If it’s mid-April, it must be Milan. The annual Salone del Mobile furniture fair now rivals the prêt a porter and couture shows for scale, influence and glamour. The grandest hotel in the city, the Principe Di Savoia, sells out all of its rooms for the week – €17,000 a night penthouse included – six months earlier, while Twitter’s timeline scrolls at an excitable pace with design discoveries and party gossip. The boundary between fashion and furniture has been blurring, and this year it became almost imperceptible. Sales of “designer furniture” are growing faster than sales of clothing, and some of the most exciting interiors pieces showcased in April were from profoundly forward-thinking Paris-based couture houses. The notion of investment dressing is yielding to investment interiors – £15,000 sofas and limited edition armoires that will age beautifully and hold their value, aligned with the most prestigious names in the clothing industry. It’s a difficult, design sorcery: the product has to be simultaneously au courant and timeless.
Every year since the launch of Armani Casa in 2000, the most influential labels in the world have expanded to encompass a lifestyle universe. Armani – like Calvin Klein and Fendi – is known for restrained luxury with a sharp sense of lounge-friendly texture and minimalism. Armani’s celebrated “greige” palate is a custom fit for the modern interior and has expanded from cushions and lampshades to whole Armani-branded hotels. But the new names heading for the living room floor are more intriguing.
A few years ago, seeing anything by Maison Martin Margiela outside of the most esoteric of fashion stores was, to the initiated, nothing short of shocking. Here is an aggressively “insider label”, known for a self-consciously intellectual approach to design: its stores are roughly whitewashed and all of the workers at its 11th Arondissement HQ wear lab coats. At its latest couture show, models wore flesh-coloured transparent belted Macs with unsettling black masks. In 2009 it began working with furniture manufacturer Cerruti-Baleri on two items that had appeared already as purely conceptual pieces: the Emmanuelle Chair (£1,750) and the Groupe sofa (from £5,060). This year it expanded the range with the Undersized sofa (from £5,000), Sbilenco coffee table (£1,500), trompe l’œil monochrome adhesive wall murals of distressed wooden doors (£290) and blank white Matriochka dolls (£130). The pieces are arresting and bordering on sinister, their skewed proportions reminiscent of Dutch designers Droog, or in the case of the Groupe sofa, mismatched (it resembles three odd armchairs) but unified by Margiela’s trademark raw snow-white cotton toile covering. “By clothing the furniture, the intention is to offer some history and past life, or vécu as we say in French,” explains one of the Maison collective. “The cotton is treated so it doesn’t appear brand new. But these are still luxury items. They are delicate and sumptuous.”
The appearance of Hermès’ La Maison line at this year’s Salone in Milan shouldn’t be surprising. The house was producing furniture with Jean-Michel Frank 80 years ago, and the 1980s Rena Dumas-designed capsule Pippa trio of folding leather chair, console and stool, as well as its tableware, are much loved classics. But it was the scale of the presentation in Milan that was dramatic: wallpapers, chairs, carpets, tables, sofas, glass and ceramics, all echoing the classic prints and the irresistible, boldly-seamed chocolate and orange leather that the brand is known for. The launch followed last year’s reissue of its Jean Michel Frank pieces, in collaboration with B&B Italia. “Those pieces were the starting point,” says Hélène Dubrule, the MD of Hermès’ La Maison department. “Then we brought the range up to date with new work from Enzo Mari, Antonio Citterio and architect Denis Montel.” Hermès is a house that is acutely aware of progressive design (Martin Margiela was creative director from 1997 to 2003), and the La Maison pieces unveiled this spring have a bold sense of modernity as well as stately, masculine tradition. Antonio Cittero’s Meridienne for Unwinding (£17,670) is a chaise longue with elements of Dumas apparent in its crossed safari-style legs. Mari’s Table Ovale (£20,460), in marble with smooth calfskin legs, has the gorgeous, elegant, tapered 1920s sweep of deco designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, while Montel’s leather Sellier dining chair (£4,650) is, as Dubrele says, “quintessentially Hermès”. “We liked the idea of a saddler working on something to sit on,” she says. “It adds a touch of fantasy to the collection and we hope it will become an iconic signature object.”
Like Hermès, some of the most directional fashion designers working on furniture lines are harking back to the 20s and 30s. The attraction should be obvious – the era of arch-modernism and muscular deco was the pinnacle of avant-garde design in the 20th century. No contemporary fashion designer has a stronger, or more influential aesthetic than Rick Owens, and while his work is synonymous with washed leather, asymmetry, monochrome and a blend of sci-fi, Berlin techno, the industrial and the occult, it’s also rooted in the early 20th century. He creates furniture for himself, and for limited editions selling (price on application) next to Prouve and Corbusier originals at Galerie Jousse Enterprise in Paris. They have a disturbing but artful and angular heft to them, exaggerated with animal antlers and offbeat materials: an alabaster bed looks like a sacrificial altar, and a stained black Curial chair resembles a pagan chalice. But then there are sofas and tables with a deco delicacy to them. “I like blunt rational simplicity in raw simple materials,” says Owens. “And every once in a while, a slightly ridiculous flourish. I oversized and simplified the silhouettes of Ruhlmann, Mallet Stevens and Jean Michel Frank with a hint of California skate parks and leather bar interiors. This furniture is my version of couture, it’s time-consumingly artisanal in a mix of base and rare materials.” He’ll be unveiling a new range of pieces – mixing prosaic blackened plywood and rarefied alabaster to striking effect – in London during Frieze week and in LA in December.
