4 Sept 2015
Distinctions Between Home and Office Decor Set to Blur Say Designers
The star performers at this year's Clerkenwell Design Week, one of the UK's leading home furnishings showcases, tended toward bespoke items, a resurgence in craft, notably retro stylings and a new whole generation of home/office hybrids.
This year's Clerkenwell Design Week set out to showcase the very latest thinking in the world of fashionable furniture. The clear trend was a notable return to the comforting curves and textures of mid-century design, as well as a growing crossover between home and office interiors, with work/life spaces blurring in many professions.
A growing preference for one-off design pieces, a reaction against mass-produced conformity, was also in evidence. Topping it all off was the incorporation of new technology into traditional materials.
In European design, the economic and political turmoil of the past few years has heralded a return to a furniture and interiors style that could be loosely termed 'mid–century modern'. As a result, the homely optimism of the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s is evident in many of today's interiors.
At the high end of the market, there is also a renewed appreciation of craft and making, a sign of a marked preference for an authenticity rarely seen in factory-produced lines. This trend also favours materials with a certain 'warmth', notably wood and leather, as well as patterned fabrics and wall-coverings. There is also a move towards curves and cushioning as an antidote to the hard hi-tech lines favoured in contemporary design towards the end of the 20th century.
This return to mid-century modernism was all too evident at the 2015 Design Week, a three-day annual design festival held at various venues across London's Clerkenwell district. Crafted wooden chairs with curved backs and squashy sofas were everywhere to be seen, while wood made a notable reappearance in office furniture. Overall, colourful upholstery was the order of the day.
This retrospective styling coincides with advances in technology that have freed consumers to live their lives somewhat differently. These advances have not only changed the processes by which things are made, they have also allowed designers to experiment with techniques and materials in a ways previously unthinkable. Ultimately, they have enabled consumers to blur the edges between work, home and leisure, a trend that has had a significant impact on the design of spaces and the furnishings that fill them. The upshot is that the home comes into the office like never before.
Sebastian Wrong, a British furniture designer, describes the style as 'soft contract', with the home notably encroaching into office furniture design. There is now an eclecticism of materials, he says, and a distinct move away from the all-pervasive white desks, dividers and shelving that became the norm in the 2000s.
A prime example here is New Order, an office storage system created by German designer Stefan Diez for Hay, a Danish furniture manufacturer. This freestanding system has been designed as a grid of shelves, trays with sliding doors and drawers that can be customised to suit individual needs. Surface finishes range from wood and metal to textiles for the acoustics panels.
In another collaboration with Hay, Sebastian Wrong, who cut his teeth at London's Established & Sons, has designed lighting and office seating that move away from the hard edges previously expected in the contract market. As with New Order, the Wrong for Hay collection fulfils the company's desire to revisit the 'innovative greatness' of Danish design in the 1950s and 1960s, but placing it firmly in a contemporary context.
Vitra, the Swiss furniture giant, meanwhile, is revisiting past designs through its Prouvé RAW Office Edition of furniture and lighting. This has seen it collaborate with G-Star RAW to create furniture based on designs by Jean Prouvé, the renowned French designer. This furniture is now in production and embodies a distinctly modern slant on authenticity and nostalgia.
Prouvé, who died in 1984, started his career as a metalworker, but ultimately became a seminal architect and designer, renowned for creating metal furniture for a variety of home and business uses. He was also instrumental in the appointment of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano to design the Pompidou Centre in Paris in the early 1970s.
Vitra's retrospective collection is balanced by a series of 'soft contract' designs, all moving the idea of home to the workplace. The Alcove sofas (designed by French brothers, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec) and the laid-back Waver office chair (courtesy of German designer Konstantin Grcic) all give a sense of the individual rather than the corporate in their choice of materials, colours and soft textures.
Pattern is another trend clearly owning much to the mid-century modern era. It would seem that there has never been a better time to be a textile designer, as patterned fabrics move from high-street fashion into contract furniture, while digital printing has given designers truly free rein to express themselves. There were some nostalgic motifs in evidence at Design Week, a number of them inspired by the 1950s fabrics of two British designers, Lucienne Day and Enid Marx, but, in many instances, these latter-day interpretations were more colourful and more abstract.
A prime example here is the wallpaper of UK-based Timorous Beasties. Though the company draws on the craft of screen printing and rolling, its designers use digital technology to create effects that were previously impossible.
According to Steven Richardson, London Showroom Manager for Timorous Beasties, damask has long been the mainstay of furnishing fabrics. It is traditionally woven and reversible, with the pattern working equally well on either side. It is also ideal for repeating motifs across a length of wallcovering or fabric. Acknowledging its shortcomings, Richardson said: "Everyone loves it, but it's now become a bit boring." Via digital printing, though, designers can now repeat patterns, such as blotches and splotches, which match the contemporary vibe.
Richardson was keen to highlight Timorous Beasties' new Ex Libris range, which recreates the traditional marbling effect to be found in the end pages of books. Marbling, on this scale, can only be achieved cost effectively through digital technology. He said: "We have to design for the process on its own terms. It gives the kind of detail that has been lost since the days of copper- and steel-plate engraving."
Craft isn't solely being recreated digitally, though. There is also an upsurge in interest in authentic one-off furniture pieces. A number of British designers, such as Russell Pinch and Benchmark, the furniture maker established by Sir Terence Conran and Sean Sutcliffe, are now among the leaders in this particular field.
Benchmark has tapped into the movement by promoting hand-making and fixing. It has teamed up with Fixperts, a venture founded by Daniel Charny, the London-based Israeli designer. Fixperts encourages people to repair existing products, using design thinking and low-tech processes, rather than discarding them.
Technology, though, is hard to ignore, with 3D rapid-prototyping remaining in vogue as a means of producing everything from shoes to furniture. While it wasn't too much in evidence in Clerkenwell this year, showstoppers at the Milan furniture fair and elsewhere included shoes for Melissa, an experimental footwear brand created by architect Zaha Hadid.
Technology is also driving innovation in lighting. Explaining its applications in the sector, British designer, Terence Woodgate, said: "It is an exciting time as lighting is now digital, with digital controls by wi-fi and Bluetooth via downloaded apps. Since caveman times, we have used fire to light our way and our homes. Incandescent bulbs are a filament on fire in a gas – in this case, tungsten burning in halogen gas at a temperature of 3,000 degrees.
"LED's are photon-emitting engines. Not only do they emit photons, they do it for up to 25 years, run at just 65 centigrade and use less than 10% of the energy of conventional bulbs."
Woodgate's latest lighting collection, Solid, weds these new LED technologies with more traditional materials, such as marble and wood. He turned to crowd-funding to finance the collection, an increasingly popular means of funding products through design and into production.
Architect, Carlotta Bevilacqua, Vice-President of Artemide, the Milan-based lighting giant, sees lighting technology as inevitably growing. She said: "Light will be the protagonist for the next century."
Inevitably, it seems technological capabilities and a greater awareness of the health and welfare benefits of effective lighting will combine. This may well result in a lighting and technology revolution that will affect design and consumers' lives to the same extent as the digital revolution.
Clerkenwell Design Week took place from 19-21 of May in some 80 showrooms across this fashionable district of central London, showing work from around 300 design companies. Some 35,400 visitors attended the event, a 10% increase over the previous year's show, with the majority of visitors being architects and designers.
Lynda Relph-Knight, Special Correspondent, London