“Nothing is more modern than antiquity,” said the late, great Karl Lagerfeld, the creative genius behind Chanel and Fendi. Architectures, his first and last collection of functional sculptures, crafted in Nero Marquina and Arabescato Fantastico marble, is an expression of the fashion titan’s signature monochromania in a series of lamps, consoles and mirrors (from €22,000) featuring delicate fluted columns with elegant capitals. “I’m inspired by the perfect proportions of Greek columns. They truly are the standards for beauty,” he declared on unveiling the collection.
Other 21st-century creatives inspired by classical architecture, art and literature, and reinterpretations and riffs on the antique, include Sacha Walckhoff, creative director of Maison Christian Lacroix, Philhellene furniture and ceramics designer Luke Edward Hall and US creator of eccentric artisanalia Jonathan Adler, whose range includes a giant purple foot designed “like a Roman marble ruin on acid”. They are weaving picturesque ruins, myths of gods and heroes, beautiful youths and monsters, and the eternally appealing Greek key motif into their work.
In a film about Architectures for Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Lagerfeld references The Iliad, Homer’s epic on the Trojan War, as one of the first books he recalls reading. “I love Greek mythology,” he says, “and I regret abandoning Ancient Greek when I left school.” Conceived by Lagerfeld, the collection was developed by Aline Asmar d’Amman of the studio Culture in Architecture. The perfection of classical proportions, noble materials and the golden ratio appealed to Lagerfeld, but d’Amman, an architect, harbours a different perspective on antiquity. She has a passion for ancient ruins. “I was born in Lebanon, in a country where history and mythology are omnipresent,” she says. “The greatest architectural influence there is the temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, which dates to 150AD. Coming from a generation of war and demolition before the recent reconstruction, I learnt to find magnificence in ruins.”
“Ancient Roman and Greek buildings inspired almost all the arts when they were rediscovered by the European intelligentsia,” says Lacroix’s Walckhoff, whose furniture collaboration for Roche Bobois has recently been extended and now includes a new botanical print. “Visiting Rome and Athens to improve one’s cultural knowledge was particularly popular among aristocrats and artists on the Grand Tour.” This rite-of-passage trip became popular from the 17th century – and a 19th-century artwork depicting such a jaunt was Walckhoff’s starting point for an earlier Maison Christian Lacroix for Roche Bobois range. The collection includes lacquered wood cabinets (£3,980) and a large six-panel screen (£7,920) depicting vintage prints of elegant tourists inspecting the Roman Forum and the obelisk in Arles – “the lovely Ancient Roman city in the south of France where the house of Lacroix was created”.
New Zealand-born decorative artist Bridie Hall refers to both her home and place of work as “building my own museum inspired by the Grand Tour I never took”. Instead of visiting ancient sites, she haunts the lesser-known reaches of the Greek and Roman architecture galleries at the British Museum, a short walk from her London shop. “My favourite room is located down some stairs near the Parthenon marbles,” she says. “Room 77 is underground and totally tiled – it looks like a municipal swimming pool and is filled with fragments of gigantic column capitals from the second century.” The store she co-founded, Pentreath & Hall, reflects this aesthetic, from plaster casts (the foot of Laocoön, £160) made by Peter Hone to mini obelisks (£165) covered in marbled paper from Parvum Opus, and her own colourful artworks (£100) featuring Attic vases made using her archive of antique prints.
Another superlative source for Grand Tour chic is John Derian’s New York boutique. The découpage artist’s remarkable emporium on East Second Street features a collection of feet ($170 each) cast from sculptures of Greek heroes and divinities, including Hercules, Apollo, Jupiter and Aphrodite, in reconstituted marble and plaster resin. For a more colourful spin on the same theme, Greek brand Sophia creates mini models (Winged Nike of Samothrace in red, €59.90) of sculptures, including the Caryatids of the Erechtheum temple and a bust of Antinous, in shades that harmonise with contemporary decor.
On the first floor of a 17th-century Parisian building in the Ile de la Cité, the apartment of John Coury and Florent Maillard, founders of CM Studio Paris, is a masterclass in creating interiors that include classical elements. The keen collectors have displayed the spoils of their travels against a backdrop of rich colours – from red velvet and green damask upholstery to the green walls and red beams overhead. Among their 16th- and 17th-century oil paintings and giltwood furniture are plaster casts of sculptures, including a favourite artefact: a 19th-century bust of Antinous “rescued” from an antique shop in Lyon. “The gallery specialised in medieval art,” recalls Coury, “and it was the only piece that was not consistent with the rest of the objects on display. It seemed totally lost in a hostile environment and I had the feeling I needed to do something about it!”
