Design’s reinvention of rust

The multihued delights of rust are being embraced by tastemakers seeking out finishes with character and complexity. Overlooked and unloved? Not any more, says Charlotte Abrahams

Gianluca Pacchioni rusted iron Halga I light sculpture, €9,000
Gianluca Pacchioni rusted iron Halga I light sculpture, €9,000 | Image: Gianluca Pacchioni

Artists have long embraced the raw beauty of corroded metal and architects love it – witness the latest outbreak of rust-finished buildings such as Piercy & Company’s weathering steel and brick family home near London’s Kew Gardens and Studio Farris’ Cor-Ten steel-clad library extension in Bruges. But rust as a decorative feature in high‑end homes? Surely the material is too rough, too uncontrollable and too associated with urban decay for luxury living spaces. However, there are signs of change afoot. A small but growing band of interior and furniture designers are discovering the multihued delights of rust and where they lead, their clients will surely follow.

Echlin bespoke oxidised-steel staircase, in a Chelsea private residence; similar projects, price on request
Echlin bespoke oxidised-steel staircase, in a Chelsea private residence; similar projects, price on request | Image: Echlin

“The term ‘rust’ does have negative connotations,” admits Sam McNally, design director of forward-thinking residential design and development company Echlin. “For many, it evokes images of decaying old vehicles engulfed in a coarse brown crust, but we are big fans. As a feature wall, fire surround or statement furniture piece, it offers an understated contrast to the more traditional stones and timbers found in luxury properties.”

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Echlin’s recently completed Old Church Street project, a private residence in Chelsea, London, proves her point. The interior is as sleekly luxurious as you’d expect of a property on the market at a guide price of £4.995m, but it incorporates several features made from oxidised steel (such as a staircase; similar projects, price on request). “The metal finishes are achieved through chemical oxidation,” explains Echlin’s in-house metal expert and designer Richy Almond. “We submerge it in a series of acids before drying and sealing it with layers of traditional oil and wax. As opposed to natural rust, which can be many millimetres thick and destructive to the structural integrity, the induced version is only a few microns thick – and smooth and incredibly tactile.”

 Laura Hammett bespoke bronze-powder rust-effect kitchen units, in a London mews house; similar projects, from £60,000
Laura Hammett bespoke bronze-powder rust-effect kitchen units, in a London mews house; similar projects, from £60,000 | Image: Richard Waite

The main problem with rust, whether natural or induced, is that it’s not stable. Steel and iron will continue to oxidise, even if kept inside and covered with a protective barrier. Niloufar Bakhtiar-Bakhtiari, a London-based interior designer who commissioned a rust-topped dining table (£11,500) for her own home from Archer & Smith, sees this as both the material’s charm and its biggest drawback. “The unexpected is rust’s core value,” she says, “but it scares people. They worry about not knowing how it will age.”

Rockwell Group one-off Cor‑Ten steel fire pit for a roof terrace in Washington DC; similar fire bowl, $20,000, from Fire Features
Rockwell Group one-off Cor‑Ten steel fire pit for a roof terrace in Washington DC; similar fire bowl, $20,000, from Fire Features | Image: Emily Andrews

Some in the design world are getting round this by faking it. Laura Hammett, an interior design and architecture studio specialising in unconventional finishes, uses a natty, hand-applied bronze powder that gives a rust effect so as not to leave colour outcomes to chance (such as kitchen units in a London mews house; similar projects, from £60,000). And London’s interior design studio/furniture showroom Urban Living Interiors offers Studio La Fibule’s multihued Tango side tables (from £425) in burnished bronze that have been treated to look like rust. “Warm metals are an established trend,” says company creative director Mark Riese, “and we are now seeing more rust effects coming onto the market as the neo-industrial look extends beyond London’s East End warehouse conversions, and puts another nail in the coffin of chrome.”

