Houses of fashion

Over the past decade, marquee names in fashion have applied their aesthetics to interiors. Now, a handful of directional designers are putting their mark on homeware style. Mark C O’Flaherty reports.

November 14 2011
Mark C O’Flaherty

In mid-April, the only place for the design cognoscenti is Milan. The annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile furniture fair now rivals the prêt-à-porter and couture shows for scale, influence and glamour. The city’s grandest hotel, the Principe Di Savoia, is fully booked (€17,000-a-night penthouse included) six months in advance, while Twitter scrolls at an excitable pace with design discoveries and party gossip.

Of course, the boundary between fashion and furniture has been blurring for more than a decade, but this year it became almost imperceptible, and some of the most exciting interiors pieces showcased were from profoundly forward-thinking Paris-based couture houses. The notion of investment dressing has yielded to investment interiors – £15,000 sofas and limited-edition armoires that will age beautifully and hold their value, aligned with the clothing industry’s most prestigious names. It’s a challenging form of design sorcery; the product has to be both au courant and timeless.

Armani Casa, launched in 2000, is a prime example of how the most influential labels in the world have been expanding to encompass a “lifestyle universe”. Armani, like Calvin Klein and Fendi, is known for restrained luxury with a sharp sense of lounge-friendly texture and minimalism. Its celebrated “greige” palette is a custom fit for the modern interior and has expanded from cushions and lampshades to whole Armani-branded hotels. So which are the new names heading for our living-room floors?

A few years ago, seeing anything by Maison Martin Margiela outside the most esoteric of fashion stores was, to the initiated, nothing short of shocking. Here is an aggressively insider label, known for a self-consciously intellectual approach to design; its stores are roughly whitewashed and all the workers at its 11th Arrondissement HQ wear lab coats.

This aesthetic has now moved from the shop floor to the living room. In 2009, the company began working with furniture manufacturer Cerruti Baleri on two items that had appeared already as purely conceptual pieces: the Emmanuelle Chair (£1,750) and the Groupe sofa (from £5,060).

This year it expanded the range with the Undersized sofa (from £4,700) and the Sbilenco coffee table (£1,300). The pieces are visually arresting, their skewed proportions reminiscent of Dutch designers Droog, or, in the case of the Groupe sofa (which resembles three odd armchairs), mismatched but unified by Margiela’s trademark snow-white cotton toile covering.

“When clothing the furniture, the intention is to offer some history and past life, or vécu, as we say in French,” explains one of the Maison collective. “The cotton is designed not to appear brand new. But these are still luxury items. They are delicate and sumptuous.”

The appearance of Hermès’ La Maison line at this year’s Salone was not surprising to those who know the company’s history. It was producing furniture with Jean-Michel Frank 80 years ago, and the 1980s René Dumas-designed capsule Pippa trio of chair (£7,770), console (£5,960) and folding leather stool (£3,070) are, like its tableware, much-loved classics. But it was the scale of the presentation in Milan that was dramatic: wallpapers, cushions, fabrics and ceramics, all echoing classic prints and patterns from Hermès’ silk and tableware collections.

The launch of a complete range for the home followed last year’s reissue of its Jean-Michel Frank furniture, in collaboration with B&B Italia. “Those pieces were the starting point,” says Hélène Dubrule, general manager of Hermès’ Maison department. “Then we brought the range up to date with new work from Enzo Mari, Antonio Citterio and architect Denis Montel.” Hermès is acutely aware of progressive design (Martin Margiela was head of women’s ready-to-wear from 1998 to 2003), and the Maison pieces unveiled this spring have a bold sense of modernity as well as stately, masculine tradition. Antonio Citterio’s Méridienne for Unwinding (£17,670) is a reading sofa with elements of Dumas in its crossed safari-style legs. Mari’s Table Ovale (£20,460), in marble with calfskin legs, has the gorgeous, elegant, tapered 1920s sweep of deco designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, while Montel’s leather Sellier dining chair (£4,650) is, as Dubrule says, “quintessentially Hermès”. “We liked the idea of a saddler working on something to sit on. It adds a touch of fantasy to the collection and we hope it will become an iconic signature object.”

Like Hermès, some of the most directional fashion designers working on furniture lines are harking back to the 1920s and 1930s. The attraction is obvious – the era of arch-modernism and muscular deco was the pinnacle of avant-garde design in the 20th century. Indeed, few contemporary fashion designers have a stronger aesthetic than Rick Owens. His work is a unique, gothic blend of science fiction and Berlin nightlife, but it’s also rooted in classic elements from 80 and 90 years ago.

Owens’ limited-edition creations sell next to Prouvé and Corbusier originals at Galerie Jousse Entreprise in Paris, and have a disturbing but artful and angular heft to them, exaggerated with antlers and offbeat materials: an alabaster bed (from €230,000) looks like a sacrificial altar, and a Curiale chair (from €80,000) in petrified ebony resembles a pagan chalice. But then there are a half-box chair (€3,500) and desk (from €12,000) with a deco delicacy to them. “I like blunt, rational simplicity in raw, simple materials,” says Owens. “And every once in a while, a slightly ridiculous flourish. I oversized and simplified the silhouettes of Ruhlmann, Mallet Stevens and Jean-Michel Frank with a hint of California skate parks and leather bar interiors. This furniture is my version of couture. It’s time-consumingly artisanal in a mix of base and rare materials.” More is yet to come, as he’ll be unveiling a new range of pieces in LA in December.

