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Interior Design

Airs and graces

Delicate forms and celestial palettes are bringing an intriguingly ethereal quality to interior design. Jenny Dalton reports.

January 15 2012
Jenny Dalton

Alternative investment specialist Robert Tomei’s Milan apartment is a study in atmospheric art and design. In the black-floored bedroom there’s one of Mario Testino’s celebrated prints of Kate Moss in bed, perched above his own bed. In the living room there’s a Rolf Sachs “sledge” chair, specially commissioned and given a burnt finish by the designer Maarten Baas. There’s a mean and lean black and mirrored gym. But the pièce de résistance hangs above the weighty black Maarten Baas dining table: a light work by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta of Dutch design house Drift, cast from concrete and decorated with a fragile mass of real dandelion heads (price on request).

It is a staggering piece of contrasts. “It’s hard to explain the effect, but each individual bulb gives the sense that, rather than throwing light out into the room, it acts as a passive, soft orb. It’s a juxtaposition of permanence and transience,” says Tomei, who, aside from being chairman of wealth manager Advanced Capital, heads the Investment Committee of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation. “Since I have the luxury of choosing pieces that go beyond the purely functional, I aimed to invest in ones that also gesture towards our spiritual and emotional needs. Throughout the project, I was looking to create a sense of the ethereal and spiritual; the aim was to create a sanctuary.”

Although Tomei had seen the Fragile Future lamp at several art events over the year before he bought it, he wasn’t conscious of following fashion. “I tried not to be overly influenced by prevailing trends,” he explains. “Then again, it’s always hard to say how much one’s personal preferences are shaped by broader movements. Nobody’s taste exists in a vacuum.”

Indeed. For all around this winter are hints at a move towards a greater poetry in architecture and interiors – from the pointed majesty at the tip of Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum in Glasgow and her storyboarded (and shortly to rise) “floating boat” design for the Antwerp Port Authority, to the new Ligne Roset Ploum sofa from the Bouroullec brothers that, in white, resembles a punctuated cloud (from £3,400). There’s Rope Grown, glassmaker Heather Gillespie’s beautiful engraved and cut hanging rope of “mussel” lights (£2,000 for 1.5m), and a new Chrysalis lamp by Marcel Wanders for Flos that projects spectral flowers onto the ceiling (£2,085). In Paris, the dreamy work of designer Benjamin Graindorge, recently displayed at gallery-studio Ymer&Malta, is based around the theme of the “emotional material” of light.

Also of note is another young designer, Daniel Latorre Cruz, whose Icarus lampshades are made of hand-shaped paper wings rendered from mulberry-tree fibres (from £95). When strung together, “they resemble the kind of feathers Icarus would have used to make his wings,” says the designer, the aim being to deliver “a rim light effect that, when daylight shines behind, creates a wonderful touch of gothic romanticism.” Their presence in “a contrasting modern or Victorian setting”, he says, is particularly “ethereal”.

Latorre Cruz isn’t alone in wanting to move design in a more emotional direction. At the Tramshed exhibition space during London Design Week in September, one of the most affecting pieces was an installation by Japanese group Leif.DesignPark. The Listening to the Light lamp illuminated and diminished to music, and in a darkened corridor the effect of rhythmically dancing bulbs was both ghostly and uplifting. (It can be tuned to any music player and will be commercially available shortly.)

At that same exhibition, another standout was the light-as-air furniture and lighting collection by up-and-coming British designer Benjamin Hubert. Featuring a palette of cloud-like hues on woven-leather-strap lounge chairs (Coracle) and impossibly delicate marble pendant lamps (Quarry) and granite tables (Silo), the collection (from £978) seemed pretty and fresh and a world away from the baroque bling and oversized furniture we have all fallen for over the past few seasons.

Luis de Oliveira, co-owner of De La Espada, the firm that produces the Benjamin Hubert collection, admits this work is intended as a complement (and, therefore, alternative) to the solid-wood designs for which his company is known. “There’s only so much wooden furniture our clients want to buy from us,” he says. De La Espada’s wooden collections are both beautiful and well conceived, and if one trend in interiors from the past decade has come to represent the times, it is this: solidity, a return to craft, and a renewed appreciation of the beauty of timber or hunks of stone or metal.

That trend is certainly not on its way out, but when lots of producers offer a refined turned timber and upholstery collection, you’re left with a natural desire for a contrast to all that substantiality and groundedness. The interior designers at property developer Finchatton have done it recently in their new £25m apartment in Chelsea, in the form of a bottom-lit onyx basin in the guest cloakroom – making a single piece of stone all the more otherworldly. And Robert Tomei acknowledges that his dandelion light was “the perfect complement to the room – as a sense of reflection and counterpoint to the dark, heavy Maarten Baas table underneath it”.

