manufactured by Herman Miller today, much as they were in 1956. And while the Kazam! process has been streamlined and updated, it remains much the same as it was when the Eames first conceived it in their LA living room — ensuring that these uniquely timeless objects of desire remain a special refuge from the strains of modern living.
Although many know expressionism for its evocative poetry and painting, expressionist architecture was also a subsect of the Modernist Movement. While coexisting with the minimalist rigor of the Bauhaus, this avant-garde style allowed designers to explore new, radical perspectives, gifting to the world some of the most dynamic, expressive architecture of the 20th century.
Origins of Expressionism
Expressionism originated in the late 1800s from a small group of artists based in Germany. The artists who founded the movement felt that 19th-century impressionism – which commanded the art world – was out of touch with the social climate of the times due to the various changes that came with the Industrial Revolution. This feeling of detachment helped inspire what would soon be known as expressionism.
Acclaimed painters like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon all contributed remarkable works of art throughout the movement, but artists who worked with other mediums also adopted the ideals that expressionists held close. Because of the vivid colors and distorted lines and angles associated with expressionism, German cinematography, in particular, took advantage of the moody standards.
After more than 30 years of commanding the art world itself, expressionists became banned from showing and selling their work in Germany, where the majority of the artists lived. The result left many artists suppressed, eventually leading to various radical movements, including Abstract Expressionism, Pop-Art, Minimalism and in the late 20th century, Neo-Expressionism.
Expressionism in Architecture
Expressionist architecture took advantage of the many characteristics associated with the movement’s other works of art, including distortion of form, themes of romanticism, expression of inner experience and the conception of architecture as a work of art, among others. Much of the movement’s builds featured Gothic, Romanesque and Rococo affinities.
Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion is one of the earliest examples of expressionist architecture. The structure was built in 1914 as a feature of the Cologne Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition. Constructed using only concrete and glass, the exterior of the pavilion showcases a vibrantly colored prismatic dome and a grand staircase. The interior of the building featured a kaleidoscope of color from the crown above it and a seven-tiered cascading waterfall.
The Einstein Tower is another striking example of expressionist-style architecture. The observatory was built by German Architect Erich Mendelsohn from 1919 to 1921 and was envisioned to hold a solar telescope. Mendelsohn designed the building to reflect the radical theories formed by Einstein – specifically his theory of motion. The structure is built with brick but covered with stucco to give it its smooth, tidal-like exterior.
More recent examples of expressionist-style architecture include Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry in Los Angeles, the Lotus Temple designed by Fariborz Sahba in Delhi, and Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein.
Art and architecture share a rich, timeless connection rooted in their design, creators and intended meaning. Both forms of expression become envisioned and constructed through similar principles, visual elements and ambition to engage with one’s senses. Today, we’re exploring this essential relationship and what happens when the two worlds collide.
David Hovey Sr., FAIA, Optima’s CEO and Founder, says it best when describing the linkage between art – in particular, sculptures – and architecture, saying that “architecture is about function, as well as aesthetics, while sculpture is really just about aesthetics.”
Architecture is traditionally informed by functionality first, with aesthetics coming into play as with a significant role. Art, on the other hand, is commonly guided by aesthetics, without any burdens to deliver an object or outcome that is functional. However, both forms of expression are typically influenced by similar social and political factors that affect the environment surrounding the work or structure.
Centuries-old cultural movements, including the Renaissance, where art imitated life and vice versa, demonstrate the linkage between art and architecture. However, it wasn’t until the Avant-Garde movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the integration of the two took a new meaning.
This integration between the disciplines quickly became a core characteristic of modernism and modernist design, and is distinctly present in the work of some of the greatest architects and artists of the time period. Because artists use their art as a tool to shape emotions, modernism emerged as an expectation in which art and architecture would provide a new value when combined.
The Bauhaus Movement was one of the first to introduce this idea, encouraging the unification of all arts and coupling aesthetics with the technology of the time. Notably, this ideology was cultivated through Le Corbusier’s use of painting and sculpture within his established concepts of architecture. Le Corbusier also argued that it was of equal importance to architects, painters and sculpturists to contribute constructive collaborations to the world by designing and creating in harmony with one another.
Along with Le Corbusier, various other artists throughout the past century have tried to synthesize art and architecture throughout their work, particularly Oscar Niemeyer, Mies van der Rohe and Zaha Hadid. Today, architects and artists continue to collaborate and integrate their disciplines more than ever, exploring and expanding the dynamic relationship shared between the two.
Women continue to make giant strides in architecture today, contributing to some of the most celebrated designs in the world. Historically however, many trailblazing women and their designs became overlooked and overshadowed. Today, we’re spotlighting a pioneer of tropical-modern design in Southern Asia, Minnette de Silva.
