Swell Decoration

The renaissance in furniture has finally hit the UK; a Philippe Starck chair now has as much kudos as an Armani suit, says Jessica Cargill-Thompson. And now that shops are supporting this new wave of activity, her advice is to cash in while you can.

Two years ago anyone looking for modern design would have had to trek off to the far reaches of London’s Tottenham Court or King’s roads, or content themselves with flicking through the ever-thinning pages of the specialist design press.

Now it seems almost impossible to walk down the high street or open a consumer magazine without having the latest must-have designer products paraded before your eyes. Where people once relied on clothes to express their identity, now a Philippe Starck chair communicates as much as an Armani suit. For the moment, at least, the designer is king.

“People are much more receptive to modern design than we’d anticipated when we started out,” says Jay Osgerby of architect and designer Barber Osgerby. “When I was at college it was thought to be impossible to sell anything modern. Now the barriers have come down.” Set up 18 months ago by two Royal College of Art graduates, the practice has enjoyed a modicum of success with its laminated ply Loop coffee table and is now working on a range of furniture for the Conran Shop.

This enthusiasm for modern design happily coincides with a long-awaited economic upturn. People are becoming more liberal with their disposable income and as the housing market thaws, there is a demand for fashionable products with which to furnish new homes. In response, shops are springing up while the old stalwarts consider dramatic expansion.

Following a stock market flotation on 24 March, Heal’s is planning an expansion programme which includes opening 12 new stores at a rate of one a year. Earmarked for the first new branches are Glasgow and Manchester, although Heal’s says it will also be looking at prosperous provincial centres such as Oxford and Bath.

“Furniture and fashion are moving much closer together,” explains a spokeswoman for Heal’s. “People have a greater awareness of house style as part of their lifestyle. What they eat off and what they are sitting on make as much of a statement as who they are and what they wear.”

Meanwhile, Terence Conran, the man held almost single-handedly responsible for a similar lifestyle shopping boom two decades ago, will open a new branch of the Conran Shop in London’s Marylebone High Street this October.

The expansion of these originally London-based stores will introduce modern design to areas of the UK that it has previously bypassed. Outside London, its main outlets are to be in Glasgow and Manchester.

In Glasgow, the design scene is quite self contained, with emphasis on local designers. There are a variety of initiatives aimed at promoting local talent, but still remarkably few outlets for foreigners. The main outlets are still department store Frasers, In House, and the annual Lapland venture when a group of Glasgow designers take over an empty space to sell their wares to the Christmas shoppers. Nice House is expanding its branch in the Italian Centre, and last October opened a second store in the House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow. Owner Andy Harrold also dedicates space to a collection called Produce which is comprised of work by Glasgow designers.

Sarah Gaventa of Glasgow 1999 comments: “Fashion is incredible in Glasgow – we’ve got the biggest Versace outlet outside Milan. But it’s been slow for people to open design shops on a similar scale.”

However, Glasgow’s status as City of Architecture and Design 1999 is giving the city’s design an added impetus. Gaventa hopes that the organisation’s planned exhibition of Glasgow design at this year’s 100% Design Show will help open up the market.

Despite its hip image, Manchester has very little in the way of modern design outlets. Greg Harmandian, one half of the young consultancy Solid, says: “I thought we’d do well in a place like Manchester, but it’s been a struggle. We’ve had more success in Glasgow, but it’s been slow.”

In general young furniture designers do not consider the UK to be their main market, finding more opportunities abroad, particularly in Japan, the US and continental Europe. “Modern furniture sells better in Greece than it does here,” remarks Harmandian.

In central Paris, the hip new boutique Colette has a mix of clothing and furniture, with enough shelf room for work by several British designers. Procter Rihl’s brightly coloured Perspex coffee tables and a sofa by Michael Young sit happily alongside Philip Treacy hats and clothing by top international designers. Even the space itself – minimal white walls, a grey slate floor and metallic display podia – is designed to contribute to the overall lifestyle aesthetic.

Major fashion designers are also pushing back the frocks and suits to make room for furniture and household items. Calvin Klein’s Homewares range will be available in the UK at the end of the year when the fashion house opens its new store in London’s Sloane Square; Prada plans to launch its home furnishings division in 1998 and Agent Provocateur, Soho purveyor of erotic undergarments, is selling Edra furniture.

“People want to reflect their style and taste in the objects around them, so it makes sense that they might want to look at furniture at the same time as clothes,” says furniture designer Jane Atfield, whose recycled plastics RCP2 chair is retailing in Paul Smith’s children’s shop. “People do spend a lot on fashion items. For those people who are going to spend 200 on a dress, by comparison if they then spend 200 on a chair they think they’re getting a real bargain.”

As part of its tenth anniversary celebrations last autumn, American Retro cleared the basement of its Old Compton Street shop in London’s Soho to create a new department, House, described as being “dedicated to the fun and funky home”. Although the shop has always sold accessories and gift items, this new venture puts the emphasis firmly on design.

Owner Sue Tahran is a long- time champion of new designers. Nick Crosbie of Inflate confirms: “She was the first person to stock our stuff, even when it was handmade and looked really shabby.” Now the company’s whimsical inflatables sell well in Japan, the US and on the Continent.

Other designers under the shop’s patronage include Atfield (milk bottle candle sticks), Azumi, Gillies Jones (glasswear), and Function (plastic mouse doorstops). Every three weeks one of the designers is given the opportunity to create a window of their work.

Unfortunately, the size of the shop means that for all her good intentions, there is a limit to what Tahran can achieve. “The problem is that people have ideas but to actually put them into production is a major problem,” she says. “All the manufacturers want orders of at least 10 000. Unless it’s a craft-based product, it’s very difficult to be innovative with modern design.”

Solid has created Trellick and Tower shelving for Heal’s, the Portobello table for Purves & Purves, and Beep cabinets for the Conran Shop. Harmandian explains: “Companies such as Heal’s and Purves & Purves are really willing to let young designers put their work in their shops. In a lot of places, you have to have a name before they’ll look at you.”

Despite the consultancy’s own success, Harmandian thinks that conditions are still tough for new designers in this country.

“Modern furniture is still quite a struggle in the UK. We find that what we do appeals mainly to young people and foreigners. The British market is still living in the past.”

These sentiments are echoed by Inflate’s Nick Crosbie, who tends to look abroad to market his product. “The UK is so far behind the rest of Europe, we would have to run for the next century to catch up.”

In a bid to help other young designers, Crosbie is launching a collection of work by six young London consultancies, including Inflate, working on the philosophy that there is power in numbers. Called Charging – “as in run headfirst and as in making cash” – its emphasis will be on affordable products and it will use Inflate’s new contacts to help others get their designs made. So watch this space.

It will be a long time before London has the same design consciousness as Milan, but we are certainly witnessing a renaissance of modern design. Catch it while you can.

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