Stockholm-based street fashion and creative brand Acne looked to midcentury Swedish design for its furniture line. Creative director Jonny Johansson took Carl Malmsten’s 1958 Nya Berlin sofa, warped its axis, stretched it and upholstered the result in denim to create a selection of pieces (from €4,000) that make a distinctly Scandinavian style statement. “These are pieces that need their own space,” says Johansson. “We called this project a study, because it’s a perspective play and the search for something very Swedish. Furniture isn’t just functional today. It’s more of an object, perhaps a sculpture.”

While there’s a tendency to veer towards the conceptual, some new pieces are more straightforward and literally comfortable translations of celebrated silhouettes and prints. Jean Paul Gaultier’s aesthetic couldn’t be further removed from the fabulously austere menace of Rick Owens or the ascetism of Acne. The limited-edition range of furniture he has produced with Roche Bobois draws on 30 years of Breton stripes, sailors’ tattoos, Horst P Horst corset lacing and breezy Gallic bon chic, bon genre. The hand-stitched Mah Jong modular sofa (units from £1,026), with navy and white horizontal lines, kissing couples and Pierre et Gilles-style florals, couldn’t look more Gaultier unless Jean Paul himself were sitting on it. “I started, as I do with all my collections, with the idea of dressing someone,” says Gaultier. “Except in this case it was furniture. And in the end, designing furniture is not that different – you have to think about the human body and how it will react to its environment.”

For all the humour in his work, Gaultier is a deeply serious, master designer. His couture shows send critics into raptures, and he was design director at Hermès for seven years after Margiela’s departure. Among the Roche Bobois collection is an elegant tattoo-motif wardrobe (£11,748) with internal mirrors that are part magic act and part old Hollywood, and two leather-upholstered sets of drawers (from £8,224) in the shape of a stack of suitcases – witty, but still exceedingly beautiful.

One of the most appealing pieces of Gaultier’s furniture is his bed (£8,153) with screens, in lace and sailor styles. A bedroom can lend itself to unbridled fantasy in a way other rooms cannot, which is why many fashion designers focus their attentions on it. Diane von Furstenberg launched a full homeware range this year, including an array of bed linen (from £245) in bright mosaics and heavily inked lines that could be taken straight from one of her iconic wrap dresses. A black-on-white butterfly-silhouette print, meanwhile, displays her incredible graphic strengths.

At the same time, lingerie brand Agent Provocateur has, under the auspices of creative director Sarah Shotton, unveiled a collection of striking bed linen, from a 550-threadcount white Genuisa with baby-pink piping set (from £395), to silk black duvet (from £669) and lace-print sets (from £379). Like Gaultier’s Breton stripes, it’s a look taken straight from the label’s DNA. “We’ve applied similar textures and detailing,” says Shotton. “And we’ve translated the craftsmanship and playful irreverence too.”

The kitchen and dining room represent the bread and butter of high-fashion homeware. Designers known for their prints – such as Missoni and Zandra Rhodes – translate hugely successfully to tableware. As with bedroom sets, practical ceramics allow for flights of fancy; you might not want to change your sofa every month, but at suppertime you can choose from a collection of plates according to mood. The market is growing fast; this summer Bruce Oldfield produced a range of 14 pieces with Royal Crown Derby (from £36), while Diane von Furstenberg has a vast range covered in pop-arty Miro Flowers (from £12). A strong pattern can be taken on a grand tour of the house: Missoni produces stacks of cushions and towels, and Vivienne Westwood has an extensive range of wallpapers with Cole & Son (from £60 per roll), including the seminal Squiggle print from her first catwalk collection in 1981, Pirates. Basso & Brooke, known for its wild (often risqué) digital prints, has taken things further by offering whole-wall murals (from £280 per sq m), made-to-order rugs (from £3,600), silk lampshades (from £160), chairs (£9,500) and découpage consoles (£8,000).

So alluring is the world of interiors that some designers now focus on it exclusively. Russell Sage gave up his career in womenswear to become one of London’s most in-demand interior designers, and approaches each interior with mood boards and back stories as he would any collection; and Rifat Ozbek – who created some of the most desirable clothes for women throughout the 1980s and 1990s – retired from fashion in order to concentrate on creating wonderfully ornate, exquisitely bright cushions under his Yastik label. Some have fabulous, classically Ozbek embroidery, mixing and reinterpreting the patterns of central Asia and the Ottomans, including one example (£50) with the cartoonish good-luck motif of the “Nazar Boncugu” evil eye. “I’ve also designed the interior of Mark Birley’s new London club,” says Ozbek. “It’s a cross between an opium den, a turn-of-the-century Parisian music hall and a Tibetan temple. I had never done an interior before, and now I’m thinking of creating a furniture line.” The attraction for the talented designer is clear. If 15 minutes on a catwalk tells the story of a collection, then an interior – whether piece by piece or an entire space – has a quite transcendent sense of permanence. It tells an infinitely bigger story.