London’s chicest design districts have long been temples of European delights. But things are changing. The venerated brands from Scandinavia and Italy are still there, but now they are being joined by names from the United States. In May 2014, Jonathan Adler, who blazed a trail with his first British store in Kensington in 2011, opened a second one in Notting Hill Gate. In November, Holly Hunt, a major name on the high-end American furniture and interior-design scene, opened her first European store on Mayfair’s Grafton Street. And influential British interior/furniture designer Fiona Barratt-Campbell has just taken on Brooklyn-based lighting designer Bec Brittain – a four-metre-long version of one of Brittain’s Shy lights (price on request) will take centre stage in FBC London’s new showroom-cum-studio, which is scheduled to open in June.
Brittain believes this interest in American design stems from a shift on her side of the Atlantic. “There is a critical mass of American designer-makers at the moment,” she says. “My take is that it’s related to the punk DIY movement of the late 1980s to early 1990s, which has resulted in a generation of designers who are interested in producing their own work by any means necessary and don’t feel the need to wait for others to do it for them. As a result, there is a whole new crop of work for the UK consumer to discover and respond to.”
Sheridan Coakley, founder of SCP, one of Britain’s most innovative and internationally respected manufacturers of contemporary design, was one of the first to start working with this new US breed. He has collaborated with Bec Brittain on pieces that include the Axial pendant light (£300), sells simple modern items by Philadelphia-based studio Lostine (from £115) and has introduced industrial designers Fort Standard to the UK, stocking the brand’s own highly functional designs, such as its Plank chopping boards (£185 each), as well as the pleasingly utilitarian Tenon coffee table (£1,300) made under the SCP banner. “These – largely Brooklyn-based – designer-makers have their roots in the American Arts & Crafts tradition and are highly skilled, with good business sense,” Coakley explains.
SCP is also the only retailer in the UK to stock high-end lighting brand Roll & Hill. Founded in 2010 by Jason Miller, Roll & Hill produces its own collection of hand-assembled, made-to-order lights, as well as those by a roster of highly creative US design studios such as Lindsey Adelman and Rich Brilliant Willing. “Jason Miller is a designer who has turned himself into a serious businessman,” says Coakley. “The Americans are good at that.”
Miller’s 10-globe Modo chandelier (£4,230) has proved to be a bestseller. Painstakingly constructed and custom CNC-milled from solid aluminium, it was inspired by the kind of off-the-shelf parts readily picked up at ordinary lighting stores. The end result, of course, is far from ordinary, but the combination of metal and glass gives this most statement-making of lights an industrial honesty.
Showstopping glamour with an industrial edge is an aesthetic that has long been associated with the lofts of New York, and the rise of skyscraper living in the UK has made the look fashionable on this side of the Atlantic too. “New York City has been a pioneer in setting leading trends,” says Dara Huang, the American founder of Design Haus Liberty, the architectural practice that opened in London in 2012 and which is behind the penthouse at CIT’s South Bank Tower in central London. “The mixture of industrial and luxury materials transformed into an incredible urban loft house has been particularly popular in the UK.” For the South Bank Tower penthouse her team has designed bespoke pieces, including a levitating, blackened-steel table beneath a crystal and brass chandelier.
Lindsey Adelman is another American designer benefiting from the UK’s growing interest in industrial luxe. Her spectacular lighting (Branching Bubbles, price on request) explores the visual tension between organic blown glass and more rational machined components, and it has gone down very well with FBC London’s clientele. “I first saw Lindsey’s work when I was in New York in 2012,” says Barratt-Campbell, “and I was completely blown away, because it was different from anything I had seen in Britain. Lindsey is an industrial designer by trade so her lighting has a very structured, mechanical feel, which is then softened by the blown glass.”
Alison Berger is a designer-maker who also works with metal and blown glass, creating lighting that walks the line between the historical and the contemporary. Fabricated near her design studio in Los Angeles, the Counterweight chandelier (£30,146) incorporates objects from the past to redefine the way we perceive and use chandeliers. “The Counterweight chandelier is a system of wheels, crystal weights and hand-blown-glass pendants,” says Berger. “Each component can be raised or lowered to change the composition’s illumination options, and the overall span of the chandelier varies depending on the placement of the glass wheels in relation to the canopy plate.”
Berger has been exporting to the UK for some years, but the new Holly Hunt showroom in Mayfair is her first bricks-and-mortar outlet in Britain, and she is optimistic about the response. “My work has a timelessness that has always seemed to resonate in the UK,” she says, “but there is now a growing awareness of craftsmanship and materials in the US that chimes with the pursuit of craftsmanship in the UK.” Sheridan Coakley agrees: “There has been a general swing back to an interest in craft in the UK, with American designer-makers producing work that is highly skilled and made from natural components.”
But a transatlantic appreciation of craft is not the whole story. Fiona Barratt-Campbell has also noticed that the British are, at last, beginning to embrace American sizes. “The difference between American lights and those designed in Britain is really the scale,” she says. “Some of those by Lindsey Adelman and Bec Brittain, for instance, are very long and shallow. That hasn’t been popular in the UK until recently.”
Much of this is down to consumer confidence – statement-making lighting and furniture have been a developing trend over the past few years – but the rise of the supersized home is playing a part too. As one feature, Superhouse, reported in the House & Home section of the Financial Times in December, plus-sized homes – ie, properties measuring upwards of 20,000sq ft – are appearing across London and its suburbs. There is a 25,000sq ft pad in Chelsea, extended by interior-design firm Candy & Candy; in Highgate, Witanhurst House is being redeveloped into a superhome measuring 90,000sq ft; while on Piccadilly the former In & Out club building has been turned into a private home spanning 53,426sq ft.
The fact that many of these properties will be owned by an international clientele whose interior designers will be shopping here is another reason why US brands are setting up shop in London. When Holly Hunt decided that it was time to open a store in Europe (she has nine standalone showrooms across the US and one in São Paulo), she was torn between Paris and London. “We went for London largely because of the internationalism,” she says. “Most of our trade clients are working on behalf of a global customer base.”
So this trend may not be about British tastes after all. Perhaps the real reason American designers are coming to the UK is because internationalism has made geographical distinctions meaningless. Globalisation has certainly blurred the lines of location. Easy transport and the permanently open access of the internet have enabled designers to cross-fertilise ideas, a process that has smudged the aesthetic distinctions between countries. As Brittain says: “These days, I see philosophical camps forming among designers more than geographical ones.”
It is a view shared by Gregory Buntain, co-founder of Fort Standard. “The ‘makers’ movement in the US has been strongly rooted in tradition, referencing the quality manufacturing that America was once known for,” he explains. “However, new American designer-makers – and perhaps those from New York in particular – are reaching beyond tradition and creating exciting work in an international context, which is why they are being recognised now.”
On the other hand, potter-turned-homeware designer Adler believes the British market is embracing US design precisely because there are still aesthetic differences between the two countries. “I didn’t anticipate this trend when I launched my first London store in 2011,” he says. “I am just a raging Anglophile and always wanted an excuse to pop over to London, but our Kensington shop has done so well that we decided to open a second one last year. I’m inclined to put it down to the fact that American design is innately sunny and upbeat – think Palm Beach and Malibu with a soupçon of Park Avenue glamour. Despite the fabulosity of British design, it can always use a dash of American optimism.” The design insiders may argue about the cause, but one thing everyone agrees on is that the Americans have come and are here to stay. Which can only be good news for British interiors.