Packing a punch

Today’s furniture designers are leveraging the charm and elegance of vintage luggage for serious style in the home. Nicole Swengley reports.

October 29 2011
Nicole Swengley

Glamorous and evocative, there’s something about the feel and fragrance of vintage luggage that sets the pulse racing. It conjures up images of high-style travel – think the Orient-Express or transatlantic liners in their art-deco heyday – and is now inspiring designers and manufacturers to create furniture and home accessories with a sensuous en voyage appeal.

“Like me, many people are seduced by the glamour and romance of travel in the 1920s and 1930s, and increasingly we’re seeing contemporary furniture inspired by vintage luggage from that era,” says Sir Terence Conran. “It’s a very natural progression. There’s a sense of nostalgia along with an ingenuity in how it’s designed and constructed. This sturdy elegance translates very well to modern pieces, often with an element of surprise and intrigue.”

Trunks have long been used as decorative storage in the home, but what’s different now is the way design cues from vintage luggage – the corner brackets, the nail heads, the leather pulls – are being reworked into contemporary furniture, such as cocktail cabinets, media units, dressing tables, wardrobes, desks and even mini offices. So forget the steamer-trunk-as-coffee-table cliché. These fit-for-purpose designs may look and feel like expensive luggage, but the pieces are not going anywhere beyond your study, bedroom or living space.

Take fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s limited-edition, luggage-inspired bedroom furniture for Roche Bobois. His chests of drawers – the masculine Tallboy (£10,965) and Suitcase Storage (£8,224) – are upholstered in leather with chrome-plated suitcase catches and leather handles. Both are topped by fold-down mirrors. When closed, the Tallboy resembles 10 handsome, neatly stacked suitcases, while the seven cases stowed vertically and horizontally in the wheeled Suitcase Storage bring to mind a busy porter’s trolley.

Roche Bobois will launch the Correspondances collection this autumn, which similarly draws inspiration from the golden era of travel. “The well-travelled trunk with its clever compartments on the inside and labels displaying exotic-sounding locations on the outside is a symbol of those times,” says Lionel Gusparo, a creative director at Roche Bobois. “Also in mind when designing this collection was the idea of artisans and artists of old who travelled from town to town looking for new custom and ideas, taking with them the tools of their trade. One can imagine a painter travelling around Europe at the end of the 19th century with a trunk containing compartments and drawers in which to keep brushes, paints and materials. This collection pays homage to those times and that way of life.”

The designs, which include a media unit (£2,515), bookcase (£3,609), Russian box-style side tables (£1,422), bedside table (£1,203) and bedlinen chest (£1,932) are made from solid cherry wood and oak combined with the seductive patina of aged leather.

The luggage as furniture trend was evident at Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile earlier this year where the Trunk Champagne Bar, created by fashion designer Neil Barrett for Mumm champagne (custom-made, price on request), was on show, hiding a self-contained bar and stereo system within a deer-skin-covered vintage trunk. Gunmetal mouldings characterise the bar’s exterior, while in-built coolers and laser-cut, neoprene storage compartments turn it into a self-contained party piece. Meanwhile, Poltrona Frau’s Isidoro cocktail bar (£7,704), created by French designer Jean-Marie Massaud, similarly updates the aesthetic for contemporary use. With its saddle-leather exterior and luggage-like handles, the bar resembles an oversized cabin trunk. It can be wheeled wherever you want to serve drinks, and it opens to reveal glass and bottle holders with a folding shelf for mixing drinks. “The design language of vintage luggage provides a refined way to revisit furniture, offering style and atmosphere,” says Massaud.

Such designs conjure the essence of glamorous travel without the inconveniences. And since escapism is often the stuff of dreams it seems appropriate that bedroom specialist And So To Bed has created a 1930s-inspired dressing chest in a birch burr finish that folds up to resemble a travelling trunk. Drawers and shelves are housed within its elegantly curved sides and there’s a fold-down mirror (chest, £4,800; mirror, £799). Alternatively, the leather-padded Oceano trunk (£10,908), designed by Andrée Putman for Poltrona Frau, doubles as a dressing table, wardrobe or even mini study. It opens to reveal variously sized drawers for storing clothes or work accessories. Hidden drawers and compartments add intrigue to the design and, tucked inside, is a folding mini desk with a removable, padded seat.