Minnette de Silva’s Life & Career
De Silva was born on February 1, 1918, in Kandy, Ceylon – present-day Sri Lanka. Her father, George E. de Silva, was the President of the Ceylon’s National Congress and was a well-known politician. Her mother, Agnes Nell, was an activist who pushed for universal suffrage throughout the country. As a child, de Silva attended school overseas in England, spending much of her youth away from her family. However, when home, her family would frequently visit the architecture of ancient Sri Lankan cultures, influencing her profoundly.
Because she wasn’t able to study architecture in Sri Lanka, de Silva convinced her father to allow her to attend Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Mumbai, India. Coming into the country with no previous architecture experience forced de Silva to learn the trade through apprenticeship and additional schooling at the Architecture Academy Mumbai before she was able to attend Sir J.J. School of Art.
After being expelled from the academy in 1942, de Silva started working under emigre architect Otto Königsberger designing prefabricated housing in Bihar, India. And not long after, through connections back home, she was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects, where she built relationships with some of the world’s most inspiring architects.
After Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, de Silva’s father insisted she come home and contribute to the growth of her home country. So, de Silva moved back into her parents’ house with no money to her name and opened her studio – one of only two studios in the world named after the woman they were owned by at the time.
While back in Sri Lanka, de Silva developed her unique architecture style, influenced by a mixture of the traditional architecture she grew up with and the modern builds she was exposed to outside of her home country. In hopes of becoming exposed herself, de Silva began designing everything she could from small cottages to luxurious villas.
Notable Works & Achievements
Her first build was the Karunaratne House, built for family friends from 1949 to 1950. At the time of completion, the house was the first building in the country completed by a woman and received much attention and controversy. The house was an exhibition of Silva’s design philosophy. Featuring woven Dumbara mats used as interior door paneling, clay tiles fired with ancient patterns and a custom mural in the living room designed by local artist George Keyt.
De Silva’s next build, Pieris House, was another commissioned home for family friends, this time in the country’s capital, Columbo. The open plan echoed traditional Sri Lankan architecture with a courtyard incorporated into its living room, which became a hallmark of de Silva’s designs. The house also featured one-of-a-kind patterned tiles and railings lacquered in gold leaf prints.
One of her later but most acclaimed builds came in 1958 for Kandy’s Public Housing Project. The ambitious project had de Silva conduct extensive research and interviews with various house seekers in the city to uncover each of their unique lifestyles. She then used the information she received to curate and design custom housing types for each family – some families even assisting her throughout the process.
While today this approach to design is celebrated, at the time, de Silva’s prospect was suspect and left unsupported. However, she knew the ultimate success would lay in whether the homeowners felt their environments were accessible to their lifestyles. The project eventually became a huge success and quickly became a model used throughout the country, encouraging the boom of strong mixed cultural communities in Sri Lanka.
De Silva was awarded the Gold Medal by the Sri Lanka Institute of Architecture in 1996. She championed a new, inspired vision in Sri Lanka, mixing modernism with the traditional design elements that excited her growing up. Even though few of her buildings survive today, her legacy as a pioneer of tropical-modernism remains.
Modernist design not only inspires our work at Optima but, for decades, has also inspired the work of countless other architects and movements across the world. It’s always a delight to explore how Modernist design translates through the influences of other cultures. Today, we’re delving into the rich connections between Modernism and African architecture.
Beginning in the early 20th century, the Modernist Movement traversed the world, leaving its mark on various cultures and countries. Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier became pioneers of the movement, and numerous other architects quickly became inspired by their unique perspectives. However, even with its momentum, the movement’s journey to African architecture was prolonged.
From 1957 to 1966, many African nations declared independence from the European colonizers that ruled them for nearly one hundred years. With this newfound independence, many African countries became inspired by the freedom that came with Modernist design. As elected governments started forming, architecture quickly became an asset to them, and hundreds of Modernist wonders flourished, frequently overlooked by the rest of the world.
Even though Africa’s countries had vast differences in their culture and economics, they all shared aspirations for modernity – specifically through architecture – and each created an identity of their own. And by the mid-20th century, everything from educational to ceremonial builds filled with rich cultural significance and symbolism sprouted across the continent.
One of the first builds of modern architecture in Africa belongs to Burkina Faso’s La Maison du Peuple or House of the People. After the country declared independence from France in 1960, René Faublée sought to build a brutalist structure inspired by the country’s native culture for their newly-formed government to meet. After opening in 1965, La Maison du Peuple served as a popular location for political debates and other democratic exercises.
