Animal magic

Taxidermy has been shunned for decades, but with a cleaned-up image it is becoming more acceptable again. Part of a Victorian style revival, Dominic Lutyens discovers that its creepiness creates a huge sense of theatre

The first glimmer of today’s trend for the use of taxidermy in interior design came with the opening in 2000 of super-hip restaurant Les Trois Garcons, housed in a former Victorian bar in London’s East End. Masterminded by interior designer and antique dealer Hassan Abdullah, the restaurant’s camp, surreal decor shocked and delighted diners with stuffed tigers and dolphins anthropomorphically bedecked in diamante tiaras and chokers. Three years later, a Bonhams sale of Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s bizarre tableaux of animals was attended by such starry bidders as Damien Hirst and David Bailey. It fetched an impressive £529 900. Soon, other auction houses were selling taxidermy, and prices skyrocketed.

Taxidermy had died a death in the 1970s, at the same time as our social and environmental consciences bloomed. Stuffed animals went the way of fur coats – consigned to skips and attics, beloved only of old ladies and gents out of touch with modern sensibilities. In the early 1990s taxidermy started to creep into the work of cutting-edge fashion designers. Even before Les Trois Garcons, founder of London Taxidermy Alexis Turner started selling stuffed animals 18 years ago to customers including Alexander McQueen, who once festooned his catwalk models with stuffed birds. Today, Turner’s roster of clients includes Liberty, Browns, Asprey, Garrard, London fashion emporium Dover Street Market and Ted Baker, which hire his wares for their merchandising displays. Vogue, Tatler and Vanity Fair now habitually use taxidermy in fashion shoots.

Abdullah’s latest project is the Chateau de la Goujeonnerie, on the west coast of France. For the interior of this short-term holiday let, which opens next spring, he has combined horses’ heads with the horns of a narwhal fish to create unicorn-like creatures.

Interior designer Russell Sage is another long-standing advocate of taxidermy. He is stuffing his current project, London’s The Zetter Townhouse (a new hotel adjacent to The Zetter hotel), with taxidermy bought at a recent sale of the contents of the Isle of Wight’s Brading Experience museum. ’It resembles the extraordinary, obsessive taxidermy collections at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum of archaeology and anthropology,’ says Sage.

Today, in contrast to its extended golden era, taxidermy can only be made from legally obtained specimens that died an accidental death or a natural one, such as roadkill or deceased zoo animals. You also need a licence to buy, sell or even to own some stuffed birds including owls and birds of prey, as well as some types of antique taxidermy.

With such tight controls and a cleaned-up image, ’The public realises that taxidermy isn’t cruel anymore,’ says Turner. ’And its new acceptability has encouraged shops to display it. Then its use by artists like Hirst and Polly Morgan has made it more acceptable still.’

The new wave of fashion, interior and furniture designers using taxidermy includes many who are actively encouraging the shift towards a more humane approach. Former member of 1980s synth-pop group the Thompson Twins, Alannah Currie now designs furniture under the name Miss Pokeno. She has created a velvet armchair incorporating entwined foxes, and a chaise longue with a dead swan draped over the armrest. ’I’m a vegetarian so I did a lot of research to find a taxidermist who uses animals that die naturally or are roadkill,’ she says.

An ethical vegetarian who is into stuffed animals just about sums up the rational moral relationship we now have with taxidermy. And yet taxidermy appeals because of the irrational fears it arouses, with its arresting oddness and its creepiness.

Fashion boutique YMC, in London’s Soho, features framed butterflies and a lamp made out of a puffer fish. It is ’based on Victorian curiosity shops’, says one of the label’s designers Fraser Moss, who also created the interiors. ’We wanted to evoke a slightly dark ambience,’ he says.

Sage also relishes taxidermy’s ’curious quality, particularly when it’s put to unlikely uses – say, a goat’s leg supporting an ashtray. I like the way it’s extraordinarily at odds with modern good taste,’ he says. Currie adds that, ’Taxidermy is part of a recent revival of Victorian style, which is a reaction against minimalism in interiors. There’s a great sense of theatre to it.’ Certainly, theatricality is a key ingredient in the interiors of Ted Baker shops, which use taxidermy because, ’these memorable items engage with and delight customers’, says brand communication director Craig Smith.

One inspiration common to many designers is their childhood memories of taxidermy. Alex Randall, who has created a dramatic cluster of pendant lights made from stuffed pigeons for Ted Baker’s store in Cheapside, London, says she is inspired by her memories of visiting museums, where she’d ’always head for the taxidermy’.

Some design artists combine taxidermy with functionality. Take Jon Male’s cabinet called They All Flew From the Cuckoo’s Nest – a witty museum-like cabinet with stuffed birds perched on top of it, suggesting that they’ve escaped its glass compartments. Likewise, artist Connie Reeves has collaborated with bespoke furniture-maker Hendzel and Hunt to create Pica Pica, an oak cabinet surmounted by a stuffed magpie atop a branch.

This year taxidermy made an entrance into fmcg packaging design when Brewdog encased its The End of History ale in woodland animals.

If Abdullah is to be believed, the vogue for taxidermy still has legs. ’It has longevity because people are finding new ways of incorporating it into their work in clever ways,’ he says. He adds in a valid aside, ’and humans will always be fascinated by animals’.

Latest articles