Tina Mahony, co-founder of London design store Go Modern, had a laugh-out-loud moment when confronted with Mogg’s Bla Bla suspension lamp at this year’s Milan furniture fair – a reaction that would have likely pleased designer Emanuele Magini. His LED light (from £540) – shaped like a speech bubble outlined by a heavy black frame – could have been plucked straight from a comic book and, although simple, spoke volumes about the intelligent and humorous approach that informed its design. Mahony immediately saw a winner for her store, which satisfied the growing demand for a strong graphic aesthetic. “It’s such a fun piece and typical Mogg – inventive but also beautifully made and rather lovely,” she says. “It’s the perfect talking point.”
Strong graphic silhouettes were a notable theme at the Milan show. “Furniture and lighting designs were stripped back to little more than minimal black frames by many designers, some reminiscent of architectural pen sketches on paper,” says Habitat’s head of design Kate Butler. “They appear simplistic in terms of structure and material, but can create dramatic impact.”
Back in London, a recent residential project by interior designer Katharine Pooley elegantly illustrates this. The focal point of the living space is a pair of matching bespoke sofas with graphic black lacquer frames (price on request), which Pooley designed to heighten the sense of theatre in the monochromatic scheme. “The contrast against the sleek ivory linen upholstery is striking,” she says.
Simplicity is key to the visual strength of graphic furniture, but that does not mean it lacks character, especially when conceived with a witty, irreverent touch. The Sott’Archi floor lamp (£1,440) – another creation by Como-based Mogg – is reminiscent of a stork standing on one leg, with a flexible arm that can be twisted into multiple positions or extended up to 3m to take the lamp head where needed. Apart from its functional attributes, the light is a stylish example of an item that is at once simple and emotive. “The narrative and emotional aspects of a design are often those that interest us most,” says Nicola Galbiati, the brand’s founder and art director. “It’s essential that a piece surprises in some way and has something new to say. These lights are more than playful – they are ironic and evocative.”
Argentinian designer Cristian Mohaded – a rising talent who already has a piece in the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris – took a similar approach with his Zeppelin storage unit (from £2,810) for Roche Bobois, which, as its name suggests, recalls the shape of an airship. Humour also comes into play in Dmitry Samygin’s series of marble-topped Croquet tables (from £920), also for Roche Bobois. Their black steel frames riff impishly on the shape of croquet mallets, which becomes obvious once the connection is made. “These two young designers are enriched by different cultures and influences, which informs essential yet engaging designs,” says Nicolas Roche, the furniture brand’s creative director. “The pieces are simple, but do not fail to articulate the story embedded in them.”
Pavlo Schtakleff, co-founder of furniture firm Sé, believes that unexpected details “can make a piece of furniture irresistible. It’s important to combine elegance with a sense of approachability and warmth, so that our homes convey the same qualities.” Sé was established in 2007 and its design stable already includes heavyweights such as Jaime Hayón and Ini Archibong. The latter used slender frames to play with proportion in his Circe lounge chair (from £4,075) and sofa (from £9,430), which are part of the Collection IV series of furniture, Archibong’s largest to date. “The oversized bulbous seat contrasts with the frame, resulting in a design that seems almost animated – it creates character as well as comfort,” Schtakleff says.
One distinct advantage of framework furniture is its visual transparency. The fine wirework of Habitat’s Dolton coffee table (£195) and Tabitha lounge chair (finished in black or gold, £275), for example, lends an air of weightlessness to their sturdy structure. Elena Salmistraro adds a stylish twist to this optical illusion with her TouTou stool (£430) for Mogg, which features a base composed of slim metal rods inspired by the swirl of a pirouetting ballerina’s dress. AC/AL Studio’s signature style, meanwhile, is defined by the rigorous outlines of its furniture – from its Ossau desk (€2,400) and Strat sideboard (€990) to its steel-framed Trame chair (€394) for Petite Friture. “Practically speaking, designs that allow light to flow through them create a sense of spaciousness within a room,” says Habitat’s Butler. “The fact they’re ‘see-through’ also ensures they integrate easily into an existing scheme.”
This barely there aesthetic has seen some contemporary designs reduced to little more than outlines, free from anything deemed superfluous. London-based designer Tim Rundle takes this to the extreme in his Michelle floor mirror (£2,158) for Australian brand SP01. Its tubular steel frame deceives the eye, appearing as nothing more than a thin black line supporting a smoked-glass mirror and marble-topped valet stand. George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of Toronto and New York-based design studio Yabu Pushelberg make no apology for their understated Blink screen (£1,380) and vanity table (£1,590) for Stellar Works. “There is a naïve quality to the collection that is balanced by a clarity of form and simplicity of materials,” Yabu explains.
Significantly, he suggests a wider context to the desire for a bold graphic aesthetic. “Designers are reacting to social shifts and editing down their work to create a quieter form of luxury,” he says. Yet this restrained approach hasn’t deterred creatives such as Antonino Sciortino from taking a highly sculptural approach. The towering backrest and sinuous seat of his Ginestra sofa (£3,610) for Baxter, crafted from slim iron rods, are as engaging as a work of art.
Sculptural interpretations of the graphic aesthetic like this seem to hover alluringly between art and architecture. Michael Anastassiades’ modular Arrangements lighting system (from £905) for Flos is a perfect example of a piece that would be equally at home in an art gallery or residence. The real beauty of the light, nonetheless, is that those who choose it as a centrepiece for their home can interact with it and customise the arrangement using a series of geometric lighting elements – squares, rings, bars and drops – made from black powder-coated aluminium. These links can be strung together as desired without the assistance of a specialist, and the connection system ensures that a continuous power source runs through the entire installation. The effects are both eye‑catching and poetic. “Design is a dialogue – and beginning a conversation with a familiar form is a great introduction,” Anastassiades says. “The challenge is in contributing something new to what is already familiar.”
It’s this flexibility that is fuelling the trend for clean-cut lines, according to Go Modern’s Mahony. “People are drawn to designs that empower them by allowing for freedom of choice,” she says, citing Mogg’s modular Musa shelf (£200 per module) by Alessandro D’Angeli and Zoom sideboard (from £2,180) by Uto Balmoral, which combines concealed and open storage, “while graphic lines lend a certain order to the structure of our busy lives and minds”.
Highly defined lines can also add dynamism to furniture. Giuseppe Viganò’s Leyva bookcase (from £2,130) for Saba Italia incorporates moveable sheet-metal shelves, varying the capacity for storage as the mood suits. Cecilia Xinyu Zhang, meanwhile, exploits graphic details to bring an extra shape-shifting dimension to her Discrete shelf (from £2,960), where a series of dark angled frames support tempered-glass shelves that are almost invisible to the eye – creating the illusion that the upper supports are floating in mid-air. “I played with the arrangements to achieve a visually light and open yet dynamic composition,” she says. “Each seemingly suspended frame defines the edges of an imaginary space. When grouped together, they encourage the viewer to perceive something they wouldn’t usually see.”
Aaron Probyn plays with perspective in a similar way with his Shadow floor lamp (£175) for Habitat, which presents as a picture frame propped casually against the wall, but, once illuminated, is shrouded by a halo of light. “Developments in LED technology allow us to create lighting within the most minimal of profiles,” says Butler. “This lamp becomes an ethereal ‘doorway’ when lit, directing the focus from the piece itself to the interplay of light around it.” It all goes to show, there’s a fine line between practical design and eye-catching spectacle.