Hottest, newest latest, isn’t that what trends are all about? Well, actually, not always. Pause a moment to consider that sometimes old is great, and new can be passé. We understand the concept in fashion where the history books are routinely raided for tomorrow’s look and vintage clothing appears on the red carpets as often as couture. But, in interiors, where style shifts have little to do with the latest fads (furniture is generally too expensive to be a fickle purchase), there’s a new kind of old that’s rapidly becoming the defining trend of the 21st Century — let’s call it ‘The New Antiques’.
These are designs that in form resemble traditional pieces of furniture, but in finish are thoroughly contemporary. Consider the sleek mirrored glass ‘Drip’ cabinet designed by Milan-based, British designer Toby Sanders, it looks as if the mirror literally melts down to the base, whereupon you notice that it’s perched upon a distinctly old-fashioned set of dainty, cabriole legs. But, instead of looking odd, it’s bang on trend — a happy marriage of a modern material with the twist of an old-fashioned detail. It’s clever too, the mirrored finish effectively enables what could have been a cumbersome box to ‘disappear’ — something that can’t be said of granny’s hulking great Louis XV wardrobe. As Sanders says, “People don’t want to reach for a reverse gear, so it’s natural that progressive designers should fuse an historical aesthetic with a high-tech one. I create products with personality. They speak volumes about the need for emotion to be embedded in the objects that we surround ourselves with today.”
And therein lies the key to this trend. The element of old-fashionedness is, quite simply, comforting. It’s all about things that have an appealing way of being nostalgic and contemporary at the same time. To explain… super modern or minimal furniture, all lean lines and hidden handles, can be terrifically scary to a lot of people. Here in Britain, we’ve certainly achieved a laudable level of modernity in our homes, having largely “chucked out our chintz” (thanks IKEA) and discovered the benefits of blinds over net curtains and drapes. But, we have a way to go. We’re still rather wedded to our heirlooms and our housing stock is majority Victorian. Nevertheless, despite appearances the New Antiques is a definitive step in the modern direction. This new breed of furniture has the allure of the streamlined combined with the familiarity of the old. It’s furniture we can relate to without having to look backwards. After all, the most common dilemma of modern home making is not so much how to dispense with the old, as how to combine it with the new — The New Antiques does it in one.
Lisa Whatmough, owner of Squint, a quirky boutique in London’s East End, specialises in antique furniture covered in bold, beautiful fabrics (see below), a slightly different take on The New Antiques. As she puts it, “These are things that are not just functional, they show their history and provoke an emotional reaction. I think today people more than ever want things around them that they really love. Perhaps it’s because on a worldwide scale we’re watching a lot of awful things happening so creating a comforting environment at home is really important. In short, they want their houses to feel homely.” Walk into her shop in East London and you certainly feel the homely vibe. Lisa, who has a fine art background, uses furniture as a foil for her collection of fabrics both vintage and modern — she loves the proportions and shapes of the antiques but not the finishes. Thus Victorian standard lamps are updated with exquisitely-patchworked, over-sized shades; traditional wing-backed armchairs are re-upholstered in bright florals, and even teapots get wrapped in breezy prints! And, despite the hefty price tags, her pieces fly out the door. “People have no problem spending money on things that they know they’ll keep for a long time” she says. “These things are the antidote to buying cheap. It’s a return to quality.”
Ross Urwin, contemporary furniture and lighting buyer for Liberty’s, which stocks pieces by Lisa under the label Liberty Bespoke by Squint (he finds the furniture, she covers it in Liberty prints), has a slightly different point of view. “I think people are looking for a little romance for their home. It’s about giving warmth and elegance to contemporary environments, adding a bit of fun, colour and comfort.” I think they’re both right. In times of turmoil it’s natural to gather around us those things that make us feel at ease. This trend is emblematic of going back to our roots, taking stock and re-defining ourselves — The New Antiques is where optimistic forward-thinking meets wistful retro longing.
And you know this is a look with staying power written all over it when the Italian furniture manufacturers get in on the act. These are companies for whom design is big business and faddy furniture isn’t on their profit-motivated radar. So, imagine the shock at the prestigious Milan furniture fair earlier this year when Cappellini, a company renown for its routinely future-forward output previewed, amid their smart, sophisticated seating systems, a clutch of distinctly olde worlde wooden furniture, all turned-spindle detailing and skinny sabre legs! By Dutch-designer Marcel Wanders, the collection (see below) recalled furniture you weren’t sure you should like, but it was, unquestionably, the show stealer. Why? Because, more impactful than the detailing was the finish: matt or super glossy black — the point being, although the shapes were traditional, the finish, was seriously modern.
It was also a very clear indicator that the tide is turning against the relentless pursuit of new-for-the-sake-of-it which has beleagured furniture design for quite a while. Ilse Crawford is a designer who has espoused the old meets new, mix and match approach for a long time, both as launch editor of ELLE Decoration in 1989 and now through her design and interiors consultancy Studioilse. In one of her recent projects, Soho House New York, a member’s club cum hotel, she juxtaposed oversized Anglepoise lamps, glossy red classic chairs from the 50s and 60s with trad, leather Chesterfield sofas in the lounge, while Boffi baths, Louis XV beds and Venetian mirrors rub shoulders in the bedrooms. More recently she revamped Cecconi’s restaurant in London’s Mayfair; this Italian institution now boasts Chesterfields, (again, but this time upholstered in bottle green velvet) alongside antiqued mirrors and stripy marble floors. While this is old meets new by virtue of proximity, in Ilse’s furniture designs the two are definitely synthasized. Her “The Other” range for Baleri Italia (See below) is a classic collection of cabinets, coffee tables and chests made modern with mirrored glass adorned with coloured stripes or zig zags plus pom poms hanging off the keys! “I added the pom poms because I love the idea of something slick with something silly,” she says, continuing “We are the appropriation generation. There’s something wonderful about the warmth and proportions of traditional forms, but we want the lightness of new materials. We’re using whatever references we need to move forward.”
And it’s precisely this almost irreverent use of the familiar that makes this movement significant; it’s originality with an in-built sense of history. While no-one denies that new innovation is important in our lives, we also need to be sure to tick the emotive design boxes. Whether it’s as simple as achieving the balance between male and female influences; right brain, left brain; or just new and old, it’s certainly time for new thinking. And The New Antiques is a great beginning. Welcome to the future.
First published in The Sunday Times. 2005