Retro-modern furniture

Furniture designers are drawing on a number of visual motifs from the past century to create elegant hybrids with contemporary originality and flair. Jenny Dalton reports

From far left: Roche Bobois cherry-wood and linden Jim linen chest by Jean-François Marchou, £2,800; beech and cotton Sofia armchair by Studio Roche Bobois, £2,370; walnut Jules cocktail tables by Jean-François Marchou, from £690
From far left: Roche Bobois cherry-wood and linden Jim linen chest by Jean-François Marchou, £2,800; beech and cotton Sofia armchair by Studio Roche Bobois, £2,370; walnut Jules cocktail tables by Jean-François Marchou, from £690

“They’re hybrids,” says designer Tom Faulkner of his slinky, sinuous, metal-based dining chairs, the newest incarnations of which have seen him take the feel of a number of key design periods from the past century – namely the slimline metal cantilever chair of the 1920s and 1930s and the pointy-legged geometry of the 1950s and 1960s – and give them his own upscale twist. “Customers say they have a certain modernist 20th-century feel to them, almost as if they already know the shapes. It’s not conscious. I identify with designers from the early part of the 20th century like Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe for their experimentations with metal. I love Breuer’s original cantilevered metal chair, which was inspired by the handlebars on a bicycle.”

This idea can be discerned, albeit updated, in Faulkner’s super-elegant, vertiginous Vienna chair (from £1,099), which, while sturdy, looks like it might crumple at any moment. Meanwhile, the new bold and graphic Echo (£1,000), Faulkner’s most obviously contemporary design to date, exhibits 1950s pointed legs and a 1930s art-deco shell back made modern. “I wanted to create something more consciously contemporary than my previous designs.”

Giorgetti ash and leather Move rocking armchair by Rossella Pugliatti, from €13,072
Giorgetti ash and leather Move rocking armchair by Rossella Pugliatti, from €13,072

The current appeal of the various decades of the past century, says Faulkner, is that there’s “enough distance between us to fully appreciate the good stuff. The cream always comes to the top.” And the strongest visual statements of the past 100 years are indeed being reappropriated by designers intent on creating new classics, while offering the most up-to-date production methods and materials of today.

Faulkner’s designs are handcrafted to order in his workshops in Wiltshire, which once formed the original railway workshops of Brunel. In contrast to “those designers of the Bauhaus who were interested in providing design for the masses” or “the postwar period, when design was produced very cheaply,” he offers glamorous bespoke finishes and upholstery, including patinated or bronzed metals, or the leather upholstered and gilded dining set recently created for a New York client.

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Similarly, Bethan Gray’s recent Boutique collection of Giò Ponti-like studded leather coffee and side tables, including the new pointy-legged and oval-shaped console/desk/dressing table (£4,020), uses craftsmen to handmake the leather and studded tops of the designs, while the brass bases are precision-machined and then hand-brushed and finished.

Such retro-modern “hybrids” were the overwhelming trend at the Paris design shows earlier this year. For a number of refined, subtly nostalgic collections from the likes of Autoban and Luca Nichetto, it was almost impossible to discern the influencing decades, as they paired luxe materials such as shiny off-yellow velvets with key shapes and motifs of the 20th century.

A Notting Hill duplex designed by Ash Design, including a Julian Chichester cabinet, Jonathan Adler dining chairs and Delightfull lighting
A Notting Hill duplex designed by Ash Design, including a Julian Chichester cabinet, Jonathan Adler dining chairs and Delightfull lighting

Nichetto’s first collection for his eponymous brand featured accents of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, pulled together with deep pastel colours reminiscent of the postwar period, but actually derived from the work of Italian naturalist photographer Massimo Gardone. Standouts in the collection range from a sharp little marble side table (£810) with a lacquered conical top, to the large bergère cocooning Blanche armchair (£6,306) in ash and velvet, via the Dubois bed (£7,254) with its dominant wraparound bedhead and integrated side tables in mid-toned hardwood.

The elegant whole is, says Nichetto, intentionally “timeless: a whole environment of products that work well as an ensemble, but at the same time are easy to mix and match with other elements.” Influences include “American architects of the 1950s, through Scandinavian design and Italian postmodernism.”

