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Audio/Visual

Cinema paradiso

Designers are colluding with audio-visual specialists to produce alluring remakes of the old-school home screening room: opulent, light-infused spaces loaded with hidden high-spec kit. Katrina Burroughs reports

October 12 2012
Katrina Burroughs

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the words “home cinema” meant the standard-issue movie‑mogul screening room. Basement-set and Batcave-gloomy, it was all about the audio-visual experience, a style-free zone of dark, padded walls and sound-absorbent seating. Today, while purists still cherish their techie lair below stairs, decorators are increasingly collaborating with AV specialists to create beautiful living spaces that combine high-quality film viewing with sharp design and opulent finishes.

Jenny Weiss’s cinema (around £50,000), on the ground floor of her Surrey home, is a Hollywood-inspired remake of the old black bunkers. “It’s a sexier take on the traditional cinema room that looks fabulous without stinting on audio quality,” says Weiss, co-director of Hill House Interiors. Her production stars supersized bespoke daybeds, upholstered in metallic fabrics by Zinc and strewn with cushions. A favourite item of tech is a Draper Euroscreen Frame Vision fixed projector screen. “It is in soft silver, so it doesn’t scream at you when a film isn’t on.” Clients have found her mix of AV quality and luxury seductive. “We’ve persuaded quite a few who were set on leather La-Z-Boys with drinks holders not to go down that route.”

Home-cinema systems range from top spec to relatively simple. An enthusiast might insist on the full monty: projector, drop-down or fixed projector screen and seven-channel surround-sound (also called 7.2: seven speakers in front, plus two subwoofers), but there are also excellent set-ups that consist of a TV screen plus five-channel surround-sound (5.1). “It’s all part of home automation now,” says Gary Lewis, chair of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) and director of home-cinema specialist Future Systems AV. “Our clients will have temperature, lights, air‑conditioning, security, video entry and entertainment, all linked to a single control panel or their tablet.”

Yet, according to Joe Burns of interior and architectural design outfit Oliver Burns, whose clients tend to spend from £80,000 on cinema equipment alone, “There’s still a passion for more formal basement cinema rooms at the top end of the market. In the Walpole Mayfair [a luxury development], we adjusted the floor levels, so you walk down towards the screen, like in a traditional cinema.” Then Burns added some unexpected tweaks to the £450,000 space. “The armchairs, some with footstools, recline right back, and we put in ButtKickers, so when there’s a crash or an explosion in the movie, the chairs vibrate.”

As well as a spine-jarring new feel, underground rooms are acquiring an invigorating, light-infused look, in part inspired by the vibrant interiors of film studios in clubs and hotels. Screening Room Two at the Soho Hotel in London, designed by Kit Kemp, is an example, with 45 seats upholstered in Poltrona Frau red leather and piebald ponyskin. On the domestic front, interior designer Joanna Wood recently created a media room (from around £80,000) in the basement of a Kensington townhouse, with 10-seater sofas covered in a vivid Zoffany fabric and banked with green and purple velvet cushions.

Alix Lawson, director of architecture and interior design practice Lawson Robb, says of a Grade II-listed townhouse on Wilton Place, where the old coal vaults had been transformed into a spa and cinema complex: “We wanted this project [about £32,000] to read as a daytime room, so we put in a pale limestone floor and layered luxurious textures in warm cream tones.” The acoustic wall panels were covered in cream silk and daylight recreated with LED strip lights in a warm white.

And in a house in Chelsea (price on request), developer Finchatton allowed natural daylight from glass roof windows on the third floor to funnel into the basement cinema room via an open cantilevered stairway, a wall of mirrors making the most of every ray.

In modern homes, movies are most often watched above ground in multipurpose rooms, however. “My clients tend to buy apartments or penthouses, so they haven’t got man-caves in the basement to watch movies,” says Diana Yakeley, interior design director of Yakeley Associates (prices on request). “The home cinema is usually integrated into the living area, so accommodating the equipment, wiring and ventilation takes a great deal of ingenuity. For instance, Kaleidescape (the Blu‑ray and DVD movie server) is massive and generates an enormous amount of heat. You can hide speakers in the ceiling and walls, but often the main kit has to be in a remote cupboard.”

