Mirrored furniture that plays with perception

Highly polished finishes are back in the spotlight – playing with perception in newly sophisticated ways. Charlotte Abrahams reports

Project Joost steel fireplace, price on request
Project Joost steel fireplace, price on request

There is a private residence in the Netherlands with a fireplace so polished that it reflects its surroundings like a mirror, creating an optical illusion that deceives the eye and distorts perspective. It is the work of Joost van Bleiswijk, the Dutch designer who enjoys experimenting with techniques that challenge our perceptions – and made his name with his No Screw No Glue series of laser‑cut furniture. Project Joost’s fireplace (price on request) is the result of combining steel cutting with polishing and plating processes, creating a design both monumental (it weighs in excess of 800kg) and illusory.

Project Joost steel chair, €2,640
Project Joost steel chair, €2,640

“I had created an entire collection of pieces from heavy 6mm steel [chair, €2,640, and desk, €11,520],” he says, “which was cut using a hand-held plasma torch that produces a fine line almost like that of a pencil. The result is rather crafted and beautiful, so I wanted to use the same technique for the fireplace, and the reflective surface prevents it from ovewhelming the space.” In situ, the fireplace is a focal point, but it does not steal the limelight, thanks to its mirror-like finish, which is achieved by polishing the steel before it is coated with a layer of nickel just thin enough to allow its gleam to shine through. “One side reflects the greenery of the outdoors that can be seen from the window,” van Bleiswijk says, “so rather than dominating the room, it is like a gateway to the garden.”

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Van Bleiswijk is just one contemporary designer exploring the potential of the polished surface, and this piece is testament to the welcome comeback of lustrous finishes that have until recently been sidelined by the fashion for matte, textured and distressed surfaces. “The polished surface plays with our depth of vision,” says bespoke furniture designer Paul Kelley, whose magnetic stainless-steel cubes (£390 each) are so finely polished they barely seem to be there at all. Designed with the flexibility to stand in the centre of a space as a sculptural installation or be configured as an internal wall, the cubes are hand-cut from sheets of pre-polished stainless steel, then polished again in a painstaking process that takes several hours to complete. “When the sheets arrive, you can see the polishing lines left by the sanding belt,” he says, “so we go over the steel again with a rotary polisher, which refracts the light in such a subtle way that you don’t notice the marks. It’s a way of cheating the eye.”

Project Joost steel desk, €11,520
Project Joost steel desk, €11,520

It is the unique quality of polished metal – to be noticed yet unobtrusive – that has caught the imagination of two San Francisco-based design studios, Branch Creative and Pablo Designs. The former’s Dusk Dawn lamp (€2,024) has a base of highly polished brass crowned by a matching shade of metallic glass that appears as if it is one solid piece that glows from within. “It has a humble elegance that grabs your attention without stealing the spotlight,” says co-founder Josh Morenstein. Pablo Pardo’s Bola Disc LED pendant light (from $325) also plays with reflection to deceive the eye. “The shade’s mirrored surface makes it almost invisible, so that it seems as if the light below is just floating in space. It is an exploration in light and transparency,” he says. But this is a trick of the light that would not work if the mirror fell anything short of absolute perfection. Bola’s flawless finish is the result of hours of intensive polishing and a vacuum electroplating process called PVD. “PVD leaves a nice tint, as you can see the original metal behind it,” says Pardo, “so it’s vital that the preliminary processes are done well.”

Pablo Designs opaline-glass and steel or aluminium Bola Disc LED pendant light, from $325
Pablo Designs opaline-glass and steel or aluminium Bola Disc LED pendant light, from $325 | Image: Pablo Designs

Polishing is a highly skilled, physical and incredibly dirty job, according to Chris Turner, joint creative director of CTO Lighting. “Basically, you are removing the top layer of metal, and this is the most important process in the factory if you are making a mirrored light,” he says. Turner has concerns about the future of the craft, as there are very few young polishers waiting in the wings to replace those who are retiring – but he’s confident that there is a market for their work. “People are looking for rich, glamorous details these days – not everything can be super-matte and understated.”

