Artistry in residence

The lines between art, architecture and furniture are blurring as homeowners collaborate with artist-designers on standout site-specific pieces, says Emma Crichton-Miller.

February 17 2011
Emma Crichton-Miller

I am walking around Design Miami/Basel 2010 with Sandra Nunnerley, one of New York’s most fashionable interior designers, whose company is listed in the prestigious Architectural Digest 100 list of the world’s top designers and architects. Nunnerley is expert and brisk. She identifies a charming Jean Royère lacquered tubular steel multiple lamp stand, shaped, as its title Liane (1961) indicates, like a serpentine creeper.

This delightful creation is not, however, the one she wants, which has already been sold. “The thing is,” she explains, “I have exactly this space to fill…” and she scrolls through her iPhone to show me a blueprint of the room, with the exact dimensions of every feature. Another tap and the various pieces Nunnerley has considered for the spot are lined up – with prices and provenances detailed.

Nunnerley works for the most demanding clients in perhaps the most choice-driven city in the world. When trusted with six-figure budgets, she knows every detail has to be perfect – from the structural rhythms of interior spaces to the furnishings of the dining room to the art on the walls. Above perfection, however, what Nunnerley’s clients really want is an entire scheme unique to them. “I am in constant pursuit of the one-off,” she says, and, as a result, lives her life on the move, seeking out those rare antiques and quirky jewels you stumble on serendipitously if you are always looking.

Increasingly, however, Nunnerley is adopting a different strategy: she is commissioning the pieces she needs. “We’re doing more and more of these site-specific, artistic, commissioned pieces these days, for a variety of reasons,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s because of specific architectural demands or the need to complement an existing collection. But generally, it’s simply the desire to create a truly special, one-of-a-kind piece.”

Commissioning site-specific contemporary design is not a new enterprise. In the 17th century that was how lords and princes displayed their taste and power. When Chippendale was devising furnishings for Dumfries House in the 1750s or Nostell Priory in the 1760s, each piece was inspired by the particular spot it was to occupy in the orchestrated whole.

In the early years of the 20th century, Edwin Lutyens and Charles Rennie Mackintosh were themselves both architects and designers, for whom the furniture they designed was an integral part of the vision for a given building. Even today, there are exceptional designers and craftsmen, such as Thomas Messel, Andrew Varah and Tim Gosling, who will design an exquisite traditional piece (or many pieces) to suit your taste, your budget and your interior.

The advent of modernism and then the magnificent Mr Conran, followed by the arrival over the past 10 years or so of increasingly sought-after limited-edition pieces by star designers and architects, has changed the way most of us seek to furnish our homes. The idea of the global scheme has lost its allure.

Instead, interior designers and private individuals have eclectically combined the mass-manufactured and quietly custom-built with iconic pieces by well-known designers that, far from being created in response to your space, you feel grateful to be permitted to house. Like works of art, these individual pieces of design express a singular focused vision – without regard for where the piece will end up or with whom. Their outstanding oddity is as much the appeal as the way they accommodate themselves to your needs and the particular dimensions and decorative style of your home.

These same designers, however, are increasingly opening themselves to a different way of working. “I’ve always done custom pieces, particularly upholstered ones,” says Nunnerley. “What’s different now, though, is how many artists and architects are open to this kind of collaboration. It used to be unheard of to approach someone of the stature of, say, Zaha Hadid to design a dining-room table, but today you can. The lines between art and architecture and furniture design have become blurred.”

Nunnerley herself has worked with New York furniture maker and restorer Kenneth Dell to create a coffee table for the main room in her apartment. Inspired by Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest stadium, it is made from solid bronze elements – all bent to different radii, brazed together and patinated – with a glass top.

“It came about because I wanted something unique for my own house, a standout piece meeting my functional needs that would also harmonise with my collection of art and the antique and vintage furniture already in the space. Dell found his own inspiration in New York’s architectural elements and Gothic arches and developed the concept for a table composed entirely of arcs.”

Someone who has approached both Pritzker- and Stirling Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid on a regular basis is the design guru and gallerist David Gill. One client, inspired by Hadid’s exhilarating Dune Formations furniture collection, which Gill exhibited in 2007, wanted a 6m, matt-white-coated version of the aluminium table as a spectacular dining room centrepiece. “We had to go to the car factory to discuss how it would work at that length,” Gill recalls.

When he first opened a London gallery in 1987, Gill exhibited masterpieces from international design history – signed pieces by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Eileen Gray, Diego Giacometti and Donald Judd. Almost immediately, he also began working with contemporary designers to produce one-off pieces and collections.

From initial projects with Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti, Gill has exhibited with Ron Arad, Tom Dixon and Marc Newson. His current stable of artist-designers includes the tirelessly inventive Bonetti; the spare, witty Reinier Bosch; the uncompromising duo Fredrikson Stallard and the flamboyant Oriel Harwood.

