Mallett has always been famous for one thing – selling the finest, most recherché, most expensive antiques in the world. It’s one of the UK’s oldest and most illustrious dealers (this year it celebrates its 150th anniversary), supplying antiques to royal families at home and abroad, but, like many a business before it, the ground started to shift beneath its feet. Gradually, it became apparent that tastes were changing – and changing fast. Louis XV and his ilk were no longer the draw they used to be. Those with money – Mallett’s customers in other words – had changed. They were younger and no longer came from old, established families but from emerging economies, new-technology industries and a vast variety of backgrounds. They didn’t want their houses filled with Chippendale dining tables, Sheraton sideboards or Georgian cupboards – what they wanted was the contemporary, the avant-garde, the adventurous.
And so in 2008 Mallett responded in an extraordinarily brave way – it didn’t give up selling high-quality antique furniture and objects but formed alongside this a new company called Meta, which corralled some of the design industry’s most exciting names (Tord Boontje, Barber & Osgerby, Matali Crasset, Hani Rashid) and asked them to think as widely and excitingly as they could. Put another way, Meta was formed to create the antiques of the future, fusing 21st-century design and traditional 18th-century craftsmanship – in other words to do in the 21st century what Chippendale, Sheraton et al had done in their times. The result was some exceptionally memorable pieces. Nobody who ever saw Tord Boontje’s wardrobe ever forgot it. Made out of bronze and enamel with some 616 hand-painted “leaves”, it was a thing of wonder. But while Boontje’s was the most sensationally eye‑catching, the other pieces were all stars in their own way.
Since then Mallett has moved into Ely House on London’s Dover Street, which was originally built as a palace for the Bishop of Ely. Here it is able to display its antiques in great splendour, but among them there will almost always be some highly contemporary pictures, art, objets and furniture – what Eleonore Halluitte, who looks after contemporary design for Mallett, says are “the result of working with wonderful ateliers all over Europe and a growing conversation with designers and makers”.
This month, during the London Design Festival, part of Ely House will be turned into a “Design House”, a curated space showcasing three specially commissioned collections by three very different brands, two of which are relatively unknown in the UK – Tane, an established Mexican silver company, and Calico, a very hip new wallpaper firm that is causing considerable waves in New York. The third, Italian jewellery house Pomellato, is better known but is creating a special Tango Color collection for the exhibition. While the show itself is short-lived (September 21-26), the pieces will still be available to buy after it is over.
The Tane collection is perhaps the most ambitious of the three, Tane being a highly respected 70-year-old company that could be regarded as the Asprey or Tiffany of Mexico, sought after by grand American houses (with the Kennedys and Oscar de la Renta among collectors). It used to make mostly high-quality silver jewellery, but five years ago it was bought by Alberto Baillères, head of Grupo Bal – a large industrial conglomerate that owns one of Mexico’s largest silver mines – who wanted to expand the tableware and hollowware side. To that end, he approached Bodo Sperlein, a highly regarded designer known for his refined aesthetic and exquisitely delicate porcelain. “Mr Baillères wanted to make silver sexy again,” says Sperlein, “to encourage people to have more of it in their homes and to use it more. I decided to make the sort of pieces people would want to pass on to their children – new heirlooms in other words.”
There are now some 40 different designs (all price on request), many of them extremely beautiful, all of them functional. There is a very lovely tea strainer and a little dish to rest it on; a creamer; adorable Pearl spoons; and Dune Bowls in three sizes, the folds in the silver resembling the way sand falls in dunes. Candlesticks are quite unlike anything the Georgians had in mind, and salt and pepper grinders are beautifully reimagined. The most elaborate pieces – a Voliere teapot and Symphony beakers – are made using the vermeil technique, combining silver and gold.
Then we come to Calico, the enterprising New York wallpaper company founded by Nicholas and Rachel Cope. First, Rachel came upon some centuries’-old hand-painted marbleised papers and started experimenting with ways to reproduce them; then Nicholas began to enlarge and manipulate them digitally so that they could be produced on a scale suitable for architecture. Traditionally, such papers came only in small sheets, but Nicholas’s technology meant that whole walls could be covered in a continuous pattern without the need for repeats. Until Calico came along these effects could only be achieved by hand-painting. “We suddenly realised,” says Nicholas, “that there was a gap in the market – few people seemed to be exploring the age-old craft of landscape wallpaper design without repeats and nobody was utilising the latest breakthroughs in digital printing techniques. We felt that by coupling handmade artwork and futuristic imaging technology, we could create a dynamic product that seems timeless.”
They drew on ancient marbling methods such as suminagashi (from Japan) and ebru (from Turkey), and out of them have created something extraordinarily contemporary. When their first collections – Wabi and Lunaris – were shown in 2013, they were seized upon by interior designers and architects. New collections (£220 per sq m) such as Aurora seem to wash the walls in waves of colour, while Willow features delicate fronds drifting against what I take to be the cosmos. Amy Lau, a Manhattan interior designer and co-founder of the Design Miami fair, loves Calico: “They have taken this ancient craft and used modern methods to give it fresh colourways and a timeless look. This spectacular technique can now be scaled onto artistic wall installations with infinite possibilities.”
Designer Tom Dixon is another fan. “The wallpaper is psychedelic and traditional at the same time – no mean feat – and it’s made with real passion,” he says. Fashionable New York designer Celerie Kemble adds, “There is something amazing about a wallpaper that can walk the line between fashion bitch and mad scientist. I love it.”
Finally, there’s Pomellato, a Milan-based jeweller that we have featured quite often in How To Spend It. Halluitte was clear that they wanted a jeweller for this exhibition and it was Pomellato’s workshops and the skills of its craftsmen that sealed the deal. “We wanted a company that was respectful of the crafts, that was pushing boundaries and challenging designers all the time – Pomellato was doing all that.” The marque will be showing a reworked collection of its well-known chain-link gourmette bracelets (from £33,000 to £78,800), where each link is covered with a pavé of hundreds of gemstones. Among them are some rare, spectacular stones of which the most precious is the Paraíba tourmaline, which comes from a tiny mine in Brazil in extraordinary shades of blue ranging from electric to pale (due to the presence of copper and manganese in the seam). There are also rare iridescent garnets from Madagascar and Tanzania, which come in a mysterious shade that changes from purple to blue-green depending on the light, as well as mint-green demantoids, red rubies, blue sapphires, orange sapphires, aquamarines and emeralds. It takes some 800 stones to create a single bracelet, each of which is made to order, and every tiny stone is cut to optimise its effect; the skill required to bring this off is immense and a mere three out of the 100 Pomellato craftsmen is capable of doing this kind of work.
So here then will be three companies each doing extraordinary yet very different things – an experience not to be missed. As for Mallett, it is a further step along the way to introducing customers, both old and new, to the sort of thrilling designs for which it has always been famous. And while the aesthetic may be changing, the old-fashioned values of innovation, creation and fine craftsmanship will remain the bedrock of all that it does.