Interior designers with a reverence for the past are making velvet furniture feel fresh again. The fabric, already evident in this season’s fashion collections, was notably on display at the 2015 edition of the Salone del Mobile in Milan, where Marcel Wanders, founder of the super-cool Dutch design brand Moooi, unveiled the Mad Queen armchair (€2,696), upholstered in Gibson velvet with matelassé stitching, for Poliform. “Most of the work we do is about connecting the past with the future,” Wanders explains, and velvet, with its sumptuous connotations, perfectly balances old-world nobility with the fantastical shapes of the new.
For designer Giorgia Zanellato, her home town of Venice – a key centre of velvet production from about 1400 to 1600 – provides both an inspiration for her work and a connection with the past. “Initially imported from Asia, velvet was part of Venetian history, and painters such as Titian used it in many of their famous portraits,” she says. In her Awaiting collection, in collaboration with artist Coralla Maiuri, she pairs golden brass with dappled velvet in seats (€4,200), a room divider (€13,200), vanity table (€13,920) and mirror (€5,160).
Italian architect and furniture and industrial designer Antonio Citterio has used velvet for the whole of his illustrious career. Last year he added the Solatium range of seating to B&B Italia’s Maxalto collection. Taking inspiration from the 1940s, the sectional sofa (from £18,219) features backs of varying heights and glamorous jewel-toned velvet covers that turn a classic into a statement piece.
Paris-based architect and designer India Mahdavi, now developing three velvets for Pierre Frey, says she approaches the versatile fabric “like a box of crayons… I love the richness and depth of colours, which I like to contrast in unexpected combinations. In the end, it always seems to work out because of the softness of its embrace.” Her hand-shaped pale pink Charlotte armchair ($6,120) makes a spirited nod to the art deco period that certainly quickened pulses at the June 2014 reopening of The Gallery brasserie at Sketch in London.
“Velvet will always be a classic furnishing fabric,” says Toni Anne Sanderson, marketing and operations director for the contemporary furniture showroom and website Nest.co.uk, who suggests we are seeing more of it now because it helps to “warm up” the popular Scandinavian-look, loft-like spaces with muted palettes that have been popular for some time. “The opulence of velvet can also lend itself to smaller rooms, where its reflective qualities can play with the light in the room, or add a sense of light where it is lacking.”
New York furniture gallerist Todd Merrill, who cites design luminaries Nancy Corzine and Rose Cumming as inspirational, agrees. His voluminous tufted sofas are sold in sections ($12,000) and come in a spectrum of remarkably high-sheen velvets, used because “you get this beautiful landscape” that “allows the light to make its own pattern on the sofa”. Though there is an echo of the 1970s Cityscape collection of sofas by American designer Paul Evans, the look is wholly contemporary, thanks to technical improvements in dye, Merrill says, which provide a larger colour palette, and because synthetic velvets are now more resilient. “Velvets really read as luxury, and yet your three-year-old can crawl on them and you can brush them and they bounce back,” he says. (Just remember to brush the hairs in the direction in which guests are seated.)
For those who like their sofas and armchairs with a fresh retro twist, French designer Annie Hiéronimus reissued her iconic Plumy armchair (£1,552), sofas (from £2,562) and footstool (£391) at Ligne Roset last winter. The cocoon-like range, originally conceived in 1980 in collaboration with Michel Roset, now has rich velvet covers over the all-foam construction for which Ligne Roset is renowned.
Patrik Fredrikson and Ian Stallard, of London design studio Fredrikson Stallard, push the technological boundaries of working with velvet. Taking as a starting point their 2007 Pyrenees sofa, hand-carved in the shape of a mountain range from polyurethane foam and with a lustrous velvet-fibre cover – the Victoria and Albert Museum holds a glorious two-tone-green version in its collection – the duo set about creating something even more extraordinary. “We wanted to accentuate the softness,” Stallard says of 2015’s Species II armchair (price on request), made of polyurethane foam and finished in different shades of red velvet fibres. Though velvet offers “an incredible luminescence, a play of light and shadow”, draping the Species II armchair in traditional rolled fabric was out of the question, given the chair’s dramatic sculpted peaks and troughs. The solution was to blast fibres directly on to the piece as it sat in a large metal tank – an experience that was, Stallard says, “like painting, essentially”. This ingenious use of materials in both the finish and the structure, achieved with the help of rubber and plastic scientists in Wales, led the Design Museum to nominate Species II for Design of the Year 2016 in the product category, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to acquire the piece as part of its permanent collection in May.
Finnish designer Mia Wallenius, the life and business partner of Klaus Haapaniemi, says she experiments with velvet because “details become richer on it” and can appear three-dimensional. The pair’s whimsical Arte Bloom Sofa (from €3,990), launched at the London Design Festival in 2014, is a striking example, marrying digitally printed velvet, in a kaleidoscopic botanical pattern that resembles floating jellyfish, with a pale Nikari birch bench. “It’s contrasting modern design with something that was maybe seen as a bit fusty,” says Wallenius, “but it can be casual and luxurious.”
This may explain why other Nordic trendsetters such as Gubi, &Tradition and Normann Copenhagen are also embracing velvet’s moodier aesthetic. Normann Copenhagen’s flatpacked Ace collection of chairs (from £350), sofas (£900) and footstools (from £160), released in April, is available in three finishes, for example, and the “velour has a warmth that you don’t get with other fabric,” says Nest.co.uk’s Sanderson. “For a long time, everybody used only linen because that felt really fresh and easy,” Wallenius says. “It’s what most Scandinavian design is about.” But now “everyone is moving away from that” out of a desire to explore the tension between minimalist forms and bolder materials.
For her part, Wallenius has been experimenting with draping a suzani-like layer of patterned velvet across the middle of a special edition Bloom sofa, due next year, for an effect that’s as formal as it is inviting. “It adds softness but is also artistic, the woven layers transforming the sofa into the centrepiece of a room,” she says.
Joanna Bibby, founding partner of the Ochre design company, has been quietly pairing nubuck, a suede-like cowhide leather, with velvet for nearly two decades (£7,116), and says velvet never completely went out of fashion. “Whenever we do an upholstered piece, we nearly always include some velvet,” she says. “We tend to use nubuck for the hard-based frame and velvet for the base cushions. The velvet shimmers in beautiful tones.” Bibby finds additional charms in velvet as it ages: “Unlike fine linen, velvet isn’t going to rip. In fact, it can look just as, if not more, beautiful when it becomes worn and a little threadbare. These are heirloom pieces with real longevity.”