Increasingly, however, individual collectors and interior designers are coming to Gill not to order limited-edition pieces but to commission items uniquely to suit their particular interiors – “to create”, as Gill explains, “a real sense of balance and beauty. In the past, interior decorators did the whole thing. Now, so many more people are looking at design. The clientele is much more knowledgeable. They collect art, and contemporary art is so closely related to contemporary design.”

One project Gill oversaw was a set of bookcases created by Bonetti – 3.5m high, clad in bronze and sycamore, for a particular space in a patron’s home (bookcases start from £30,000). “This is contemporary Chippendale. When you see these, you are awoken to a new pleasure,” says Gill, adding that once clients have experienced the full delight of commissioning, they often come back. “Living in a wonderful contemporary environment is always refreshing, but when you commission, you feel you are also participating in something, you are living presently.”

Francis Sultana, formerly creative director at David Gill Galleries, set up on his own in 2009. He is both a furniture and interior designer, working on whole house projects for a handful of clients, using regularly just three designers: Mattia Bonetti, Oriel Harwood and André Dubreuil. “André works mostly with bronze and other metals, and enamel; Mattia works with everything from gilded wood to Plexiglas; and Oriel in ceramics and resin.” What they share is a feel for the kind of sophisticated elegance that is Sultana’s trademark: the mix of antique and modern, elegant and avant-garde, sumptuous high luxury and sleek contemporaneity.

Sultana explains that it’s hard to find younger designers prepared to work in the highly collaborative way his clients require. “Because my clients’ homes are such a grand passion for them, they have all these ideas that I and the designers then take up and work with.” Recent projects include a London mansion, a Greek island retreat and two Manhattan projects – an Upper East Side pied-à-terre and a grand SoHo apartment. As Sultana puts it, “You have to be completely taken with the house; the artists have to be brought to a level of excitement where they share the vision of the owner.”

He has observed that with this degree of involved patronage “you get another layer of creativity from the artists. Whereas editions come from the combined imaginations of the artist and the gallerist, a site-specific commission is fully your piece; your creativity and that of the designer are fused together.” And this can take courage on the part of a patron: “You have to be quite gutsy to commission – you have to be very secure about what you want.”

The owners of the SoHo apartment, who are originally from London, wanted to reflect the New York skyline and the city’s art deco influences. They had been inspired by the 2006 Sotheby’s sale of the art and furniture of renowned curator, art adviser and collector David Whitney, the life partner of architect Philip Johnson, which brought together antiques and site-specific contemporary pieces designed for homes in Connecticut, New York and Big Sur, California.

More than a third of the pieces in the SoHo apartment have been commissioned especially – including a glamorous cabinet by Bonetti (about £60,000). Sultana regales me with its features. “Anyone living in a city needs storage. This cabinet has to house the TV and the fan to keep all the machinery cool. There are two pullout trays for evening bags, another for belts, another for gloves and yet another for costume jewellery, among other things.” The piece is constructed from Plexiglas covered in gold leaf – “very contemporary, but also very Mattia, with an echo of art deco”. This was one of the first things the clients commissioned – another six pieces by Bonetti followed (starting from £20,000).

For some, modern design can seem intimidating – and the idea of commissioning it a step too far. Last autumn, however, Contemporary Applied Arts held an exhibition to dispel such fears and to introduce One of a Kind, a new commissioning service it has instigated. In the central-London space, interior designer Kit Kemp (co-owner of the exemplarily individual boutique-style Firmdale Hotels) created an entire room out of one-off pieces.

Many of the items were commissioned from designer-makers especially for the exhibition, arranged lyrically as if this were someone’s living room rather than a white-cube gallery. They were colourful, friendly, organic pieces – from the superb Yellow Loop spiral of Danish ceramicist Merete Rasmussen (£1,800) to the magnificent Scorched Oak Bench by woodworkers Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley (£5,245).

There were also two stacks of brown and white teetering drawers in English burr oak and limed ash by Rupert Williamson (from £6,525) and the Imaginatively Stacked Slate Table II, a collaboration between designer-sculptor Tom Stogdon and Kit Kemp (price on request).

Describing her relationship with site-specific design, Kemp says, “You have to have a sense of arrival at a hotel – as, indeed, at a private house – and you make a sense of adventure by commissioning a one-off piece. You don’t need many.” She recognises that “lots of people find the idea intimidating, that commissioning is hard and the results hard-edged. But if you are working with wood or clay or textiles or glass, these elements actually soften a room.”

Kemp has nothing but praise for the artist-designers she collaborates with: “You are drawing on their creativity. You choose an artist because you like them, but you then have to go with the flow. You may talk to them about your ideas, but they better them.”