Though most of the tech is out of sight, Yakeley says a fixed screen has an impact on decor: “A big screen is very dominant and simple finishes look best. I don’t do busy fabrics or wallpaper.” In a 12th‑floor London apartment, she placed ebony panelling around the plasma screen, and concealed speakers either side. More speakers were hidden in the wall behind a bespoke suede sofa that is typical of what is happening to home-cinema seating. Tiered theatre-style seats have been swapped for more stylish and comfortable alternatives. In a Linley-designed flat in London’s Lancasters, the cinema room (around £23,000) is furnished with oversized L-shaped sofas and floor cushions. The one in Elle Macpherson’s Cotswold home in the Lakes features Mah Jong Couture sofas from Roche Bobois – it’s the antithesis of the old movie bunkers.

Once, it was thought that films and light were as incompatible as vampires and werewolves, but now, the most alluring cinema rooms are flooded with illumination. Last year, Grahams Hi-Fi won a CEDIA award for the best media room over £15,000. It was a bright bedroom in a lakeside property called the Pope’s House, in which pale bedlinens, white roller blinds and bedside lamps with translucent fabric shades combined with sunlight and views of the water to make a light, airy interior. David Graham says that improvements in screen technology have permitted such light‑filled rooms. “In a white‑walled living space, a screen has to work with high ambient-light levels. In another cinema room in the Pope’s House, there’s a 2.3m-wide Supernova screen (from about £8,000) by Danish firm DNP, made from a multilayered optical fabric. Any light that hits the screen head-on (from the projector) gets reflected back to you, but light coming in from the side is absorbed.” There’s also Screen Innovation’s Black Diamond Motorised drop-down screen (£4,200), made from ambient-light-rejection fabric that filters glare so that films can be viewed comfortably in daylight.

With clever design and AV expertise, movies can be enjoyed in the most unlikely areas of the home. Rosalind Calow, director of residential design at Staffan Tollgard Design Group, created an indoor swimming pool with a home cinema (price on request) for a house in Surrey. “You walk into the pool room and are faced with a 2.5m x 4m image projected onto the wall,” she says. “To be suitable for the environment, the wall had to be waterproofed with plasticised paint, and this had to be matte and not reflective. The projector was recessed into the wall and placed behind glass to protect it from moisture. We left the acoustics up to the AV specialists – in a swimming-pool setting, they are notoriously tricky.”

Cinema rooms have traditionally been a battleground where the interests of aesthetics and audio have clashed, but with interior designers and AV specialists working more closely together, the best of both worlds is possible. “The aesthetics are super-important to our clients,” says Robin Courtenay, director of audio specialist SMC. Echoing Yakeley, he continues: “Most of the time, that means speakers are hidden behind panelling or plastered into the walls and screens drop down from the ceiling or pop up at the end of a bed.” Home-cinema specialist Finite Solutions uses Artcoustic speakers (from £350 per pair), which have acoustically transparent fabric covers that can be matched to wallpaper and act as camouflage.

But there is a growing trend to display sculptural speakers. For a client in Highgate, SMC installed two spectacular floorstanding DSP8000 Digital Active Loudspeakers by Meridian (£35,000 per pair). “The model was particularly suited to the surroundings,” says Courtenay. “The room looks out over the cemetery – and the view is of obelisks and gravestones rising up out of the ground, so the speakers are the interior space working in harmony with the landscape.”

Most coveted of all the speakers that combine audiophile function with artwork aesthetics is the 2m-high, limited-edition Muon, by Ross Lovegrove for KEF – an elegant organic form in liquid-look aluminium (£140,000 per pair). “Everything goes full circle,” says Gary Lewis. “I remember when everyone wanted huge, black Wharfedales; then it was the sat-sub system, and then invisible speakers. Now they have become so good to look at, people are thinking they don’t have to be shy about their kit. In one project, we matched a beautiful grand piano with CM9 floorstanding speakers by Bowers & Wilkins (£1,799 each) in glossy jet black, high as your waist – a real focal point.”

See also

Home cinemas