Trend predictor Joanna Feeley, creative director of the twice-yearly publication Trend Bible – who has consulted for everyone from Tesco to Calvin Klein – pinpointed the trend late last year, calling it “Celestial”. In these troubled times, she says, a contrasting element is emerging that explains our hankering after something more spiritual at home: “This is really about escapism, about being able to retreat from the darker realities of our economics and politics, and the quite sinister influences we’re seeing around us, like the shortage of raw materials. This means that, in design terms and in the home environment, people do one of two things: use the home as an escape to feel cocooned and safe [hence all that solid wood and renewed appreciation of homely craftsmanship], or they’re drawn to the more creative elements of design, where the home is not so much about functionality. We are seeing more emotive reasons for buying something. It’s about the home inspiring us and making us think. It’s a much more introspective trend.”

Certainly Emily Johnson, designer and fifth-generation member of a renowned Stoke-on-Trent pottery family, appreciates the need for inspiration from the dark – in this case, the near-death of the ceramics industry in her home town. (Indeed, in 1968 Johnson Brothers became part of Wedgwood, which largely manufactures abroad now.) On her website are images of a Stoke factory she visited after deciding she wanted to revive her family business. It “looked like everybody had just got up and left to go home; nothing was moved – all the moulds and equipment were still there”. This ghostly view haunts her and has informed her desire to utilise the skill base that remains in the one-time boom manufacturing area.

Roping in her father from retirement, she has issued her first collection, Bone, under the auspices of new company 1882 Ltd – the year the Johnson Brothers brand was born. The eerily beautiful totem lamps (from £275) are made from the toughest, finest bone china, so fine that they are almost see-through – the perfect conduit for a lighting project. At the launch of her work at the Jamb showroom in Pimlico, Emily arranged the lamps – each handmade in moulds that her father said were impossible to cast from, such is their length and fragility – in a St George’s Cross shape. And yet, funnily enough, grouped together (as they are best enjoyed, says Emily) they resemble a townscape – perhaps the chimneys of a bygone industrial age – all melodramatic and neogothic.

However, lamps are not the only way of using ethereal style to achieve lightness and explore the theme of light within the home. For Polish designer and lecturer Oskar Zieta, this meant creating a less weighty version of his inflated hydro-formed metal Plopp stool, using pearlescent white-lacquered aluminium so that the stool weighs no more than a kilogram. Zieta displayed it at the Cardi Black Box gallery in Milan earlier this year as Zieta BazAir, a poetic installation of seemingly gravity-confounding stools attached to large white balloons.

And in Paris, at designer Benjamin Graindorge’s recent solo show of new work, entitled Morning Mist, each piece was as spookily celestial as the next. There was lighting – one lamp (the aforementioned Morning Mist) was a formation of glass bubbles, and CrystalCane was a skeletal, alien-looking tripod lamp – but equally ethereal was the Fallen Tree, an oak and glass bench with branches that extended like fingers to form the second support (all in editions of eight; price on request).

In LA, young artist David Wiseman has just installed one of his otherworldly sculptures at the new West Hollywood public library. He describes it as a “60ft tree, clad in porcelain bark, that begins its growth along the wall of a large staircase and grows off the plane, creating a canopy of branches overhead”, and plays with the idea of historical relief and plasterwork in his sculptural decorative pieces, which are mostly solid white (price on request). “I actually work with very heavy materials,” says the designer-artist, who has recently shown in Seoul for the first time and whose star is on the rise internationally, “though there’s a lightness that I think comes from referencing nature. Many of the forms I am inspired by are branches and blossoms that seem to effortlessly reach for sunlight. I am interested in materials and how they can be used to convey the delicacy of nature, whether I am working with age-old techniques, such as metal-smithing and mould-making, or laser-cutting and vacuum casting.”

Wiseman’s growing following is testament to an audience that is more open to detail and thoughtfulness, according to Evan Snyderman, co-founder of R20th Century, the New York gallery that exhibits his work. This is because “he is not afraid to make beautiful objects, which collectors find refreshing”. Equally, Benjamin Graindorge is pleased his gallery work enables him to fully express his interest in the natural world, in a way his industrial designs don’t always. “The gallery lets me be free. My work is visibly more pretty.” He believes the recession will continue to bring work like his to the fore. “I think the crisis has been good for design. We have less work, so it’s economically difficult. But when we have the chance to make our projects real, they are better. They’re more ecological, more practical, much more thought out.”

And since we are talking about all things celestial, such silver linings seem highly appropriate.

See also

Lighting