Sexy, voluptuous, gorgeous, exotic, theatrical… adjectives rarely associated with furniture, especially contemporary furniture. But the tables, consoles, chests of drawers and mirrors produced by Lilli Curtiss could never be described as understated. ‘I love playing-up the sexy, curvy, female aspects of the designs. A female furniture-maker is pretty rare, and I like the way that there’s no mistaking the fact that a woman is behind the designs,’ she says. Her work is now split between sales to the public – mostly through Harrods – and contract furnishing for bars, hotels and restaurants, such as recent fit-outs for the All Bar One and Pitcher & Piano chains.
Curtiss trained as a furniture restorer and a gilder. ‘I know it’s unfortunate being a gilder called Lilli, but I don’t want to change my job or my name.’ After working for a couple of restoration firms, the time came for a change. ‘I wanted to try my hand at producing my own furniture designs – I’m a frustrated sculptor at heart – and experimenting with different finishes.’
Lilli Curtiss Designs was established at the start of the Nineties, specialising in contemporary furniture constructed using traditional cabinet-making techniques. A new collection of around a dozen pieces is launched each year. ‘The latest uses oak, sycamore and ebony, with lots of inlaid work and, of course, the gilding. Sometimes people order what they’ve seen, but more often the collection acts as a point of inspiration, so clients order a variation on the theme.’ One of the most stunning pieces is a drum-top games table called Mirth. ‘This is an oak table with an oak burr top into which is set the removable games board with squares in ebony and sycamore. The legs are finished with white gold gilding.’ This highly-wrought cabinet-making work is carried out in a workshop in Dorset.
Gilding has become a Curtiss trademark and along with producing the designs, this is where she is hands-on in the finishing workshop in south London. ‘I’ve experimented for years with different chemical treatments on metal leaf to achieve a huge variety of colours and textures and effects. Gilding has such richness it’s impossible to recreate it in any other way. It has never gone out of fashion and we’ve applied it in all sorts of ways, not just on furniture but also on walls and ceilings,’ she says. This trademark finish appears most often on her ornate mirror designs which can be seen in the bar chains. The mirrors have become a signature product, with the company even producing its own verre eglomise mirror glass. Her latest challenge is the toughest yet – a 5.5m long mirror of three interlocking circles made from a single piece of glass for the Pitcher & Piano in Islington, north London.