Sam Orlando Miller mirrored glass, aluminium and glass-fibre Stella Velata 1 wall hanging and Stella Velata 2 table, both price on request
Sam Orlando Miller mirrored glass, aluminium and glass-fibre Stella Velata 1 wall hanging and Stella Velata 2 table, both price on request | Image: Courtesy of Helen Underwood Miller for Gallery Fumi

CTO’s bestseller, the Solaris 1100 (£6,648), is almost more gleaming jewel than functional light source. Consisting of a 1.1m-wide band of brass or stainless steel, hand-polished to luminous perfection (it’s kept wrapped in industrial clingfilm and handled with gloves until it’s attached to its aluminium chassis on site), and hung with a double layer of cut and bevelled glass pieces, it glints and shimmers in its own reflected light.

Paul Kelley stainless-steel cubes, £390 each
Paul Kelley stainless-steel cubes, £390 each

But it is not just metals that are being polished to a high shine. French designer Mathieu Lehanneur employed the skills of a polisher to transform marble into a series of furniture that appears almost fluid in form. His Ocean Memories circular low table (£28,000), created for London’s Carpenters Workshop Gallery, was inspired by his desire to capture the complexity of the ocean in a solid material. Its impressively realistic waves were achieved using 3D software, originally developed for the film industry, and programmed into a CNC machine, but Lehanneur realised that the only way to capture the true spirit of water was to make the surface reflective. It took a week of delicate, intricate work as the polisher traced the undulating edges of each wave with sandpaper, and the glossy finish succeeds in transforming this heavy marble table into a piece that is evocative of the ocean. “The surface is polished to a gloss, so it changes with the light, just as water does,” he says.

CTO Lighting glass and stainless-steel or brass Solaris 1100 light, £6,648
CTO Lighting glass and stainless-steel or brass Solaris 1100 light, £6,648

Dutch furniture brand Ghyczy’s latest cabinet, the Biri C03 Limited (£25,000), also echoes the imprecise, mercurial reflections of the natural world rather than the perfection of a mirror. The C03 cabinet was originally created as a signature piece for the studio, and was not intended to be reflective at all. “I came up with a pattern reminiscent of parquet floors,” says owner and managing director Felix Ghyczy, “which I recreated in brass tiles for the cabinet door. As 380 tiles are used to create the design, I thought we would show the variety of hand finishes we can achieve on brass, so some are brushed, others are patinated and some are polished.”

Ghyczy brass, stainless-steel and oak Biri C03 Limited cabinet, £25,000
Ghyczy brass, stainless-steel and oak Biri C03 Limited cabinet, £25,000

Ghyczy describes the optical illusion created by this approach as “a happy accident. I enjoy the way the reflections change the look of the cabinet as the light or the viewer moves around it, and I like that it takes on the colours of the room that it is in, which gives it much more depth. It’s not a perfect reflection because the tiles are small [5mm x 8mm] and mixed with other, non-reflective pieces – but then I think slight imperfections are more elegant.”

Mathieu Lehanneur for Carpenters Workshop Gallery marble Ocean Memories table, £28,000
Mathieu Lehanneur for Carpenters Workshop Gallery marble Ocean Memories table, £28,000 | Image: Felipe Ribon

British sculptor Sam Orlando Miller is another celebrator of imperfection. His latest works, the Stella Velata 1 wall hanging and Stella Velata 2 table (both price on request), were crafted from pieces of handmade, coloured glass, which he then mirrored and attached to an aluminium and glass-fibre substructure with specialist resins. “Mirror has become something we associate with perfection,” he says, “but other reflective surfaces are not perfect: think of water. I believe the perfection of a mirror can be unappealing because it’s so hard and reflective. I want people to be drawn into my work, which is why I use handmade, coloured glass.”

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Once viewers are drawn in, Miller wants to discombobulate them a little too. Combining glass with mirror means that they see the object twice – once when they look through the glass at the mirror and then again as they look back through the mirror at themselves. Using coloured glass compounds the confusion because when they look at the reflections, they see two colours: the actual colour and the reflected one, which changes as they move around the piece. It makes for compelling viewing.

Miller’s fascination with mirror as a material stretches back for many years; he is the son of a silversmith, and mirror, after all, is traditionally made with silver. He believes it has a natural draw for all of us: “Mirror shows us a flat version of the real world and the brain finds the simplicity of this appealing,” he says. “Plus, when we look at mirrors we see our own faces reflected back at us, and so we are offered a glimpse of what we look like in our environment.” He makes a good point. Trends may come and go, but shiny surfaces will always have an irresistible allure – just ask the magpies.

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