Rubelli beech Barbacan chair by Luca Scacchetti, €3,540, in cotton Mirafiore fabric, £174 per m
Rubelli beech Barbacan chair by Luca Scacchetti, €3,540, in cotton Mirafiore fabric, £174 per m

Nichetto’s collection divided opinion, however, and similarly, on first view, Autoban’s generously proportioned Union sofa (from £9,390) and bed (from £6,906), with their curvy carved Danish oil-finished walnut arms complementing ochre velvet, look a little odd. The designers Sefer Çaglar and Seyhan Özdemir were inspired by the rounded curves on cars from the 1930s, as well as the enveloping club chairs from that period. But you can expect these designs to be nothing but growers over the coming months.

More immediately appealing were new works from Portuguese brand Munna – one of the highlights of Paris and an increasingly influential name, with its glamorous handcrafted furniture design that mixes a European contemporary upscale aesthetic with a number of 20th-century references. New designs included the Ferdinand sofa (£9,460,) with curvaceous pre-second world war appeal and a bit of 1970s disco thrown in, and the beautiful Empire folding screen (£4,850), with overtones of the skyscraper architecture of the 1930s, as well as postmodern 20th-century design.

Thonet ash and leather 2002 bentwood sofa by Christian Werner, from £5,775
Thonet ash and leather 2002 bentwood sofa by Christian Werner, from £5,775

Designers’ current propensity for pulling a number of visual motifs from the past century without hesitation or convention, says Munna CEO and creative director Paula Sousa, is influenced to a great extent by what is being called the 1stdibs effect, referencing the influential online antiques marketplace. “This sort of visual access to vintage furniture online has encouraged the revival of a certain aesthetic, and it works in our favour. In effect, technology is democratising beauty,” she says. “People can build an idea around an aesthetic or a period or a designer in minutes on their phones. They can develop their own taste by creating mood boards on Pinterest.” Add to this mix “rich materials and our Portuguese handicraft… Well, heritage speaks volumes. A vinyl record sounds better than an MP3 file. It’s not just the quality, it’s the familiarity.”

It is exactly this feeling of familiarity that design houses are exploiting. Rabih Hage, London-based interior designer and founder of online think tank DeTnk, believes the recent frenzy over 1950s-style furniture has been the result of a nostalgic move for those of us who lived through our parents’ 1950s and 1960s style years, and is part of a purposeful post‑recessionary comfort seeking. Design’s newer love affair with the 1920s and 1930s, meanwhile (DeTnk has focused on art deco continuing to be a major trend for this year and beyond), is another step backwards as we begin to reminisce about our grandparents’ homes. “It’s the new Georgian for our generation,” says Hage, who recently designed an interior for a central London development featuring chairs based on a 1930s design he found in a Paris flea market, which he paired with a Brabbu dining table.

Tom Faulkner metal and chenille Vienna chair, from £1,099. 
Tom Faulkner metal and chenille Vienna chair, from £1,099. 

A similarly wide span of references, from the deco period through to the 1970s, appears in recent projects from Franco-London firm Ash Design, including a recent Notting Hill duplex for an art collector that features pieces by 1970s revivalist Jonathan Adler, contemporary maker “with a traditional influence” Julian Chichester and midcentury-inspired lighting house Delightfull.

Eclectic retro luxe is also at the heart of a number of new collections from high-end Italian design houses. Fendi Casa’s stand at the Paris shows earlier in the year, for example, mixed 1930s, 1960s and 1970s influences to create a super-refined James Bond-like lair, where its Hermann armchair (from $10,530) showed how sophisticated the iconic bergère chair becomes in leather and semi-glossy walnut.

