Curiouser & curiouser (FT How to Spend it)

Window dressing is largely about storytelling. The festive displays at New York and London department stores are grand static theatre, while fashion designers have risen to fairy‑tale acclaim following debuts behind the glass at Browns on South Molton Street. One of the most influential window spaces in the world is at Dover Street Market, the London offshoot of the avant-garde Comme des Garçons style empire. The store is a barometer for design and visual culture: fashion aside, it was ahead of the curve by showcasing Victorian-style taxidermy years before it colonised the city’s bars and lounges. When the imposing four-storey space gave over its window display to the team behind pop-salvage company M Goldstein last June and July, it was an endorsement of much more than just the company’s approach to art direction. It pointed to a growing popularity for incorporating mainly 20th-century curios, with unique narrative resonance, within interior design projects. These are pieces that tell bold, evocative tales. They are less about the magpie’s capricious eye, more about the modern collector’s gaze.

Simon Costin's home, London

Simon Costin’s home, London

Entitled Scale & Distortion, the Dover Street Market installation – by M Goldstein owners Pippa Brooks and Nathaniel Lee Jones – included an 8ft robot called Cygan, built in Turin in 1957, a pair of supersized, perfectly detailed Balmoral leather boots from Rhodes Rawling of Halifax, a miniature raincoat by Wetherdair from the 1930s, and sets of concave and convex mirrors. They are typical of the pieces in the company’s shop on Hackney Road. “We want to avoid the word ‘vintage’,” says Brooks. “We believe it’s more accurate to say that we sell art, antiques and attire.”

The style of M Goldstein brings to mind some of the antiques stores in Clignancourt Market in Paris; many of the smaller pieces look like curios that have surfaced at street markets. For Brooks and Lee Jones, running a shop is crucial. “It’s about having a permanent showroom, rather then setting up a beautiful stall and then packing it all away again,” says Brooks. It also dictates their kind of customer. “We are a little out of the way here,” she says, “so people really have to want to seek us out.”

Visitors to M Goldstein are drawn to the atmosphere of the space, which is filled with old commercial lettering, paintings, flags and neons, displayed around and on the rescued Victorian mahogany shop fittings. Alongside these sit paintings and ephemera belonging to the late “outsider” artist, recluse and hoarder Reginald Alan Westaway, who died in 2008. Part of the collection includes the single set of clothes that he wore and repaired time and time again, until the individual items became overstitched sculptures in their own right.

Whether placed in a stark and modern interior, or an artfully decorated one, there is a growing demand for the salvaged objects on display at M Goldstein. “The ‘curiosity’ trend is popular,” says Lee Jones, “but our interest is to do with pieces that are more useful or decorative than just a stuffed squirrel playing cards, which I find boring. I’d rather sell a pair of second world war aircraft seats that look like they originated in Rodchenko’s studio.” Many pieces started out life as shop or commercial fittings; their battered edges speak of decades of robust use.

Circus Antiques in London’s Kensal Rise recently sold a gigantic pair of metal spectacles – originally the signage for an optometrist in France – for £1,400. “There’s always been an interest in high-end architectural pieces,” says the store’s owner, Mark Slade. “Now it’s about a more eclectic approach. People in the creative industries, in particular, appreciate the graphic qualities of these objects. Before we sold the spectacles, we had them repaired and then surrounded by neon. We also had a set of signs recently from a circus in Blackpool that were very comic-book in style, which lit up and read ‘flash’, ‘bang’ and ‘wallop’. They sold for £2,500 to a writer who has a house in the countryside.”

Industrial and commercial lettering is particularly popular. M Goldstein has had several McDonald’s letter Ms pass through the shop, while the online store inthewoodshed.co.uk often has sets of wooden public house sign letters, and 1970s red Odeon/ABC cinema signage lettering (from £8 per letter) available. In the US, baycitycargo.com sells old movie theatre marquee lettering (from $3 to around $60) that is the very essence of romantic, popcorn-scented Americana.