Stockholm-based street fashion and creative brand Acne looked to mid-century Swedish design for inspiration for its furniture line. Creative director Jonny Johansson took Carl Malmsten’s 1958 Nya Berlin sofa, warped its axis, stretched it and upholstered the result in denim to create a selection of pieces (from €4,000–€15,000) that make a distinctly Scandinavian style statement. “These are pieces that need their own space,” says Johansson. “We called this project a study, because it’s a perspective play and the search for something very Swedish. Furniture isn’t just functional today. It’s more of an object, perhaps a sculpture.”
While there is a tendency for fashion designers to veer towards the conceptual, some of the new pieces appearing are more straightforward and literally comfortable translations of celebrated silhouettes and prints. Jean Paul Gaultier’s aesthetic couldn’t be further removed from the fabulously austere menace of Rick Owens, or the Scandic ascetism of Acne. The limited edition range of furniture he has produced with Roche Robois draws from thirty years of Breton stripes, sailors’ tattoos, Horst P Horst corset lacing and breezy Gallic bon chic, bon genre. The hand-stitched Mah Jong modular sofa (units from £895), with navy and white horizontal lines, kissing couples and Pierre et Gilles-style florals couldn’t look more Gaultier unless Jean Paul himself was sitting on it. “I started, as I do with all my collections, with the idea of dressing someone,” says Gaultier. “Except in this case it was furniture. And in the end, designing furniture is not that different – you have to think about the human body and how it will react to its environment.” For all the humour in his work, Gaultier is a deeply serious, master designer. His couture shows send critics into raptures, and he was design director of Hermès for seven years after Margiela’s departure. Amongst the Roche Robois collection is an elegant tattoo-motif wardrobe (£11,500) with internal mirrors that are part magic act and part old Hollywood, and two leather-upholstered sets of drawers (£4,995-£7,935) in the shape of a stack of suitcases – witty, but still exceedingly beautiful.
One of the most appealing parts of Gaultier’s furniture line is his bed, with screens and linens, in Lace, Sailor and Boudoir styles. A bedroom can lend itself to unbridled fantasy in the way other rooms cannot, which is why many fashion designers focus their attentions on it. Diane von Furstenberg launched a full range of homeware this year and along with the plates and cushions there’s an array of bedware ($150-$300) in bright mosaics and heavily inked lines that could be taken straight from one of her iconic wrap dresses. A black-on-white butterfly silhouette print, meanwhile, demonstrates her incredible graphic strengths. At the same time, high-end lingerie brand Agent Provocateur has, under the auspices of creative director Sarah Shotton, unveiled a collection of striking bed linen, from 550-threadcount white sheets with baby pink piping, to 100% silk black covers and lace-print textiles. Like Gaultier’s Breton stripes, it’s a look taken straight from the label’s DNA. “We’ve applied similar textures and detailing,” says Shotton. “And we’ve translated the craftsmanship and playful irreverence too.”
The kitchen and dining room represent the bread and butter of high fashion homeware. Designers known for their prints – like Missoni and Zandra Rhodes – translate hugely successfully to tableware. As with bedroom sets, practical ceramics allow for flights of fancy: You might not want to change your sofa every month, but when it comes to supper, you can choose from a collection of plates according to mood. The market is growing fast: this autumn Bruce Oldfield has produced a range of 14 pieces with Royal Crown Derby while Diane von Furstenberg has a vast range of pieces covered in painterly single brush strokes and her pop arty Miro Flowers. A strong pattern can be taken on a grand tour of the house: Missoni produce stacks of cushions and towels, and Vivienne Westwood has an extensive range of wallpapers with Cole & Son, including her seminal squiggle print from her first catwalk collection in 1981, Pirates. Basso & Brooke, known for their wild, often risqué, digital prints, have taken things further, by offering whole-wall murals, made to order rugs, silk lampshades and chairs and decoupage consoles.
So alluring is the world of interiors that some designers now focus on it exclusively. Russell Sage gave up a successful career in womenswear to become one of London’s most in-demand interior designers, and approaches each interior with mood boards and back stories as he would any collection; and Rifat Ozbek – who created some of the most desirable clothes for women throughout the 80s and 90s – has retired from fashion to create wonderfully ornate, exquisitely bright cushions under his Yastik label. The embroidery is wonderfully, classically Ozbek, mixing central Asian patterns, including the Turkish, cartoonish good luck motif of the Nazar Boncugu. “I’ve also designed the interior of Mark Birley’s new London club,” says Ozbek. “It’s a cross between an opium den, a turn of the century Parisian music hall and a Tibetan temple. I’d never done an interior before, and now there’s talk of me creating a furniture line.” The attraction for the talented designer is clear. If 15 minutes on a catwalk tells the story of a collection, then an interior – whether piece by piece or an entire space – has a quite transcendent sense of permanence. It tells an infinitely bigger story.
Acne, 13 Dover Street, London W1 (020-7629 9374; www.acnestudios.com).
Agent Provocateur, 675 Madison Avenue, New York 10065 (+212-840 2436; http://www.agentprovocateur.com).
Hermès, 155 New Bond Street, London W1 (020-7499 8856; http://www.hermes.com)
Maison Martin Margiela at Cerruti Baleri, Via Felice Cavallotti 8, Milan 20122 (+39-02 7602 3954; http://www.cerrutibaleri.com).
Rick Owens at Galerie Jousse Enterprise, 18 Rue de Seine, Paris 75006 (+33-1 53 82 13 60; www.jousse-enterprise.com)
Roche Robois, 421-425 Finchley Road, London W3 (020-7431 1411; www.roche-robois.com).
Yastik by Rifat Ozbek, 8 Holland Street, London W8 (020-3538 7981; http://www.yastikbyrifatozbek.com)