From flamboyant furniture and surrealist-inspired objets to decor with clashing colours, this year’s biggest trends express a new playful and experimental mood in design. At the cutting edge, the aesthetic is irreverent and avant-garde but elsewhere expresses a new optimistic outlook that translates into cool, confident style.
At the vanguard of the movement is artist Marc Ange, who jets between Paris and Los Angeles and whose studio, Bloom Room, is responsible for a series of surreal perfume bottles for Jean Paul Gaultier. Last year, Ange produced one of the most enthusiastically received installations of Milan Design Week (also shown at Design Miami) – Le Refuge, an extravagant daybed-meets-summer pavilion with huge square cushions on a wood or marble plinth, topped with a canopy of perforated metal leaves. There are outdoor versions and indoor ones, the latter with upholstered leaves. Ange says that his design is inspired by the childhood wonder of escaping to imaginary worlds.
“People are attracted to its dreamlike environment of sweetness and protection,” he muses. “It’s an island of comfort in a hostile world. I think the times we live in are enhancing our sensitivity to this kind of emotion.” With prices starting from around £53,000, Le Refuge is aimed squarely at those who can afford to indulge their wildest fantasies.
Italian brand Gufram, known for 1970s icons such as the Bocca sofa (modelled on Mae West’s lips), has taken its irreverent style up a notch with the launch of offshoot SuperGufram, whose capsule collection of limited edition pieces has given designers and craftsmen carte blanche to be creative. “At Gufram we make over-the-top domestic sculptures, but at the same time there is the need to design something technically reproducible; we have to make it work for a certain number of pieces,” says Charley Vezza, Gufram’s global creative orchestrator. “SuperGufram is our way to overcome this limitation. Designers can unleash their most visionary ideas.”
The debut SuperGufram collection is the work of Dutch-Belgian duo Studio Job, working with Gufram’s highly skilled artisans. The six creations – which include a punchbag (€25,500) in a bright orange brick pattern and a coffee table (€15,500) shaped like a cooking pot, complete with its own cloud of polyurethane “steam” hovering overhead – are extreme visual puns, equal parts surreal and fun. Although all the objects are functional, it’s their humorous appearance that makes the strongest impact. Studio Job sums up the aesthetic, with gleeful vulgarity, as “super-sexy” and “super-smug”.
SuperGufram is one of a trio of new artisan-led brands to claim playfulness as its core mission. Hailing from Portugal, Royal Stranger is the creation of architects Sofia Pinho and Rui Moreira Santos, and uses “noble materials” to evoke “new atmospheres and sensations”. At the heart of its debut collection, recently launched at the Maison & Objets showcase in Paris, is the Honeycomb sideboard (from €27,700), which takes one of nature’s most ingenious designs – the hexagon structure of a beehive – and gives it a fairytale dimension. Made of exotic woods and metal leaf, it has flower-like lacquered drawers that “bloom” on one side, and is intended to be used for the most precious of possessions.
Further east, Maison Dada, set up in Shanghai by French designers Delphine Moreau and Thomas Dariel, takes advantage of China’s spiralling fascination with contemporary design – and a new playful mood in general. It introduced several creations during this year’s Paris Design Week, among which were its Little Eliah light (€672), a ceiling pendant shaped like a table lamp that appears to magically float in mid-air, and the Ayi armchair (from €2,200), whose generous curves are designed to evoke childhood memories of happiness. “Humour and poetry are keywords in our work,” says Moreau. “Of course, some pieces need to be more functional, but we try to push boundaries as much as possible. We believe people need to be surprised.”
The increasing buying power of Chinese citizens plays in Moreau and Dariel’s favour, with eccentricity being freely indulged. Working as Dariel Studio, the duo has recently created a dramatic apartment for a young family in Shanghai. The space is designed for both the owners and their children, and has a colourful palette and functional yet fun furniture. “The sitting room is completely open to the children’s play area,” says Moreau. “Decorated in primary colours, it’s ‘a modern fantasy’.”
Why are designers trading subtlety for high jinks? It’s tempting to see the trend as a distraction in troubled times. But in fact, it’s just as much a reaction to the safe and bland luxury interiors of the past decade, along with a desire to explore the boundaries between what is considered art and design. And it’s not just young maverick names that are feeling the urge to shake things up. Luxury label Hermès, for example, while it represents the pinnacle of French poise, has adopted “play” as its theme for 2018, unveiling a collection of objects in its homewares offering inspired by children’s games. There’s a beechwood and cork bat and ball (£540) decorated in colourful, graphic patterns, and a Little Horses board game (£5,057) in printed maple, with stylised chess-style pieces, among brightly coloured trinket boxes and trays (from £560).
