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Old geometric shapes find new life in desert contemporary

A number of years ago I was conferring with the foreman of a new workroom about some furniture designs that I was planning to use for a client’s contemporary home.

This man had a wonderful Eastern European accent and rather long salt and pepper hair that actually brushed against my floor plans as he peered through his black frame glasses that were perched precariously at the very tip of his aquiline nose. He was a real character, but someone I knew I wanted to deal with regardless of his appearance or dialect.

But, what I vividly remember about this first encounter was the moment he looked up from my designs and with a gleeful, wild-eyed look, loudly declared, “Oh I love your furniture — it’s so … it’s so … it’s so ’70s!”

Well, I admit I was taken somewhat aback by this assessment (as the ’70s had long past into history by that point and I’ve never thought of myself as some kind of a “dinosaur”), but I stopped for a moment, considered what that comment really meant to me, and then wholeheartedly agreed with him as I made my way to the front door promising that we would talk soon.

Subsequent to that encounter, I’ve often thought how lucky I was to have “cut my teeth” in design during the latter part of that decade. It’s been my long-held belief that the designs that came out of Italy, that so influenced me at that time, were among the most wonderful — ever. They were modern for that period, but then all movements are modern when they first begin, aren’t they?

What I’ve recently come to realize with the advent and proliferation of the desert contemporary look in architecture is that we are once again back in that same period of time in furniture design, that everything old is new again, and what we have come to know as modern or contemporary has been in existence for a long, long time.

I’m referring here to the kind of timeless design that finds beauty in form instead of finding it in surface decoration or gingerbread, as it’s sometime called. These were, and still are, basically geometric forms, probably first embraced by the Greeks of old and still very much with us today.

I wonder how many people realize that Western culture has had a natural inclination to choose geometric shapes over nongeometric forms. It’s probably because their beauty is superior, timeless and one based in pure rational appeal. The qualities expressed in this type of design are the economy of line, the beauty of proportion and the extreme precision necessary to create furniture of lasting and enduring appeal.

The great Greek philosopher Plato declared that when he speaks of beauty of form, he means “straight lines and circles, and the plain or solid figures which are formed out of them by turning lathes, rulers and measures of angles; for these I affirm to be not only relatively beautiful, like other things, but they are eternally and absolutely beautiful.” With this assessment I agree wholeheartedly.

And so when I met recently with a client to talk about furniture for her new desert contemporary home and she emphatically stated that she wanted what she called “all square furniture,” I was charmed by her description and delighted with her choice. I would be going back to my roots and it felt wonderful.

For me, touring the models for new desert contemporary homes here in Las Vegas is almost like going back in time to my original Los Angeles showroom as the furniture designs are so pure and simple. The only real difference seems to be the finishes, which are now, for the most part, shown in dark-stained woods like wenge, mahogany and walnut. I used to showcase chiefly exotic finishes such as goatskin, lacquer and unusual veneers.

Today’s desert contemporary furniture seems to be a reflection of the straightforwardness and order that we’re all looking to manifest in our lives at this time. They are, quite simply put, functional solutions that are expressed in geometric forms, helping us to define a simpler lifestyle. Square shapes, rectangles and simple lines appear to be the order of the day when it comes to any kind of tables, storage units or beds. And for a wonderful display of this type of design the Brownstone Furniture showroom at the Las Vegas Design Center is a great place to go.

I realize that to some, furniture such as I’ve described here may seem oversimplified with its similarity to geometric shapes, and they may very well refer to this time as “the square, spare and bare period.”

But, be that as it may, the old is once again visibly influencing the new — and the “new” desert contemporary look is the logical outcome of it all. Dynamic changes are going on in people’s lives and thoughts and, as the Viennese architect Otto Wagner observed back in 1894: “A new style consonant with our modern requirements would stress horizontal lines … great simplicity and energetic exhibition of construction and materials.” Welcome to 2008.

Stephen Leon is president of Soleil Design International and has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He is on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to soleildesign@cox.net.

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