Bethan Gray brass and leather Stud console/desk/dressing table, £4,020
Bethan Gray brass and leather Stud console/desk/dressing table, £4,020

Giorgetti’s recent collection featured much mid-toned timber, plus a reinterpretation of the bentwood rocking chair (from €13,072) – called Move by Rossella Pugliatti. Its perfect hybrid organic, swirling art-nouveau waves coupled with ultra-comfortable padding made it one of the most beautiful chair designs of 2014. And in April, Italian fabric house Rubelli launched its very first handmade furniture collection; it too is a subtly retro-classic, refined mix of eras. Key pieces, designed by Milanese architect Luca Scacchetti as a balance of Venetian exuberance and Milanese restraint, include the rose‑print Barbacan chair (€3,540) with a 1950s silhouette, save for the novel cut‑out back. The legged upright Fórcola cabinet (€8,388), meanwhile, is a simplified glossy modern deco interpretation with extravagant curved handles in black lacquered wood. Scacchetti calls the whole collection “an evocative journey through the forms, colours, lines, surfaces, decorations, the déjà vu, the innovations and the silence of contemporary furniture.”

Elsewhere in Europe, further new twists on the past include Paola Navone’s update of the classic 1950s Ercol beech-framed sofa (from £5,090), which features perky green mismatching upholstery and a sleek zigzag frame.

Fendi Casa walnut and leather Hermann armchair, from $10,530
Fendi Casa walnut and leather Hermann armchair, from $10,530 | Image: Luxury Living Group

There is a similarly discernible simplicity of style in Nika Zupanc’s brand-new furniture designs for Sé, launched at Milan in mid-April. Zupanc has blown up the typical 1950s and 1960s curvaceous chair‑back motifs of the midcentury period, slimmed them considerably and edged them with skinny steel frames, so the overall impression is of lightness and freshness. And Thonet’s just‑launched bentwood sofa (from £5,775) – an update of the historic design – is super-minimal and perfectly proportioned, and is surely poised to become a future classic.

Roche Bobois has just launched collections Archimède, Jim, Jules and Sofia that are all distinctly retro in flavour – in a series of warm cherry wood and linden chairs, chests and cocktail tables (£2,370, £2,800 and from £690 respectively) with tapered legs that have all been hand‑finished and hand‑painted. According to creative director Nicolas Roche, the collections are intended to “bridge the gap” between the brand’s ultra-contemporary and classic designs: “Although they are influenced by the codes of the past and designers like Pierre Guariche, they are designed for today’s lifestyle and people who value premium-quality craftsmanship, luxurious materials and modern-day levels of comfort. Our furniture is custom made and finished in small workshops, so clients can select the fabric, wood finish, patina and colour that suits them best.”

Munna brass and cotton velvet Ferdinand sofa, £9,460
Munna brass and cotton velvet Ferdinand sofa, £9,460

Just like Hage, James Mair, director of London store Viaduct, pinpoints this particular moment in time as being part of a certain post-recessionary cycle that begins with pushing away the excesses of the pre-recession, then turning to the past for comfort. What comes afterwards is a stripping away towards minimalism, before we inevitably move towards excess again. “It’s the pattern I’ve seen time and again with recessions,” he says. And so, attests Mair, we are somewhere in that in-between stage of retro thinking with a nod towards the minimal. He highlights references to Scandinavian modernism, coming through in new pieces by the likes of GamFratesi, the Scandi/Italian duo, and their marble-topped 1930s-inspired TS coffee tables for Gubi (from £349), or the designs of Muller van Severen, an artist and photographer duo from Belgium whose approach to their work – skinny brass- or steel-framed shelving and seating deliberately rusted and lacquered (from £1,800 for their rocking chair to £2,900 for the long table) – has been compared to that of Jean Prouvé. Inspirations, according to the designers, Fien Muller and Hannes van Severen, include artists Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, but, says Mair, for him they possess “a freshness – even their colour palette is for me not derivative – they’re picking up on minimalism and giving it a new twist”.

“The mood is minimal modern,” confirms designer Shalini Misra, whose clients hanker after her retrospective glam interiors, including last year’s witty reinterpretation of a New York diner in a Bloomberg Tower apartment overlooking Central Park (created using bespoke sky-blue leather seating, tapered-leg dining chairs, a Judd-style sideboard by Paul Kelley and a deco-style drinks cabinet) and a new 835sq m Chelsea house full of brass accents, deco touches, lots of dark timber and upscale midcentury lighting. The consistent motifs, says Misra of this new upscale retro cocktail, are “character and depth. And always inherent glamour.”

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For more interiors taking their cue from the past, try these dramatic custom-made pieces from Talisman Bespoke, or the real deal pop-art furniture and 1970s French furniture.

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