Elsewhere, British brand Established & Sons is revisiting one of its most whimsical and talked-about furniture designs. The Wrongwoods collection of storage and tables, a collaboration between co-founder Sebastian Wrong and artist Richard Woods, is a nostalgic nod to 1950s faux-wood effects, reinvented using a block-printing process and bright colours. “When we first launched the idea in 2007, we didn’t know what shelf life it would have – but a decade on, sales are growing,” notes Wrong. “The wood-grain pattern is a playful gesture, but the pieces are highly functional.” New to the range is a dining table (£3,120) in the Palm Springs colourway – the brightest and most eccentric yet. “Every piece is unique due to the block-printing technique, which is special in the world of industrialised production.”
At the other end of the design spectrum, craftmakers such as Norway’s Elisabeth von Krogh are also making increasingly playful work. Von Krogh is inspired by the postmodernist era, when clashing colours and patterns were fused with abandon. Her terracotta sculptures, including Bubbles, $10,500, and Dynamo, $7,200, for the Insubordinate Creatures project, a collaboration with fellow artist Ellen Grieg, reference the work of Italy’s 1980s Memphis collective and have anthropomorphic charm. “I wanted to create wild, unexpected shapes and explore the magic of overscaling,” she says. “The low-fired terracotta clay I use is perfect for coloured glazes and stains. It gives me almost as much freedom as a painter.”
Von Krogh’s individual pieces represent the trend at its most unfettered, but interior design demands a broader approach. Among those who succeed in combining irreverence with sophistication is Australian-born, London‑based interior designer Peter Mikic, whose daring use of colour can be seen to full effect in an Islington home. The drawing room is decorated in pink, turquoise and pale blue with shots of green and yellow – a mix that could be garish, but which is handled with an impressionist’s flair. “I used a dusty pink that’s not at all childlike, and there isn’t one single colour that stands out; it’s a careful balancing act,” says Mikic. “In recent years, I’ve noticed my clients becoming more adventurous and moving towards colour and pattern; you can see it in the art they like.”
Fellow interior designer Katharine Pooley concurs. “I’ve observed an increase in designs with a playful side, which our clients are receptive to,” she says. “I think it’s partly down to the range of amazing suppliers and artisans working now.” When she recently converted an 11,000sq m Grade II-listed office block in Mayfair into a family home, the huge space required a few grand gestures. Pooley commissioned Czech glass specialist Lasvit to make a spectacular chandelier (from £40,000) for the entrance hall that adds an effervescent touch to the classical architecture. “It depicts running water – each of the hundreds of components was hand-blown with trapped air bubbles to create shimmer,” she explains.
Like Mikic, French interior designer Géraldine Prieur loves to play with colour. She has designed homes for Saudi royals and the Kennedy family, as well as her own Parisian apartment, which she describes as a “psychedelic wonderland”. A palette of pastels and brights is used to evoke specific sensations: the pink living room has a cosy glow, while the lapis-blue reception is welcoming and intimate. “It’s a typically Haussmannian apartment, but I wanted it to feel irreverent,” Prieur says. “The colours create a joyful atmosphere.” Much of the furniture and finishes are from her studio Rouge Absolu’s custom-made collection (where prices start from around €295 for a handcrafted cushion), but there are offbeat contrasts – for example, ancestral portraits and a panther sculpture that belonged to Prieur’s grandmother. The effect is not only engaging, but also “surprising and impertinent”.
No discussion of playfulness in design would be complete without a contribution from Spanish maestro Jaime Hayon, whose carnivalesque world catches the mood of the moment. With his latest project, the Folkifunki tableware (dinner plate, €105) for Portuguese ceramics brand Vista Alegre, he shows that design can be playful in terms of how it is used as well as how it looks. “The collection is an exploration of traditional Portuguese decorative elements – such as the chicks and hens that feature on old pottery – but I wanted to get beyond the conventional idea that every plate has the same pattern,” he says. “Each element has its own individual character, so people can combine the ones they like best. It reflects my personal preference for mixing up styles and colours at the table.”
Those who believe this mood to be a passing fancy may be wise to reserve judgement. In May, the Victoria and Albert Museum will open its exhibition The Future Starts Here, exploring the ways in which design might shape the world of tomorrow. Several of the concepts, which range from smart home appliances to satellites, are as playful as they are scientifically innovative. If such ideas make the transition from idea to reality, they could transform our attitude to “frivolous” design. Fun can be a serious business.