The concrete structure features vibrant colors mimicking the textures and patterns of the earth that surround it. The magnificent lanterns on its roof reflect architecture traditional to Mossi, the nation’s native people, and they also provide natural light to its 2,500-seat auditorium while serving as passive ventilation ducts.
Found in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, La Pyramide is another example of the visionary Modernist designs that sprang up across Africa in the 1960s. Built from 1968 to 1973, itis one of the most famous Modernist buildings in Abidjan, known for being one of the first high-rise buildings in the country. Architect, Rinaldo Olivieri, aimed to capture the bustle of an African market in an urban setting through his design.
The iconic building exhibits a traditional cascading pyramid shape. Olivieri designed the building to house residences for the country’s elite on its top and shops and boutiques at its base. The building has faced some deterioration over its 60-year lifespan, but the Ivorian Government has plans to update its architecture and make it a tourist attraction in the coming years.
Independence Arch is another significant example of the power independence had on Modernist architecture in Africa. The concrete arch was funded and built by Accra’s Public Works Department after Ghana’s independence in 1957. Construction finished in 1961 at Accra, Ghana’s Independence Square – the second largest city square in the world – where the beloved arch shares a home with various other monuments symbolizing freedom.
The monument is made of three towering concrete arches that hold two other structures meant for government use in between their peaks. Underneath, the Eternal Flame of African Liberation, lit by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, still burns.
For decades, African countries brought their perspective and culture to the movement, building some of the world’s most distinctive yet forgotten works of Modernism. Through noticing and appreciating where these styles journey, we gain a greater knowledge and understanding of the world of architecture and architecture throughout the world.
As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re putting a spotlight on one of the world’s most cherished architects, Kazuyo Sejima. Throughout her breathtaking portfolio of work, Sejima has exhibited her enigmatic and refined point of view and became the second woman ever to receive the acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize. Today, we’re diving into Sejima’s notable life, work and achievements.
The Life and Career of Kazuyo Sejima
Sejima was born in Mito, Ibaraki, Japan in 1956. After discovering her passion for architecture and design at a young age, she began her studies at the Japan Women’s University, where she completed both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in architecture. Following her graduation in 1981, Sejima began apprenticing with Toyo Ito – a renowned Pritzker Award-winning architect also from Japan.
After nearly seven years working with Ito, Sejima felt empowered to launch her architecture firm, Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, in 1987. Directly after opening, Sejima convinced her long-time confidant, whom she worked with under Ito, Ryue Nishizawa, to work with her at her firm. Nishizawa gladly joined Sejima, and nine years later, the pair founded a firm of their own, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANNA). And, thanks to Sejima and Nishizawa’s visionary designs, SANNA quickly became a nationally renowned firm after only a few years.
Sejima’s designs are frequently recognized for their vibrant materials and colors, including various types of marble, glass and metals. She also often takes advantage of organic forms and aesthetics in her work, thoughtfully exploring each design as an instrument for human experience. Sejima’s appreciation for sheer glass in many other builds allows for an abundance of natural light, helping to create a more fluid transition between interior and exterior environments.
Throughout her career, Sejima has expressed the same concern for each of her projects: the functionality of the space’s social uses and their potential for adaptation. This philosophy explains why she doesn’t consider any of her builds finished until each of its inhabitants places pieces of their lives into the space through their various actions and interests.
Notable Works and Achievements
Sejima translated her vision and architectural philosophy into her first project, Platform House I, in 1987. Sejima built the Platform House in a Japanese suburb and took inspiration from western designs, intermixing traditional Japanese values with European elements of architecture. With her first project, Seijam set out to create a living environment built with a platonic ideal of architecture – where it would function as provisional to the residents based on their actions and lifestyle.
Throughout the house, Sejima experimented with large spaces, positioning the building’s central living area a half level below the kitchen and a half level above the sleeping floor below. Sejima also adopted her signature use of bright materials throughout the home, utilizing floor-to-ceiling windows in the home to illuminate its interior spaces and a gleaming, corrugated metal roof to signature the movement and human interaction that occurs below it. Following Platform House I, Sejima designed companion projects: Platform House II and III.
Sejima extended her vision across the world, and in 2007 she, along with Nishizawa, designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Their design was chosen due to its adaptable atmospheres – mirroring the ever-changing nature of contemporary art. From the exterior, the building’s bold design consists of four white cubes that sit on top of one another, further symbolizing the dynamic energy of contemporary culture. After its completion, the building received praise, and Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the architectural New Seven Wonders of the World.