“The nostalgia of the design brings a touch of poetry to its use,” says Olivia Putman, Andrée’s daughter and Studio Putman’s director. “Its versatility echoes the idea of freedom that the design language conjures up. And, as Poltrona Frau offers about 100 colours of leather, owners have the opportunity to customise their piece in the same way that travel luggage used to convey an extension of identity.”

The design cues from vintage luggage work equally well in overtly feminine pieces as in more robustly masculine furniture. The Conran Shop, for example, offers the chunky, 10-drawer 211 Trunk (£3,050) with faux-crocodile leather exterior and a pull-out chair containing further storage compartments, while the curvaceous, rosewood Marie Galante dressing table (£2,345) remains a bestseller. Meanwhile, Martin Waller of London-based design company Andrew Martin International makes a virtue of leather’s toughness in the Mackenzie chest of drawers (£2,995) and polished steel’s muscular good looks in the Howard chest of drawers (£2,195), and then adapts the aesthetic further in the polished steel Da Gama Campaign desk (£2,295) and side table (£1,195).

The concept’s versatility has similarly fired up London furniture-maker Timothy Oulton who draws on the pedigree and craftsmanship of classic luggage for his Slab coffee table (from £1,079), Slab lamp table (from £609), Stoneyhurst sideboard (from £1,789) and Winchester tall trunk (from £1,339) designed for Halo Living. Glamour and nostalgia meet contemporary living in Oulton’s Mayfair Steamer Secretary Trunk (£2,195) – a mini office contained within an oversized, wheeled trunk. Here are all the romantic style cues you’d expect – leather-bound corner brackets, leather-wrapped handles and more than 3,000 brass nail heads hammered by hand into the antiqued-leather exterior, while the thoroughly practical, canvas-lined interior has a pull-down desktop, multiple drawers and cubbyholes. Meanwhile, Oulton’s Mayfair Steamer Media Trunk (£1,299) is covered in brushed steel or vintage cigar leather. The sleek surface is the perfect place for a flatscreen television.

“I love the history and nostalgia of vintage suitcases and trunks. Imagine the stories they’d tell if they could talk – the places they’ve been, the people they’ve seen, the conversations,” says Oulton. “I delight in taking something from the past and making it relevant and functional today. The pieces need to be functional and usable otherwise they’re just attractive ornaments. In our workshops we carefully deconstruct vintage luggage – it literally gets taken apart – and then the details are faithfully recreated to maintain the design’s integrity.”

Another designer keen to reinterpret luggage as furniture is Kelly Hoppen. Her new collection of coffee tables, side tables and cabinets are clad in exotic leathers and high-gloss lacquers, and feature luggage-style details (from £950 to £2,640) and are available at Selfridges. “They’re my reinterpretation of a classic trunk – useful, practical and beautiful,” she says.

A different approach is taken by London-based designers James Russell and Hannah Plumb, who work together as James Plumb. Their bespoke storage units are made from vintage suitcases sourced from antiques fairs and markets around Europe. The old suitcases are buffed up and lined in Swedish linen, then housed within antique steel and wooden chests to form highly individual chests of drawers (from £2,800). “The idea evolved from the way we used suitcases as storage in our own bedroom,” explains Russell. “We love that each unit is unique, as no combination of suitcases will be the same. People respond to the past stories hinted at by the luggage labels and old stickers. Yet they like the fact that the suitcases have been given a new use.” They are now developing a variation of the design in which each suitcase is individually framed with different shapes and sizes stacked on top of each other at various angles.

Bespoke pieces are certainly in demand at the special orders departments of luggage specialists Goyard and Louis Vuitton. Originally designed for long-distance travel, Goyard’s Malle Pulman and Malle Penderie (prices on request) are custom-made as wardrobes. Meanwhile, Louis Vuitton has drinks cabinets in a similar style to its iconic trunks (prices on request). One client even ordered a multimedia office-in-a-trunk powered by a solar panel. “The essential condition is that it must respect the spirit of travel, being designed both to protect and transport a client’s belongings,” says Patrick-Louis Vuitton, the fifth generation of the company’s founding family, and who personally oversees crafting of the special orders at the Asnières workshop near Paris. “My great-grandfather, Georges Vuitton, used to say: ‘The main thing is to allow your personal effects to travel in the greatest possible comfort.”’ Even if they just stay home.

See also

Storage, Tables