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When one thinks of the quintessential examples of Modernist design, one doesn't usually think of the roadside service station. And yet, look at the gas stations in almost any flyover town and you'll see the undeniable signature of modernist design philosophy: an emphasis on function, a simplification of form and a reduction of extraneous ornamentation. This philosophy is particularly well-suited to the gas station, a venue that ostensibly provides two services to the road-weary traveler: automobile re-fueling and restrooms.
You'll see something else too: the insertion of brand identity directly into the architecture itself. Case in point: white, orange and red canopies serve as the focal point of Norman Foster's Repsol service stations throughout Spain. The design is directly in line with the brand's tri-color scheme. From a roadside standpoint, it is strikingly bold, broken up only slightly by the need for lighting fixtures overhead. In a case like this, recessed lighting does the trick discreetly and elegantly.
Don't credit Foster with the canopy-as-branding concept however. The idea of branding a company through its physical touchpoints, especially in the case of the service station, goes back to industrial designer Eliot Noyes. Noyes began his career as a curator of industrial design at MoMA in New York, but later worked in the 1960s as a design consultant with IBM and Exxon Mobil. He is credited for creating Exxon Mobil's iconic round gas station canopies (below), providing a memorable modernist touch to distinguish Exxon Mobil from the more traditional gas station designs scattered across the United States.
Aside from the company-wide design campaigns above, the last 60 years have also seen a handful of one-off service stations designed by some of the biggest names in architecture, including Mies van der Rohe, Albert Frey and Arne Jacobsen. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the gas station has attracted such starchitects. Modernism and the automobile shared a golden age for nearly 25 years from the late 1940s through the 1960s.
Jack Colker's Beverly Hills Union 76 station (above) is an example of the space-age branch of Modernism common during this period known as Googie architecture. His design is a star in a city full of them.
When the stars head east to Palm Springs for a winter getaway, they're greeted by a similar triangular themed Modernist design by Albert Frey (below).
No discussion of Modernism is complete however without mention of the great European designers. Mies van der Rohe's Nun's Island gas station (below) in Canada is a perfect example of his stark design style, unabashedly reminiscent of his iconic Seagram Building in Manhattan.
Looking through these designs, you may have noticed that most architects have worked with simple fluorescent lighting fixtures. They're energy efficient and throw out plenty of light. But they're not the only option out there. This Texaco gas station (below) by celebrated Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in Skovshoved, Denmark, breaks the pattern with some beautiful streamline uplight wall sconces. Today, there are plenty of modern outdoor lighting products available to help you break the fluorescent tube trend.
The designs above span over half a century of Modernism. Looking to the future of gas station design, we return to Southern California, the center of global car culture to discover that visionary gas station design, and the belief that it can have a positive impact on brand identity, is still in full effect. The eco-friendly BP Helios House is doing its share to reverse much of the damage fossil fuels have caused in recent decades.
The Helios House station is a model of sustainable design. It collects, filters and reuses water runoff; collects solar energy with 90 solar panels spread throughout the property; it's built from recycled and renewable materials; and it's designed with carefully planned angles and a rooftop drought tolerant garden to minimize urban heat island impact.
Clearly there is reason to hope that, as cars look to be cleaner in the future, the stations that service them will too.
Images: Foster & Partners, Flavorwire, Matchstic, Los Angeles Times, Architizer, We Are Private, Azure Magazine
Brent Turner is an architecture, design and art writer who adores elegantly simple distillations of complex design problems. You'll often catch him waxing poetic about how such creative problem solving is not only the essence of a successful art and design practice, but of science, engineering, and well, life in general. A California native, Brent was educated at U.C. San Diego where he was first exposed to clumsy yet endearingly avant-garde institutional art and architecture. In the years since, he has expanded his interest base to include all types of interior, graphic and industrial design. His best personal designs are made with Legos, and it's for this reason that Brent confines his own public creative work to wordsmithing. When he isn't writing, he hosts an art and design podcast called Beer & Tall Buildings.
Brent lives in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles with his cat Buster. If you can't reach him by phone or email, he's most likely on a mountaintop somewhere and promises to call you back as soon as he descends.
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