Tables (and baths) of the unexpected

Designer artists are eschewing the sleek forms of contemporary furniture in favour of fantastical works that evoke a beguiling narrative, says Emma Crichton-Miller.

February 13 2010
Emma Crichton-Miller

One might be forgiven for thinking that contemporary furniture design was all about space-age materials, sleek forms and imaginations fired by the future. The earliest stars of what has come to be called design art – Ron Arad, Marc Newson and Zaha Hadid – certainly projected this image, creating one-off or limited-edition pieces of breathtaking formal and technical adventurousness, and using materials and manufacturing skills unknown to previous generations.

Within this highly rarefied sector of the design market, however, which has begun to garner increasing attention from auction houses, art dealers and consumers, there is another strand. Here, the chief sources of inspiration are fairy tales, myths, dreams and stories. Whether a bath shaped like an inside-out boat, fulfilling all our childish dreams; a wardrobe dressed up with hundreds of ceramic fig leaves, encasing a bronze clothes tree in an Edenic bower; or a fabulous table constructed from a plywood shell with the outlines of two different, opulent 18th-century commodes providing the form – they all look as if they have been created for another, more cinematic, more colourful world.

These pieces appeal to consumers not primarily for their technical virtuosity or design ingenuity – though they have been made possible by the convergence of advanced computer technology and supreme handcraft skills – but because they excite our imaginations and delight our senses, as well as tease our thoughts and summon emotions and memories that for most of our workaday lives lie hidden beneath the business of getting things done. It is this that makes them like art – not their inherent beauty, the skill required to make them, the preciousness of the materials, the enormity of the price, nor even the fact that they are usually made in limited editions, but the way they transform our homes into theatre and open the gateway to a fictional, parallel world. This strand in design, increasingly visible at art and design fairs, has drawn the attention of museums – for example, the V&A’s exhibition last summer, Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design, curated by Gareth Williams.

One significant centre for such work is The Netherlands. The Design Academy in Eindhoven encourages its students to experiment with concepts as much as materials, while Droog Design in Amsterdam, founded in 1993, has long defended “subjectivity, notions of beauty and meaning, and desire for high-quality experiences” as part of the package of humane values that design should embody. One frequent Droog collaborator is Jurgen Bey, who posted his philosophy on his website: “As a designer, I feel like an explorer travelling the world out of curiosity, or being sent on a mission, investigating, asking questions and making connections. And I always come back with stories – stories told with design because that is my language.”

Gareth Williams chose Bey’s whimsical Linen-Cupboard-House, 2002 (around £45,000) – a linen cupboard turned into spare sleeping room – for his exhibition. However, as central to the idea of furniture evoking a child’s story-filled vision of the world is Bey’s 2006 Birdwatch Cabinet Girl (available from his studio; about £30,000). Bey describes this as “a little sleep maisonette for a seven-year-old child”, constructed out of an old desk and table, sandblasted to a rich finish with the silhouettes of birds on a white background. This piece invites you to remember your childhood and those games of building homes with cardboard boxes or blankets under the dining room table, constructing your private space, tailored to your desires, in defiance of the adult world. (There is also a model for a boy.)

Jeroen Verhoeven, a younger Eindhoven graduate, and one of the three-person design group Demakersvan, based in Rotterdam, has taken another angle on fantasy. His Cinderella Table, 2005, summons ideas of pumpkins and 18th-century mice footmen, while luxuriating in the splendour of its curves, allowing sensuality and storytelling to meet. It was originally made in plywood (available from Carpenters Workshop Gallery for €120,000), but in 2008 Verhoeven made an edition of six in white Carrara marble (€190,000), translating the table into the realms of luxury.

With a similar eye to Walt Disney’s iconic transformations of fairy tale into feature-length animations, Maarten Baas – last year’s Design Miami/Basel Designer of the Year and creator of the magnificent burned Where There’s Smoke series of furniture (including Piano, 2004, price on request) – conceived his 2007 project Sculpt (price on request). Playing with animation’s disorientations of scale, he modelled by hand scaled-down versions of chairs, tables, a wardrobe and a chest before realising them at full size. Every flaw is exaggerated to comic effect, playing against the meticulous workmanship, in metal veneered with walnut, which ensures that these pieces function perfectly. Far from driving for ever-smoother perfection and ever-greater legibility, these pieces celebrate the wonky and the distorted, the hidden and unexplained, like furniture in the expressionist vision of filmmakers.

A third Dutch designer, Wieki Somers, though also inspired to unite story with tactile values, is anxious to emphasise that “the underlying stories and meanings of the final product are important, but they never dominate”. Her Bathboat, 2005 (€25,000, an edition of 30), is as much about the sensual contrast of wood and enamel, hot water and cool air, as it is about the surrealism of the image and how it captures, as Somers puts it, “a personal memory in an everyday object”. Joris Laarman’s bone furniture series (from €75,000 to €90,000), exhibited in London recently in Louise T Blouin Foundation’s Design High exhibition, also appears to put structural and material considerations first, but has a haunting, poetic resonance evoking the history of vertebrate evolution and plays gently on the notion of “intelligent design”. His bone chair, constructed in metal, costs €75,000.