Coury and Maillard’s home is spectacular, a truly opulent treatment of a historic interior. Designer Rachel Chudley took an almost opposite but equally alluring approach to combining ancient and modern in a recent London project, when she decorated the Bloomsbury home of playwright Polly Stenham, who had inherited a large collection of antiquities. Stenham’s cherished artefacts set the tone for the project. “There’s a Roman bust – upon which, as a young girl, she drew a moustache and beard in black marker. She defaced it and it’s kind of brilliant,” Chudley says. “That sums up how we approached the house. It’s a Grade II*-listed neoclassical townhouse and she wanted us to pay homage to the beauty of the building but have fun all the way through.” Chudley mixed contemporary and Arts and Crafts furniture with pop art, and sprinkled classical references throughout. “That’s the best thing about classical patterns – they’re so recognisable, they instantly become kind of kitsch,” she says. She sourced the upholstery fabric (Pineapple Frond, £164 per m) with an acanthus leaf-style design from Soane.
If there’s one motif that lends itself to a new interpretation by every generation, it is the meander or Greek key. Jonathan Adler, he of the colossal purple foot, is a superfan. “The thing I really like about the Greek key is that it’s multifunctional. If you do it in a stripped-down, mod way, it feels swinging ’60s Carnaby Street. Or it can add a tailored touch to your sophisticated Chelsea flat,” he says. “It’s graphic, it’s groovy, it’s grand, and it’s been around for a really long time for a reason, so who are we to question it?” Adler uses the symbol on a selection of rugs (from £795), and he is not alone – The Rug Company says its Key Shadow design (from £2,009) remains as popular today as when it was launched more than a decade ago.
Luke Edward Hall, who has created a contemporary key fabric in hues such as pea green and blancmange pink, enjoys taking classical elements and turning up the volume – colourwise. “I like being brave with colourways, which can instantly make things we’ve seen before feel contemporary and exciting,” he says. The artist and designer of interiors, furniture and ceramics has a distinctive drawing style, which brings a vitality to the classical themes that run through his work. “I’ve been a fan of myths, legends and folklore since I was very young – in particular Greek and Roman mythology,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll decorate a vase with a painting of Ganymede and an eagle. I often want the faces and bodies to look like busts or statues because I’m interested in the idea of classical beauty, which is why someone like Antinous fascinates me so much. He was Hadrian’s favourite, famed for his beauty. After he mysteriously drowned in the Nile, a cult was formed in his honour and he was worshipped not only as a hero but as a god.”
The Olympian of the fashion world that springs to mind when talking about the reinvention of classical themes is Gianni Versace. The brand’s logo is Medusa, the Gorgon of ancient myth, encircled by a Greek key border. The monster’s head is also central to the design of Versace’s famous Barocco collection, the range taking its name from the highly ornate style of architecture that came after the Renaissance and before the neoclassical era. Versace’s Medusa is an ancient symbol seen through the prism of 17th-century Italian ornament and then reinvented in the 1990s by a 20th-century design genius – a genealogy so complex as to be worthy of Hesiod’s Theogony.
Barocco continues to thrive in the 21st century in the form of limited edition tableware (Medusa Silver dinner plate, £126.50), issued to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the partnership between Versace and Rosenthal last year. “It’s part of a long tradition,” says artist and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman of Versace’s 1990s reworking of the antique emblem. “Barocco happened to coincide with postmodernism, which was a return to the decoration and motifs of previous periods. Exuberant, over-the-top taste incorporated the past in a radical way. Versace was a hugely influential figure in the rediscovery of classical forms,” he adds. “He came from a tradition of ‘queer’ culture. Some in the community took up these forms and designs as a way of identifying with an era that was comfortable with homosexuality. It probably began in earnest with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who defined classical culture and the appreciation of beauty as a valid expression of ‘alternative’ forms of love.”
Furman’s own treatment of the antique – partly informed by a residency in the British School at Rome – is irreverent. “History is not something you have to touch with white gloves,” he says, describing his approach as “dragging”. “I’m taking a classical form and putting it in drag and bringing it out for a party. I want to make something that’s recognisable and utterly transformed at the same time. I’m injecting extra joy and perhaps a slight naughty bitchiness,” he says. His projects include the Vase of Diocletian, a 3D-printed ceramic; a trio of limited edition vases, Kallisto, Kalliope and Kallistrate (from €3,000), made in collaboration with Bitossi Ceramiche; and The Roman Singularity, a 3D-printed city inspired by the architecture of Rome.
Aline Asmar d’Amman believes that the visual echoes of antiquity surround us in contemporary architecture and design. “Even if you take a place like Las Vegas or Dubai, somewhere built from scratch, what people tend to do is try to materialise something timeless, and that often has a connection to the proportions of an antique building,” she says. It’s a style that’s inescapable, eternally inspiring, the oldest yet the latest thing – which is why the design world is hooked on classicism.