Screen saviours

As home-entertainment systems grow ever larger, media walls combine sleek design and clever concealment. Nicole Swengley reports.

November 09 2011
Nicole Swengley

Technology is a beast we like well tamed. And with the number of electronic devices around us appearing to multiply daily, homeowners are looking for seamless solutions to hide the ugly mechanics – cables, boxes, decoders, routers, transformers – that allow us to enjoy technology’s many virtues.

The most practical and aesthetic way to streamline these vital components is to conceal them in a customised, multipurpose unit that is an elegant piece of furniture in its own right. Some homeowners, of course, prefer to create dedicated media rooms, although it’s not a task for the faint-hearted. The retro-fit of integrated electronic equipment and cable management can mean channelling into walls and ripping up floors. And, as Kevin Dawkins, operations director of Gibson Music, points out, “Some people want the home cinema experience, but they don’t necessarily want a dedicated media room. They want the technology simplified and easy to operate; they don’t want to be confronted with a super-complicated flight deck.”

Enter SmartWall-AV, a self-contained media wall developed by modern furniture retailer Chaplins in conjunction with electronics specialist The Pleasure Home. Electronic doors open to reveal a 65in high-definition 3-D television and two further HD satellite TVs – you can watch the big match on the main screen while keeping an eye on the news, stock prices or security CCTV on the other screens. With the doors closed to hide the main screen, the two smaller screens remain visible and can be set to display family photos or images selected to change at set intervals.

The unit, which is controlled via a remote-control device – or an Apple iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone – lets you surf the web, download movies or music, access e-mail and view 3-D Sky broadcasts. It has a 3-D DVD player and Music Jukebox that stores up to 4,000 CDs. Since every unit is built individually (bespoke cabinetry from £20,000; electronics from £25,000), you can choose any finish – timber, lacquer, leather – and specify requirements such as an integral drinks chiller or humidor.

“Despite many variables, it’s essentially a plug-and-play unit, delivered and installed in one go,” says Chaplins owner and managing director Simon Chaplin, who is currently installing SmartWall-AV at three country homes. “The other advantages are that it’s self-contained, which means that the structural integrity of the property is maintained, and it’s portable so you can take it with you when you move.”

Building an all-in-one unit from scratch means that a client’s tastes can be accommodated right down to details such as the amount of space needed for music storage – CDs or even vinyl – or the inclusion of additional games consoles if you or your children are dedicated gamers. This level of personalisation is embraced by Chamber Furniture, whose self-contained Wonder Wall can, for example, house a flat-screen television, games console, computer, hi-fi system with wall-mounted Bang & Olufsen speakers, drinks chiller and storage space. It looks particularly chic in white gloss and mounted, as if in a giant picture frame, on a black slate wall (from £14,000 plus equipment), although colour, finish and configuration can all be customised.

“The ‘picture-frame’ idea makes the cabinet look slimmer, and as if it’s integral to the building,” says Scott Nicholson, designer and managing director of Chamber Furniture. “We never make two the same. One client wanted it in a penthouse-apartment bedroom with wardrobes built in either side of the unit. Another wanted one in front of a running machine in the leisure area of a new-build house.”

A framing concept has also been adopted by Roche Bobois for its Zoom unit (from £10,118). This eye-catching design has a bronze-coloured surround housing the television screen, while back-lit niches with smoked-glass shelves display books and other objects. Julien Sannier, commercial director of the French furniture manufacturer, says, “For one client living in a contemporary apartment at London’s Chelsea Harbour we made a Zoom unit in white and grey to suit the living space and its white Roche Bobois sofa.” Meanwhile, Roche Bobois’ Neofid (from £8,500) is a contemporary modular unit offering closed or open storage, back-lit if required, with the television housed within a run of wall-mounted panels. “Each unit is made to order,” says Sannier. “We make an initial site visit to measure the electronic equipment and see if there are cornices or skirting boards to accommodate. We discuss the style of compartments, finishes and whether interior lighting is required. There are a lot of issues to consider.”

Such complexity fails to daunt Karen Howes, director of award-winning interior designers Taylor Howes. “A media wall has to work on lots of levels,” she says. “It not only houses the TV, DVD player, games consoles and so on, but has to provide something extra, such as wardrobe storage in a bedroom or bookcases in a living room. We’re also increasingly asked to build in bars – either hidden behind sliding panels or in remote-controlled, retractable units.

“We built a media wall with floor-to-ceiling, back-painted, sliding glass panels in the living room of a Belgravia apartment,” she continues. “The television and games consoles were concealed when the panels were closed, leaving the bookcases and open shelves on either side lit by fibre-optic lights [from £24,000 excluding electronic kit]. And in a Knightsbridge apartment we installed a media wall with built-in, lockable glass display cabinets on the open shelves [from £33,600]. Working with John Cullen Lighting, we installed tiny LED lights on the shelf edges to throw light back into the display cabinets and highlight treasured objects.”

