Swatch watch

Traditionally safe and dull, the colours used to upholster contract furniture are following fashion and brightening up fast. José Manser investigates the current trends

There are several organisations predicting colour trends in the contract furnishing world, just as there are in other fields, such as fashion. And when it comes to the colours which will infiltrate our offices, boardrooms, reception areas and hotel lounges, these predictions are self-fulfilling. Talking to those who gather round selection tables once or twice a year, it is clear that science lurks far behind insider knowledge and instinct in the analytical procedure.

Designer Jean Clements, for instance, is in charge of colour forecasting at the Wools of New Zealand Development Centre in Ilkley, and has been for almost 20 years. She sits on the boards of both the International Colour Authority and of Decosit, and consults manufacturers, visits major exhibitions, and simply observes life around her when reaching her conclusions.

Another designer, colour specialist Lynda Barron, runs her own consultancy, Barron Gould, which has the likes of Du Pont and Herman Miller on its client list. She has a disconcerting alertness to shifts of opinion and taste in all worlds, ranging from business to theatre.

The Colour Group is an association of consultants and designers working in or for industry. Each year they issue an edict on the way they see colour shifts in their areas of involvement. Management Director Teresa Collins explains how after thrice-yearly meetings, when influences such as the importance of the Far East are discussed, a consensus is reached.

Not surprisingly, since their sources are similar, all these groups have come to gratifyingly homogeneous conclusions about the fabric colours seen to be emerging currently in the contract furnishing world. And, as surely as they make their predictions and word of them gets round, so shall it be. Watch out then for bright, light colours in office, bar and waiting room. Stronger than pastels, these are uninhibited and entirely without the dulling hint of sludge found in upholstery colours in the past. As they say in the fashion trade: think Fritz Hansen and the colour ranges in which it long produced its Minsker and Series 7 wooden chairs.

Of these bright new shades, Jean Clements says: “These are going to form accent colours… just a piece in the whole jigsaw. I think it’s partly because the younger generation of managers and designers want it. The time is definitely right.” Teresa Collins’ Colour Group is making the same prediction, though, like the others, she is aware of the continuing importance of natural colours. “This time round,” she says, “naturals will be used in a much more sophisticated way. Apart from that, the colours are purer and very much brighter in contract upholstery. There will be yellows and some lovely deep sea marines.” As Lynda Barron says, these are colours which have been strong in fashion, “now they’re coming through in contract areas too, certainly in Europe”.

Emma Rickards of Weaveplan, the textile consultancy which deals with the structure as well as the colour of fabrics, takes a measured but essentially similar view. “Neutrals are still terrifically important, although now they are often burnished or watery, much richer. In addition, colour is becoming simpler. It’s to do with the more textured look which makes the trim and the finish important,” she says.

Meantime, you are almost inevitably sitting on an office chair upholstered in grey, brown or beige. Restrain your irritation. Even here, perceptible changes are occurring. Pale blue and soft rose pink entered the upholstery spectrum a year or two back, and there are bright red seats in my local Lloyds Bank. In Vitra’s London showroom you can see machine operators’ chairs with orange seats and bright blue backs, and the odd Figura chair with clear turquoise covers is spot on. At Knoll, chairs to go with last year’s delightfully coloured Soho system are offered in such deliciously unbureaucratic colours as tomato, peacock, bright yellow and bluebird. And ad agencies and restaurants are starting to show an interest too.

If exhibitions indicate future trends, last year’s Orgatec in Cologne and London’s recent Spectrum gave a clear colour message. Hazel Mylius describes the terrific response Hitch/Mylius got when it covered all the furniture it showed at Spectrum in plain, jew-jaw bright fabrics by the Danish firm Kvadrat. Certainly, the Nigel Coates and Sarah Jane Wakely designs which it had commissioned – small, rounded and perky in a contemporary manner – were enhanced by this courageous treatment. These new colours are coming in across the board: in prints and weaves, in woollen, cotton and synthetic fabrics, and in mixtures. And as more adventurous and alert customers begin to specify, the message is disseminated. The office – once grim, greige and rebarbative – is no longer to be isolated from the rest of life.

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