Interior fashions often hark back to the past, but rare is the trend that jumps through millennia. Yet the most desirable materials for designers right now – bronze, marble, copper – are those beloved of our ancestors thousands of years ago. So it is perhaps unsurprising that alabaster and its alter ego Egyptian alabaster (or onyx-marble) are also beginning to find a place in the decorator’s palette.
Let us first dispense with the thorny question of whether alabaster can also be described as onyx. The term “alabaster” applies to two different materials: one based on gypsum and the other on calcite. The former is a softer material (you could scratch it with a fingernail); medieval alabaster is usually gypsum-based. The latter is more durable and is the kind most often used for classical artefacts – this can be described as either alabaster or onyx-marble.
But enough of the geology lesson. While its associations with classical antiquity are of interest, the beauty and versatility of the material are what fascinate. Alabaster is an almost mystical material, with a wonderful milky translucence that can make it appear both hard and soft at the same time. Not surprising then that it is often used for lighting. Achille Salvagni, Hervé Van der Straeten, Pinto Paris, Chahan Minassian and Eric Schmitt are just a few of the elevated names in the world of interiors who have included alabaster lights in their most recent collections.
For Salvagni, its enduring appeal lies within that tension between transparency and translucence. “Alabaster is the grandfather of glass,” he says. “Roman basilicas were made with slabs of it in the windows. The craquelure of the surface becomes even more pronounced when lit, giving the material a cloud-like quality. I use its warm tones to lend calm and softness to interiors.” Salvagni’s Pillow sconces (€21,600 each) or Darts chandelier (€63,360) are good examples of how he has embraced the material.
Furniture and lighting designer Van der Straeten loves alabaster for the way in which it evokes antiquity, but also for the contrast it achieves with other noble materials. “I love the fragility of alabaster juxtaposed with the solidity of bronze, for example. In one of my chandelier designs, Galatée [price on request], I have taken a solid block of alabaster and had it sculpted into an enormous irregular shape that appears to be held in place by a bronze ribbon – what I love is the tension between something massive and something delicate.”
For the gallerist Jean-Jacques Dutko, it is a material that recalls the 1930s and the work of eminent names such as French architect Pierre Chareau. This link to the art deco period is perhaps one reason why alabaster resonates so particularly with the French. Recently Dutko showed new work by the French designer Eric Schmitt, including alabaster pieces such as the Cordouan floor lamp (£36,720) and the Lauze sconces (£5,040 each). “Alabaster is a very sensual stone,” he says. “It is a lot warmer than marble and invites you to run your fingers over it. It also diffuses light in a way that is unlike any other material.”
While lighting is a natural fit for alabaster, designers are also embracing it in other unusual ways. For Nicola Fontanella, founder of Argent Design, alabaster is one of the most versatile materials with which she works. For the superyachtSilver Angel, she not only designed glamorous white onyx bathrooms (£100,000 to £250,000), but also floors and a Hollywood-esque staircase in the same material (£250,000 to £500,000) to complement the Lalique panels in the banisters. “Alabaster, or onyx-marble, is for a super-league of clients,” she explains. “Used in these quantities it is very costly, but from my point of view it is one of the best materials because it is pure, tranquil and has some mystery about it. I have used it for small touches, such as on taps and door furniture, and for large statements – such as a double-height library wall. For Madonna, I designed a whole pink alabaster dressing room, which was very art deco and looked absolutely exquisite. It is a soft stone, so you have to be careful where you lay it, but actually it is brilliant for superyachts, where everyone is in bare feet.”
French interior designer Stéphanie Coutas agrees that it is far more versatile than most people imagine. She has used it for the 2m-high doors of a dressing area, as well as for a backlit basin (price on request) in a bathroom. “Alabaster brings warmth and sensuality to a space. I love the fact that it has a precious quality but also a very raw and organic aspect. Often people don’t realise just how much depth and choice of colour it offers – it works perfectly in contemporary interiors because of this.”
Paris-based architect Reda Amalou is also drawn to the play of opposites that alabaster offers. “It has a fragility and a lightness that is in total contradiction to its status as a stone. I find that exciting to work with – whether in the form of a lamp for Maison Baguès [Domino, from €3,720] or as the 6m-high, backlit wall that I designed as the focal point of Patek Philippe’s salon on New Bond Street. You can play on the idea of solidity while revealing the delicacy of the material. I also appreciate the fact that it can be worked so easily – there are no real limits to its uses, other than the thickness of an individual slab.”
Fontanella agrees, pointing out that alabaster is limited only by its brittle nature – but if she finds a particularly rare and beautiful shade when she visits a specialist stone yard, she snaps it up regardless. “It might be a pale green, for example, that the yard has not seen for 10 years – and nobody else will have it in their home. For me, alabaster sits within the semiprecious family of stones such as amethyst and jade – I think of it as spectacular jewellery for the home.”