Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. A design classic can, for example, lose its lustre if over-exposed. Bulk orders by hotels and mass “inspired by” reproductions can turn even a Bauhaus masterpiece into a cliché. Which may be one of the reasons why canny manufacturers are updating their classic creations with contemporary twists – often by creating limited editions finished in new and unusual textiles, or by letting artists treat the original object as a blank canvas. The most successful results offer a different perspective on a piece, allowing us to appreciate its strengths afresh.
The element of surprise is integral to these editions. On the second floor of the new London branch of US design store Espasso, located at 19 Greek Street, you’ll find a vintage Niemeyer Rio chaise longue but also a brand-new Sergio Rodrigues Mole chair (£8,380). If there’s a South American counterpart to the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the Mole chair – which first appeared in 1961 – is it. With its muscular, rounded, Flintstones-style wooden frame and overstuffed, customarily brown leather upholstery, it’s every inch a classic. At Espasso, however, it looks radical; its frame ebonised, its leather upholstery dazzling white. “It’s softer, more modern and accessible,” says Marc Peridis, creative director of the 19 Greek Street store. “It looks like an open flower. It would be great for a contemporary bedroom – it’s big and comfortable and doesn’t look overpowering.” Espasso also offers a service to upholster the Mole in anything you like: you could, in theory, cover the whole thing in a Liberty peacock-feather print.
This year, Ligne Roset is celebrating 40 years of the production of its bestselling sofa, the Togo, and to mark the anniversary a new version is being produced. With an artful slouch that looks as though an Italian futurist has attempted to reinvent the beanbag, it is one of the company’s most innovative designs, and has now been reimagined in a heavy velvet brocade (from £1,411), bringing something strikingly retro to something that still looks radically modern. “Our company is based in Lyon and this Lyonnaise style of rich velvet and brocade was revived in the 1970s, which was when we presented the Togo for the first time,” says Ligne Roset’s creative director, Michel Roset. “Using it now provides an interesting twist on revitalising a vintage design.”
The Glasgow-based textile design company Timorous Beasties, known for its subversive fabrics featuring gargoyles and devils, recently collaborated with ultra-traditional British woodwork company Ercol on a series of updates of its 1950s classics. The Ercol Studio Couch, for example, is made to look absolutely of the moment using the Westminster Skaters print of urban silhouettes (from £2,090). “These collaborations are great for us,” says Paul Simmons, designer at Timorous Beasties, “and allow both parties to bring something new to the table.”
For a period, Knoll produced a range of camouflage/graffiti-print textiles by the late fashion designer Stephen Sprouse. He launched his now-discontinued range in 2003 by adorning classic Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs with his distinctive thick black lettering. “That series set the stage,” says Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s executive vice president of design. “In a way, it gave permission to explore the juxtaposition of iconography, materials and finishes.” The Sprouse fabric was a favourite of designers who were looking for a shorthand way of bringing a bold new twist to an interior.
More recently, Knoll has introduced sumptuous, restrained luxury to another classic design, producing a limited edition of 100 of Eero Saarinen’s Womb chairs in Loro Piana cashmere (£5,995). “There are times when a limited-edition piece offers an incredible way to signal a sense of contemporaneity,” says Pardo. “This was one of those moments.” Knoll has also been producing Marcel Breuer’s Laccio tables with bright-red surfaces (from £390), which Pardo sees as “a way to animate a space”.
The Laccio tables sit well within the stock at The Lollipop Shoppe in London, which specialises in design classics with new twists. It retails Hans Wegner’s Wishbone Chair (£564) in four different shades – along with an Energy edition, which features a hand-woven seat consisting of more than 120m of paper cord. Each version brings a colourful update to stark Scandic modernism without overwhelming the strength of its lines. “The chair has a simplicity to it that has weathered the storm of fashion and trends,” says Marco Di Rienzo, the store’s co-founder. The shop also sells brightly coloured versions of the Artek 60 stool (from £167), that seemingly omnipresent piece of Bauhaus-era design. This year marks the design’s 80th anniversary and Artek has produced a new range in the muted colours that Finnish designer Alvar Aalto used to decorate his groundbreaking Paimio Sanatorium building – turquoise, orange, green, black and white. The company has also produced special editions that will be on sale this spring: a black and white polka-dotted version by Rei Kawakubo (£240), and one by Nao Tamura using a blackened cross-section of an 80-year-old tree (£240).