If Dutch designers have blazed a trail in indulging playfulness and fancy, they have found an appreciative audience. Increasingly, the collectors of high-end design are art collectors who demand from their furniture a depth of resonance equivalent to good art. In his catalogue Gareth Williams quotes Joshua Holdeman, senior vice-president of Christie’s and head of its Twentieth Century Decorative Arts and Design department: “Ten years ago, collectors either had good art and bad objects or good objects and bad art; now the world has changed.”

Holdeman goes on to estimate that 80 per cent of his clients for high-end contemporary design are also serious art collectors. It is no longer enough for a discerning collector to have beautiful paintings on his or her walls, or cutting-edge sculpture on display. The greater pleasure is to make the domestic environment reflect your taste and values. This, of course, is not a new idea. Thomas Chippendale’s great patrons, Sir Rowland Winn and the 5th Earl of Dumfries, had no difficulty recognising that every decoration and piece of furniture in the house was as salient an indicator of your judgment and level of cultivation as the art on view – and would bring you as much satisfaction. And if your taste in art led you to narrative history painting or to romantic landscape, then your furniture might evoke exotic narratives or echo natural forms.

As David Linley, chairman of Christie’s UK, Charles Cator, the deputy chairman of Christie’s International, and How To Spend It contributor Helen Chislett comment in their recently published, jointly written book Star Pieces: The Enduring Beauty of Spectacular Furniture (Thames & Hudson, £40): “The terms ‘design art’ and ‘art furniture’ are often applied to this emerging movement but it heralds a return to the long neglected decorative arts.”

One business that has made much of the parallel is Mallett Antiques, the leading London dealers in fine 18th-century furniture. In the spring of 2008 it launched its contemporary business, Meta, a series of 11 specially commissioned, ambitiously designed contemporary design pieces, by five internationally renowned designers. At Design Miami/Basel in December 2008, the pieces were displayed alongside the finest examples of baroque, rococo and neoclassical furniture from Mallett’s stores to underline the continuity in spirit. Perhaps the collection’s signature piece has become Tord Boontje’s Fig Leaf wardrobe (£350,000), with its individually glazed fig leaves and exuberance.

Already well known in Britain for his bestselling garland light for Habitat (£19), Boontje has brought to Meta a charming freedom of imagination. Another key piece is the seductive L’Armoire (£95,000), a reinterpretation of an 18th-century veneered cabinet, all sinuous curves and hidden compartments. A Freudian fantasy, each model is hand-built by French cabinet-makers. Unusually, the Meta pieces are not restricted in number – they require so much craftsmanship (the Fig Leaf wardrobe is put together by 11 different ateliers) that very few models can be made in a year. Part of the appeal of these pieces, made with heightened attention to detail, is the narratives of their making as well as the narratives they invoke.

If Boontje’s pieces nod in the direction of function, Vincent Dubourg’s extraordinary hybrid furniture has no such primary ambition: “First and foremost, it’s a desire to present sculptures, that is, objets d’art, which neither proclaim their function nor necessarily appear useful,” he has said. “The functionality comes in at a later stage.” In the tradition of the French decorative arts, Dubourg makes pieces of furniture for contemplation rather than for use, in editions of eight.

His pieces, such as his Buisson chair (about £52,875), or Napoléon à Trotinette console, 2007 (about £35,250, from the Carpenters Workshop Gallery), sculptural combinations of classic 18th-century furniture forms – the neoclassical console, the ornate chair – with naturalistic recreations of branches and pieces of industrial salvage, embody a potted history of the piece of furniture they represent. They evoke the thousands of years between the first stirrings of the human imagination by nature and the heights of French rococo elegance.

With a similar enthusiasm for the flamboyance of the past, British designer Oriel Harwood makes unapologetically fantastical tables, wall sconces, chairs and chandeliers, designed for collections or made to order (prices range from £1,000 for a wall sconce to £38,000 for a table). She models first in clay, and her imagination is fired by the energy of natural forms, the intricacy of leaves, flames and feathers, the monsters of the Romanesque and the Romantic imagination. Represented by David Gill in London, Harwood creates pieces that bring together the baroque imagination of a William Kent with the wit and exaggeration of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. These pieces remind us that furniture has been a central and intimate expression of a culture. Rather than merely performing a function, they celebrate the capacity of furniture to embody our deepest fears and desires, to mirror us to ourselves.

Whether a new arena for creativity or simply the recovery of one obscured by the different priorities of modernism, the growth of the design-art market over the past 20 years or so has been a wonderful stimulus to designers. And if some pieces border on sculpture, this does not necessarily betray their origins in the world of design. It is just that design has grown wings and taken flight, made by designers who have seized the opportunity offered by enlightened collectors to make not just a chair, but a vehicle for imagination.

See also

Tables, Baths