Adapting a self-contained media unit – both aesthetically and practically – to suit the environment in which it will be used is one of Gibson Music’s specialities. “We have a Split Box unit [from £10,000] that can be configured in any way to include bookshelves and display cases along with a TV screen up to 65in and ancillary equipment, plus additional speakers to create surround sound,” says Dawkins. “The units can be made in timber – oak or cherry wood is popular – or covered in leather, fabric or a colourful gloss lacquer.”

Owners of traditional properties, meanwhile, turn to Gibson for clever, concealing mechanisms. “One client wanted all his electronic equipment hidden within the library of his country house,” says Dawkins. “There was a 10m run of floor-to-ceiling bookcases so we built in a mechanism that slid a panel of fake books over the television screen and other equipment [from £15,000 including TV]”.

No homeowner wants to see a trail of wires around the room, which is why German furniture brand Hülsta has made a virtue of its cable management systems that are specially developed for each of its units. Building on the success of its versatile Mega-Design system, Hülsta’s new Simia system (single units from £1,455) combines cabinets, shelves and closed or open storage with no hint of a wire in view. Matte-lacquered finishes are combined with timber, such as walnut or ash, while the BlackMagic glass cabinet door panels look virtually identical to a flat-screen TV, so the television appears to vanish when switched off. Meanwhile, Hülsta’s compact Lilac (from £11,415) in a high-gloss, white lacquer would work well in a bedroom. Four sliding doors either side of the television open individually while a remote-control-operated telescopic pole raises the TV screen by 65cm for a clear sightline.

Just as chic is the ModBox, in gloss white or black lacquer and walnut (from £6,237), from French manufacturer Ligne Roset. Its multiple compartments are stacked like large-format bricks, albeit with drawers or pull-up doors. “People often like to have a collection of small cabinets to accommodate ancillary equipment and DVDs,” says Bruno Allard, director of Ligne Roset UK. Meanwhile, its modular Cineline unit (from £8,071) features a central structure that holds the television and AV equipment with closed storage surrounding it in various configurations. A pivoting mechanism can be installed to angle the screen, which is concealed by sliding doors when not in use. With panels in a range of finishes including ebony-stained oak and white lacquer, it’s an elegant and compact design.

Reducing the depth of a media unit to 25cm offers a stylish and space-saving solution, as B&B Italia’s Flat C (from £5,000), designed by architect Antonio Citterio, proves. This bespoke unit can be built as required – long and low or tall and slim – with a new opinon of combining a desk too. Projecting surfaces support a television or hi-fi, while a system of opening cableways accommodates the wiring.

The Italians have always been good at turning functional units into desirably glamorous furniture and the designs available from Amode are no exception. Its Nero design comprises floor-standing and wall-mounted storage cubes (from £3,000) with push-click opening. Lacquered finishes range from vibrant green to soothing ivory, while the glass doors can be mirrored or coloured. Various configurations hide ancillary equipment, leaving only the television on show. “If you’ve just bought one of the latest, very slim televisions from Loewe, for example, there’s no reason to hide it away,” says Amode buyer Helen Harwood. A freestanding alternative is Odion (from £3,000), also from Amode, which offers flexible storage for AV equipment with a panel to conceal the TV screen.

Fourth-generation Italian furniture manufacturer Acerbis has always had its antennae attuned to rapidly changing lifestyles. The latest addition to its very popular New Concepts Media Case system is the low, remote-controlled Base Superschermo 100 drawer unit (from £8,170), from which a giant cinema screen rises, offering an alternative to the plasma screen within wall-hung cabinets.

Meanwhile, Acerbis’ Tuttuno (from £9,000) is a simplified version of Chaplins’ SmartWall-AV. In addition to sliding doors, it has a sliding TV box with a glass front, while inner shelves (on the 314 model; £15,340) hide specially designed speakers. “The beauty is that the middle section holding the TV is on a sliding rail so you can make use of the rear space,” says Chaplin.

For anyone who prefers a freestanding unit, though, Chaplin points to Acerbis’ Lyneus AV (from £10,240). “It’s very neat with clean lines and looks like a giant iPhone,” he says. “Because it’s freestanding it could be located in the middle of a bedroom or living room. It’s operated by remote control, so the speakers lift up and out from the TV and a shelf drops down to reveal the electronics – DVD player and so on. This opens and closes automatically when switching the television on or off.” The LCD or plasma television, meanwhile, is shielded behind a black lacquered glass panel, so you only see the transmitted images and not the equipment. So, like the swan whose feet paddle furiously below the water’s surface, these high-tech solutions obscure the mechanics and present a serene and glamorous front.

See also

Home cinemas, Storage