With the growth of supercities, those vast metropolises in China of over 40m inhabitants, it seems that we are becoming nostalgic for the time when the word “city” was prefix-free. It’s as if those iconic points of reference – Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building – are there to remind us of the time when cities seemed much more familiar and human in scale. Which is why, perhaps, designers and furniture makers are finding renewed inspiration in city skylines, both real and imaginary.
De Gournay wallpapers are a case in point. The company specialises in celebrating historic cityscapes in wonderfully fine detail; one of its most iconic designs is Monuments of Paris (from £1,105 per panel) from the Papiers Peints Panoramiques collection, a reproduction of a mural first painted between 1812 and 1814. Currently it is developing a San Francisco wallpaper (from £1,164 per panel) depicting the city in its heyday of 1915. It is also moving into other geographical territories, such as a cityscape of St Petersburg (from £1,164 per panel) that has been commissioned by the Russia‑based designer Leyla Uluhanli. As Hannah Cecil Gurney, director of de Gournay, says: “A skyline allows a client to decorate walls with scenes of a city that has historical or personal meaning. They can transport that person to another time or place. Architecture also generates wonderful lines and forms, creating movement and pattern on walls. It engenders a sense of depth and distance, enabling the walls to ‘disappear’ as the viewer is made to feel as though they are looking out on a landscape.”
David Linley also understands that nostalgia can be the trigger for such a commission. “We are often asked to produce boxes or screens for people who have been living in London for a few years and want to take a different sort of memento home – something instantly recognisable such as the Tower of London or The Shard.” The technique of marquetry, which Linley has been promoting since the inception of his eponymous fine-furniture company 30 years ago, is ideal for capturing these emblematic forms: “It is almost like etching in wood. You can follow the line of a building’s shape, while really adding depth.”
At Masterpiece 2013, Linley launched the London Skyline Panel (similar panels from £90,000), a total of 20,000 individual marquetry pieces that together created a vision of London at dusk. That in turn resulted in five bespoke variations, including one for a property development company that showed all the buildings the company had built. This May, Linley is breaking new ground with its design for a Skyline Skateboard triptych, made by Hecs Decks, featuring the City of London laser-etched into bubinga wood skateboards (£750 each). More traditionally, the company is also launching four new boxes with marquetry lids depicting the unmistakable skylines of Doha, London, Dubai and Sydney (13.5cm x 37cm x 24.5cm, £4,500 each).
Marquetry is a natural choice for cityscape murals. Howard Sansome of Aryma says that the secret lies in how much you can abstract the forms. “The aesthetic appeal of skylines is in their graphic shapes: the silhouettes of landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty or the Sydney Opera House, which allow you to identify the location you are looking at with ease. After that, you can play with the design, because nobody expects you to have precisely the right amount of windows, or for the finished composition to be a faithful rendition of geography.”
While Sansome can see the enduring allure of capturing cities such as Venice, Paris or London through the medium of marquetry, he is also interested in pursuing commissions of Shanghai, Dubai and Hong Kong, for example, because they demand a fresh eye. Aryma’s most spectacular commission to date is a museum-quality piece for a yacht: “The client requested the Wonders of the World – a 15sq m composition showing key buildings from around the globe that had inspired him on his travels, such as the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Blue Mosque. He was interested in both architecture and engineering, and this combined the two. For him, it was about reinforcing his credentials as a well-travelled connoisseur of culture.” A similar commission from Aryma would cost about £230,000, with cityscape panels starting from £6,000 per sq m.
Interior designer Kamini Ezralow has also commissioned eye-catching, urban-inspired features, most notably in Dubai, for an apartment with a 360-degree view of the city. Influenced both by the 1930s aesthetics of New York skyscrapers and the construction of the Burj Khalifa, Ezralow designed a wine-storage unit spanning an entire wall of the dining room, with iconic elements of the Dubai skyline on the doors (a similar commission would cost from £45,000). Executed by Based Upon, it was both a mural and an artwork, and the client loved it. “The success of that piece is all about the juxtaposition of different textures, shapes and colours. A city is so dynamic: it brings together symmetry, geometry and ornamentation.”
However, a cityscape does not have to appear as a flat surface. For example, Atelier Van Lieshout has designed a dining table (77.5cm x 105cm x 250cm, £46,000, limited edition of seven) of forged steel that speaks of industrial landscapes; Studio Job an astonishing clock (3m x 1m x 1m, £265,000, limited edition of three) in the form of a bronze rendition of the Burj Khalifa; and Frederik Molenschot the Citylight chandelier (variable dimensions, from £45,000), which references the aerial view of a city by night, all available from Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Loïc Le Gaillard, co-founder of Carpenters, says that these “snapshots” are partly inspired by the close link between architecture and design. “It is really just a question of scale; there is bound to be a crossover between the two.”
Of course, a cityscape does not need to involve a real location – sometimes it can be abstracted to such an extent that it becomes the everyman of cities. At PAD in London last year, Pinto Paris showed a wonderful collection of “mobile architecture” – convex and concave folding screens made of lacquered and gilded wood evoking urban landscapes (available in three sizes, from €20,000). “These were imagined skylines that referenced industrial cities, medieval cities or oriental naïve villages,” says founder Davina Koskas. “We designed them so that the skyline could be ‘read’ both in the positive and the negative, amplifying the sensation of floating between the two. We hope this stimulates the viewer’s imagination by giving the city a mysterious and poetic aspect.”