The Design Cheat Sheet: Everything You Need to Know About Brutalist Design

red block building in London

 Getty Images/VictorHuang

If you're like us, you've heard the term Brutalism thrown around by design-minded style stars. Blame it on the widespread popularity of '70s-inspired fashion trends, historical films, and disco music. From architectural descriptions to individual pieces of furniture, materials, and color palettes, Brutalist style seems to have earned a permanent spot on the décor trend list. But what exactly is it and how do you describe it? That's where things get a little more complicated.

What is Brutalism?

Brutalism is a style of art characterized by a deliberate plainness, crudity, or violence of imagery. It emerged in the mid-20th century and gained popularity in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Even if you are familiar, it can be hard to keep track of the difference between all of the major design periods and their contemporary influences. Read on for our quick primer on Brutalist furniture to learn what makes it stand out in a sea of other terms—like midcentury modern and art deco—so you can exchange cocktail party banter with the best of them. And if you're feeling inspired, shop the rough-around-the-edges pieces throughout this cheat sheet to Brutalist design.

The Historical Context

Popular in the 1960s and 1970s, Brutalism originated post–World War II when the design of low-cost housing and government buildings was composed of mainly raw, unrefined materials. The architects and builders sought to project a sense of strength through their fortress-like designs, while also celebrating the imperfect appeal of handmade items. It's literally scrappy. 

The Contemporary Applications

Today we're seeing Brutalist furniture emerge through statement pieces that can blend into a variety of design styles. The look is most commonly manifested in lighting and wall sculptures, but you can find a variety of vintage and contemporary consoles, sideboards, and armoires that exhibit characteristics of Brutalism. Cast concrete furniture is another raw yet sophisticated way to bring this look into your own space.

The Quick Reference Guide

The Six Major Adjectives: raw, industrial, post-apocalyptic, somber, rough, and mechanical

The Defining Characteristics: hard edges, jagged shapes, rough surfaces, patinated finishes, asymmetrical organic designs, and metallic color palettes

The Common Materials: concrete, steel, glass, bronze, and iron

The Cocktail Party Lines

If you're wondering how to use it in a sentence, consider some of the thought-starters below:

"Were you loving the Brutalist furniture in the American Hustle sets as much as I was?"

"That ragged, rusty metal sculpture is totally Brutalist-chic."

"Raw concrete furniture is so hot right now. It references Brutalism in such a modern, sophisticated way, don't you think?"

Names to Know

The Original Tastemakers: Curtis Jeré, Paul Evans, and Tom Greene

The Modern Fans: Kelly Wearstler, Jonathan Adler, and Blackman Cruz

Vintage Brutalist Torch Cut Chandelier $450
Moe Bridges Brutalist Chandelier $495
Arteriors Home Trinidad High Blackend Iron Wall Sconce $552
Safavieh Torre Round Concrete Accent Table $120
Parker White Marble Side Table
CB2 Parker White Marble Side Table $499
silo tall side table
CB2 Silo Tall Side Table $179
herringbone gold wine rack
CB2 Herringbone Gold Wine Rack $70
Vintage Lane Brutalist Headboard $500
West Elm Metal Sputnik Objects $49
Vintage Brutalist Handcrafted Wall Hanging $495
Vintage Brutalist Modern Nail Sculpture $395
All Modern Alvis Traditional Metal Wall Décor $159
Vintage Mirrored Dining Table Base $4800
West Elm Geometric Coffee Table $560
Adrian Pearsall Brutalist Dining Table $2750

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