Screens are modern if they surprise you,” says Zoé Ouvrier, artist and creator of the most unexpected of screens – hand-carved, double-sided, wooden folding designs, featuring tree trunks and forests, each of which takes approximately six weeks to create in her Paris studio. Her creations (from £16,000) – which she describes as “having their own sensuality, their own story; these are things that give the screen an added value” – are sold in the UK via Gallery Fumi, and are bought as much for their beauty as for their functionality. Currently, Ouvrier’s work occupies a niche in the interiors industry, which she herself is surprised hasn’t been exploited further. But she knows this will not be the case for much longer. “For now I’m pleased that my designs have their own place. But for a few years screens have been making a comeback,” she says.
Ouvrier is a key player in this renaissance of interest in a product that interior designer Martin Brudnizki describes as “a wonderfully versatile piece of furniture, which is both functional and decorative”. Alongside Ouvrier is furniture brand Ochre, whose first screen – a lush, vellum-covered folding number (£11,700) – was designed in 2000 because owners Joanna Bibby, Harriet Maxwell Macdonald and Solenne de la Fouchardiere “make what we like and need”. It was followed by a horsehair screen, newly available in a pretty pale pink (from £5,500).
And then there is the work of O’Hare & D’Jafer, the London-based design studio, whose work includes the dramatic Veil, a cut mahogany patterned screen (from £4,950), and Walpole, a cut burr walnut design encased in Plexiglas (from £5,950). Equally enchanting are the flower-strewn leather appliqué folding screens (from £2,400 to order) by accessories designer Susannah Hunter.
At growing international brand Boca do Lobo, creative director Marco Costa has fallen in love with the screen, a piece of furniture he sees as vastly underrated. As a result, it already has three designs among its directional furniture collection, including Gold (€13,900), where giant fibreglass and gold-leaf “pebbles” are linked together on a folding screen, and Avenue (€3,600), a large, solid example made of six rotating panels finished in gold leaf, black lacquer and walnut mosaic and ebony veneers.
Other supporters include interior designer David Collins, who remembers using a screen in his very first project, and is often asked to come up with designs for clients that recreate the ornate blue walls of his Blue Bar at the Berkeley. For Collins, the product is nothing new. In fact, he explains, the modern screen is a reinterpretation of age-old influences stemming from Asia and the Middle East – where it was conceived as a means of enhancing privacy, or as a figurative extension of the Islamic veil – as well as the west’s own ecclesiastical confessional heritage. Screens, he says, reached their decorative peak in the western world in the early 20th century, thanks to Paris-based art dealer Siegfried Bing – who popularised Japanese and art nouveau style in Europe – and Eileen Gray, whose original 1920s block-style screens now attract auction estimates of more than $1m (Aram produces Gray’s black hand-lacquered version, £34,950). But Collins sees them as increasingly pertinent today. “I wouldn’t describe screens as being modern, because they have such history, but they are relevant,” he says.
Collins’s clients often require fabulous, light-filled open-plan living spaces, “but they want them to feel warm and cosy, too”, he explains. In such circumstances he utilises screens as a “visual wrap or shawl”, such as in a recent living room where he positioned low-level timber concertina screens either side of a fireplace, and in another where he used a warmly coloured vintage screen by Pierre Bobot as a statement accent. Seating areas can seem to float otherwise, he warns. “Screens are mostly a visual stop in a space. We use them as a way of transitioning from one area to another – a visual pause mark.”
Similarly, Brudnizki introduced a shagreen and bronze screen into a recent home in Germany, to break up a large open-plan living room, dining room and snug. “Even though it didn’t stretch from wall to wall, the screen helped to visually create two distinct areas,” he says. “It brought intimacy and privacy to the snug area without cutting it off from the rest of the house, while the screen’s opulent materials introduced a sense of luxury. In essence, a screen is architectural, and I’m interested in the way it dissects space and changes the structure of a room.”
At Ligne Roset, creative director Michel Roset introduced his first screen, Endless (from £760), an extendable fabric-covered screen, in 2008, following it with the Bouroullec brothers’ experimental and modular Clouds screening system (£299) in 2010. His newest design, Alfred (£1,162), by French collective Numéro 111, plays on the idea of the modesty screen but is essentially about space definition. Formed from an asymmetric wooden frame juxtaposed with a heavy felted panel, half of the screen is left open and uncovered. It is intentionally domestic in scale, with just two folds, making it perfect for smaller homes. “It’s interesting that the primary function of the screen was to create privacy to change behind, and that it is now a piece of furniture that creates a divide within the room,” says Roset. “Modern-day living requires multifunctional rooms.”
Valerio Capo, director of Gallery Fumi, says that the growing trend for screens is due to people wanting to define their spaces more successfully – no matter what size they are. “With something such as Zoé Ouvrier’s screens, they’re so large and dramatic that they function as an art piece,” he says. “Clients tell us they find them incredibly poetic and that the sheer amount of work involved – particularly in her engraved wooden screens – is a talking point. But I’ve also noted screens being used in small spaces, to help create an office or living area within a room. A great design I saw recently was at the Eindhoven Design Academy – it was a screen with pockets on one side as extra storage. It was a more practical take on the idea, but still attractive.”
Another innovative Eindhoven graduate, Thijmen van der Steen, made headlines last year with the custom Fading Desk (from £930), which features a graduated voile screen positioned around a desktop that closes fully when you have finished working to form a cupboard. Ligne Roset also has a similar take on desk cocooning with its screened Re-Write desk by GamFratesi (£1,784), which has a curvaceous Kvadrat woollen “hood” around the top, to act as a sound and visual barrier. Such experimentation is part of what David Collins cites as the screen’s ample creative scope, in terms of usage, visual play and materials.
A recent work by Micromacro Lab, a design studio based in China and run by an Italian designer, is fashioned from the industrial steel bars that usually act as internal building supports. This ordinary material is transformed into an elegant object in a series of graphic, folding screens (from £650) that play on traditional Chinese motifs. Another inventive approach comes from Georgina Brett Chinnery, who works with hand-tooled leather roses on curvaceous screens (from £6,200), while Sanghoon Kim’s limited-edition semitransparent Phenomena screen (price on request) is a sinuous curve of lacquered natural ash. And LA-based Robert Kuo’s designs are both super-quirky and beautifully emphatic, with black lacquer two-fold screens featuring either a single large pear or apple relief on one of the panels (£6,840).
Yet despite designers favouring screens, it’s worth noting that they do require some skill to manage – they often need to be commissioned to fit the space, says Collins. Brudnizki agrees: “It’s hard to source a good screen without it looking like it’s from a bygone era. You really need it to be made bespoke. The quality of the material and the details of the design really matter.”
But if Costa has his way, we will all shortly be embracing the screen at home. “A screen can change an entire room in an instant,” he says. “It provides decoration as well as multiple functions, since lighter ones can be moved from room to room. I think it was the versatility of this design object that compelled me to create one, and then another and another. Every home should have at least one.”