Another company injecting pattern into its iconic designs is E15, a German furniture brand that specialises in solid wood furniture with a stark, architectural line to it, and which has developed a cult following among minimalists. The brand recently issued two of its simplest table designs in new limited editions (£6,000 each), adorned with prints by fashion designers. French label Kitsuné updated the brand’s TA08 Fabian table with a black chequered pattern, while Bernhard Willhelm decorated the TA01 Ponte with hundreds of coloured dots. “These individual interactions were meant to bring a new, inspiring, almost amusing aspect to a quality-executed product that is otherwise stark and sober,” says Philipp Mainzer, E15’s managing and creative director.
Many design classics have an austere, often industrial edge to them that doesn’t work for all environments or tastes. Some of the current “twists” are about softening their appeal. Ernest Race’s Antelope (from £360) and Race Rocker chairs (from £714), for example, are as linked in the public imagination with Festival of Britain-era design as the Skylon and the Southbank Centre. They’re beautiful, but their svelte, metal-rod construction has kept them firmly in the garden or conservatory. Now Race Furniture produces them in a multitude of colours and fabrics, and can also create bespoke versions in the customer’s choice of fabric. “It brings a freshness and new personality to them,” says Race’s managing director Stuart Finlator.
Some updated designs are particularly subtle. When fashion brand G-Star collaborated with Vitra on a range of Jean Prouvé classics, for example, the pieces remained monochrome, but in softer greys; and in its version of the 1947 Potence wall-light that Prouvé designed with Charlotte Perriand, the bulb socket was brass instead of black (piece not for sale). The Conran Shop currently stocks updates of Perriand’s 1962 Applique à Volet Pivotant lights (£240) in blue, red and yellow as well as its typical grey. The simplicity of the piece – essentially a pivoting screen that can be shifted to create beams of light of different sizes and angles – remains intact. Conran also stocks the 302 Ceiling Arm Light (£379), originally designed by Bernard-Albin Gras in 1921 to illuminate factory workers’ stations but now manufactured in red.
Few lighting designs are as iconic as the Anglepoise, which has the reassuring lack of visual fuss that distinguishes the best of British vintage design. Fashion designer Margaret Howell recently worked with the brand on a new edition of the Anglepoise Type 75, which comes in a muted yellow ochre with a matte finish, in a table version (£120) that can be turned into a floor lamp with the addition of a stand (£63). Think of it as urbane, warmed-up minimalism. “Margaret is a great advocate of modernist British design,” says Simon Terry, innovation and brand director and the great-great grandson of Anglepoise’s founder. “As a fashion designer she understands the importance of colour and its relation to classic pieces.”
As with Knoll’s work with Stephen Sprouse and Loro Piana, and E15’s with Kitsuné and Bernhard Willhelm, collaborating with a fashion designer makes perfect sense when it comes to bringing a fresh eye to a classic piece. Interior designer Ralph Pucci has worked with fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo on numerous projects and recently invited Toledo to bring his illustrations to some particularly restrained pieces of furniture. The artist – also husband of and collaborator with fashion designer Isabel Toledo – created chic black and white portraits and images of eyes that feature on dining armchairs ($15,000), tables ($30,000) and coffee tables ($18,000). What was once a set of simple and luxurious modern classics has become exceptional. “Ruben’s art makes the furniture magical,” says Pucci. “It adds energy, excitement and emotion. Without his art, the pieces are still timeless, modern and very practical; but with it they become investment pieces. This is furniture that will be cherished and handed down.” While adding new, inspired elements to classic pieces won’t necessarily turn them into a major investment, the most stylish examples will always be special. They shake things up and make us see established classics as new again.