While there’s certainly the demand for these items, acquiring the perfect object for a room isn’t a precise science. Much of the sourcing is a case of rummaging and falling in love with something you never knew you wanted, and the more substantial pieces are generally price on request and subject to negotiation. For many people, active pursuit of pop salvage is simply too time-consuming, but there are some locations worthy of expeditions. Clignancourt in Paris is one of them, as is Sunbury Antiques Market in Kempton Park, the stores along Lillie Road in London and Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in New York City. It’s also worth looking at the-saleroom.com and salvo.co.uk, which, along with some of the more obscure local markets and auctions in the UK, are favourite hunting grounds for the interior designer Russell Sage, a man well known for incorporating quirky elements into his projects. “Often with items like this,” he says, “people have a justifiably romantic idea of them, but they have gone through a dozen different dealers and started out as something that was part of a clearance sale and sold for £10.” The use of macabre Victorian taxidermy is something of a Sage trademark, and while he spends weeks scouring auctions for remarkable objects, it’s also possible to visit Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors in London’s East End to pick up an off-the-shelf eight-legged stuffed lamb (£2,000) or a two-headed calf (£3,500).

Simon Costin's home, London

Simon Costin’s home, London

Sage acquired several pieces when the Brading Waxworks on the Isle of Wight closed in 2010, as did Simon Costin, an art director for Fabergé, Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès, who has them on display in his home in London’s Dalston. Costin’s house is a paradigm of the salvage style, but with an emphasis on the darker end of the spectrum. When he bought the house, the previous occupant had painted many of the rooms in a colour he describes as “eye-grating cerise”. Now it’s a shadowy gothic fairy tale. “I’m a collector, but I don’t really focus on anything in particular,” says Costin. “I like things with a story.” An 18th-century glass-topped Italian funeral coffin acts as a focal point for the living room, while shelves on every floor of the house are filled with carnival flourishes, old toys and Doctor Who props. “Visitors always respond to the toys, like my 1920s devil Punch and Judy puppets,” he says.

Playthings from the early 20th century may well have been passed down as family heirlooms, and come charged with nostalgia. In the same way, more recent objects can have great pop currency, particularly if they were never intended for the home. The artist and designer Misha Milovanovich has oversized ice-cream displays and a giant fibreglass teddy bear on show in her home in London’s Ladbroke Grove, next to original artwork by the likes of Julian Opie and Charles Avery. She recently bought a toy shop prop from Circus Antiques – a scaled-up, life-size, Playmobil Indiana Jones – which stands next to her desk. “When I moved in here, it was an empty shell with concrete floors,” she says. “I wanted to create my own little playhouse.”

Milovanovich’s aesthetic will seem too extreme for many, but these items from the recent past serve as a great alternative to contemporary art for interior designers. M Goldstein recently took stock of an illuminated sign from the late 1960s, from a defunct strip joint in Tisbury Court that reads: “Soho’s Live Girls”. At the time, it would have been an invitation into one of London’s less salubrious venues; now, it has a charming, almost melancholy quality to it. In its way, it’s an elegiac piece of social history.

Several designers are experts in the field of salvage. Henri Fitzwilliam-Lay works on particularly refined and high-end interiors. Her style mixes the plush, grand elements of Dorothy Draper with the clean, corporate modernism of Florence Knoll and contemporary bespoke pieces by the likes of Rupert Bevan, but she’s increasingly working with collections of 20th- and 21st-century items. “I particularly like working on children’s rooms,” she says. “Collections of items can turn chaos into order, by giving objects definition. Vintage toys also work well in arrangements around the house. I think you can make a collection of just about anything – even my children’s tiny Japanese plastic Gogos figures – and the skill lies in the displaying of objects to create what I often refer to as the ‘still life’. I hunt at antiques fairs, and after a first purchase the rest of the day may be spent finding more and more complementing pieces.” The weathered appearance of an item is also important; Fitzwilliam-Lay has started using old survey maps as wallpaper, “because I love the faded colours.”

James Russell and Hannah Plumb work together as the interior design duo James Plumb, and their rough-hewn aesthetic and use of scavenged items is contemporary yet artfully cobwebbed. “We have just created a new space called The Chalk Room for the menswear store Hostem using discarded items,” says Russell. “Their stories – real or imagined – inspired us. We combined objects so that they felt like they might always have existed like this.” Among the items they used was an old harp case, from Wurlitzer Co of Cincinnati, which they turned into a wardrobe, and a crate designed for carrying a prize stud pig, marked in faded lettering: “Ashville Herd – Pedigree Large White Pig”. The imagery the crate conjures up is eclipsed by the possibilities surrounding it. It could have been a theatrical prop, or integral to a farmer’s fortunes. Like the nostalgia of an old Soho fluorescent sign, abandoned cinema façade letters, a once state-of-the-art robot from a mid-20th-century technology expo, or a set of discarded toys, it may have exhausted its original use, but its dynamic visual energy can be channelled into a new context.

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