B&D Designs bespoke natural steel Planes sculpture, from £3,800
B&D Designs bespoke natural steel Planes sculpture, from £3,800 | Image: B&D Designs

Others are opting for Cor-Ten steel. Often used for cladding the exteriors of statement buildings, Cor-Ten is a steel alloy specifically designed to rust in an aesthetically pleasing way – and is fast becoming the must-have finish for fashion-forward outdoor spaces. David Rockwell, founder and president of interdisciplinary architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, has just installed a one-off Cor-Ten fire bowl (similar fire bowl, $20,000, from Fire Features) on the roof terrace of a Washington DC residential block. “You can pre-rust Cor-Ten so you know what you’re going to get,” he says, “but, importantly, you can also mould the steel into very precise shapes for this lovely contrast between a sharp, clean form and a very rough finish. That tension between the pristine and primal is key to this look.”

Studio La Fibule burnished bronze Tango side tables, from £425, from Urban Living Interiors
Studio La Fibule burnished bronze Tango side tables, from £425, from Urban Living Interiors | Image: Urban Living Interiors

There are also plenty of designers embracing rust in all its unpredictable glory. Cathy Azria has been making metal fire sculptures under the label B&D Designs for the past 14 years. Some clients ask her to paint the steel to stop rust forming, but a growing number are opting for natural versions, rust crust and all. Interior designer Fiona Barratt-Campbell commissioned a natural steel Planes sculpture (from £3,800) for her garden, while the soon-to-be-opened Hyatt Regency in Changchun, China, is installing a similar piece in its lobby. “We are used to associating rust with destruction,” Azria says, “but my structures won’t disintegrate. They will change colour and evolve, but that’s part of the attraction. Watching metal change is like an adventure.”

Mammalampa corroded steel and gold Queen pendant, from £1,274 each, from Within Four Walls
Mammalampa corroded steel and gold Queen pendant, from £1,274 each, from Within Four Walls | Image: Mammalampa

Italian sculptor and light designer Gianluca Pacchioni has also been working with rust for a long time, making his first iron pieces in the 1990s. The attraction is how the material reflects light. “The surfaces produce a spectrum of colours that creates a perfect alchemy,” he says. “Every work is different and every outcome a surprise.”

Severija Incirauskaite-Kriauneviciene metal and cotton Sunflower floor lamp, £3,500, from Art-Cart
Severija Incirauskaite-Kriauneviciene metal and cotton Sunflower floor lamp, £3,500, from Art-Cart | Image: Severija Incirauskaite-Kriauneviciene

Pacchioni leaves his metals in an open-air depository until they have turned a colour that appeals to him. (If asked to artificially accelerate the process, he reminds clients that rust, like good wine, must not be rushed.) He then mixes the rusted metal with satinated stainless steel or liquid metals such as brass, nickel or bronze. The result is a collection of sophisticated, beautiful and elemental light sculptures (such as the Halga I, €9,000) that blend imperfection with finesse.

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Objects that juxtapose rust with refined and polished metals are perhaps the easiest way to acknowledge this trend in indoor spaces. Latvia-based lamp producer Mammalampa’s Queen pendant (from £1,274), for example, has an exterior made from corroded steel and an interior of 24ct gold, while Canadian design and manufacturing company Bocci’s newly launched 19 Series of mirrored objects (£3,000 to £20,000) sets oxidised brass against its highly polished counterpart. “The 19 Series is an exploration of sand casting,” says Bocci’s creative director Omer Arbel. “It is a relatively imprecise way to produce metal objects with lots of overspill, but we have used that to advantage here by allowing the overspill to oxidise, while protecting the interior from the air. The almost volcanic texture of the oxidised brass is a halo for the polished piece.”

And if rust can be luxurious, it can also – in the right hands – be delicate, pretty even. Lithuanian artist Severija Incirauskaite-Kriauneviciene embroiders disused utilitarian, mostly metal, objects to create functional artworks. Her Sunflower floor lamp (£3,500), which showed at this year’s international art fair for contemporary objects, Collect, is made from an old coil radiator, faucets and a rusty bucket, onto which she has embroidered a pair of sunflower heads. The combination of coarse metal object and soft cotton thread is visually striking while raising questions around the concepts of beauty and the banal.

Corroded metal is a challenging material conceptually, but once you accept its independent characteristics, it is surprisingly easy to live with. The natural variation in its surface texture disguises small scuffs and dents and the layers of colour give it a three-dimensional effect that adds interest and life to the space around it. Bakhtiar‑Bakhtiari has found her rust-topped table a joy to live with. “It reflects the light, copes with family life and stops the room looking too serious,” she says. “The rusted finish has given the table a human face.”

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