Most recently, Sejima constructed a vibrant tribute to renowned Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika through the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Sejima thoughtfully designed the building to blend in with its surrounding urban environment, making it more accessible to its visitors. Sticking to her trademark design elements, Sejima used reflective aluminum panels to cover the façade. The building’s exterior also features various slits on all sides, eliminating the notion of a “front” and “back”, and providing outdoor walkways connecting each first-floor area.
Alongside her extraordinary work, Sejima has also received numerous architecture and art awards as well as achievements:
Young Architect of the Year, Japan Institute of Architects, 1992
Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan, 1998, 2006
International Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 2007
Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2010
Today, Sejima continues to fearlessly voice her unique architectural perspective, gifting the world with her ambitious designs. She currently teaches as a Visiting Professor at Tama Art University and Japan Women’s University. And, succeeding Zaha Hadid in 2015, she leads an architectural design studio at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.
With Optima’s love for all things modern, we take great pleasure in diving into the history of modernism around the globe, including how the principles of modernism took hold in Brazil. And as luck would have it, the country is celebrating a huge milestone in February 2022 — the 100th anniversary of the Semana de Arte Moderna that runs from February 10 through 17 — so we are taking a closer look at this pivotal moment in time.
For the people of Brazil, 1922 was a landmark year. It marked a full century of independence from Portugal – and it was also the year that put Brazilian art on the international map, beginning with an idea emerged from a group of artists to host a week-long art celebration around modernism. Dubbed the Semana de Arte Moderna — this game-changing event took the form of exhibitions, lectures, poetry readings and musical performances that brought avant-garde works and ideas to the entire country.
Today, 100 years later, we look back at the Semana de Arte Moderna of 1922 and recognize it as a major turning point in the development of modern art. At the time, however, it was greeted with mockery, anger and fear. There were stories of horrified audiences throwing objects at performers on stage, and critics fuming with negative reviews of art, music and theater they didn’t understand.
Central to the works presented during the Semana de Arte Moderna was the theme of creating work that drew upon European influences but was uniquely Brazilian. This was a radical approach in 1922, since the European centers of art and culture had a tight grasp on what was considered “art,” and the idea that Brazilian artists had voices of their own was considered shocking.
Following the Semana de Arte Moderna, the Brazilian Modernism movement blossomed. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, while much of the world was still in a state of flux about what exactly constituted ‘modern’ art, the country was leading the way into new styles of artistic expressions that were quickly embraced by Brazilians as a unique cultural identity. And with this new-found inspiration and energy, the modernist architecture movement took hold.
In the 1950s Brazil decided to found Brasilia, a new capital city heralded as a great experiment in modernist architecture, to help develop Brazil’s interior. Led by the vision of Brazil’s most famous architect and designer, Oscar Niemeyer, the country began to define itself by its modernist aesthetic, with buildings characterized by their use of concrete and free-flowing curves.
As we reconsider the impact the 1922 Semana de Arte Moderna had on the rise of modernist architecture around the globe, we can’t help but recognize how the forever modern principles we practice at Optima fit into a larger context. It is Optima’s pleasure and privilege to be such an esteemed and vital company.
Previously, in our Women in Architecture Series, we highlighted the streamlined, industrial style of the modernist designer and architect Eileen Gray, which you can read here. Of her many projects, Gray’s French Riviera villa, E-1027, remains most notable. Over time, the grandiose structure fell into ruins, but following an extensive restoration project, Gray’s Villa E-1027 has reopened to the public.
In its prime, one of the property’s most beloved visitors was Le Corbusier. Following his death, the villa experienced neglect from numerous tenants for years. However, the property was purchased in 1999 by the French agency, Conservatoire du littoral, to oversee its protection and preservation. Later, in 2014 they established the Cap Moderne Association to manage the rehabilitation. After six years of comprehensive restoration work, the E-1027 villa mirrors the original design that was completed in 1929 by Gray and her husband, Jean Badovici.
The project aimed to restore both the exterior environment and the interior fixtures of the villa. Inside, new built-in and free-standing furniture and artwork reflect the villa’s original lived-in state from nearly a century ago. Visitors are invited to consider how Gray pioneered an interpretation of modernist warmth with welcoming internal fixtures that contrast the villa’s sometimes cold, concrete structure.
On the exterior, vibrant blue awnings covering the outdoor walkways offset the villa’s bright white walls. The “house by the sea” is intended to be a living organism within the structure’s larger atmosphere. Surrounded by lush greenery and landscaping on its north and south-west sides and built on pilotis just above a plunging cliff into the sea, the villa successfully fulfills Gray’s goal of being harmoniously integrated into its environment.
Timed tours of this modernist wonder are currently available for small groups looking for a getaway. You can learn more about E-1027 and how to visit it on Cap Moderne’s website here.