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For so long, fashion has been the main way we communicate taste,” says Austin Moro, product designer and co-founder (with Eliza Dabron) of the fragrance brand Moro Dabron. “But now that everyone has been spending so much more time at home, the conversation has shifted. It has become more about conveying your personality through your interior aesthetic.” At its most intimate, this domestic self-expression is being played out on a small scale on shelves, tables and mantelpieces through decorative accessories and ornaments that are as thoughtfully arranged as any gallery space.
While these personal tableaux of figurines and found objects might once have been seen only by house guests, they’re now shared for a mass audience with an appetite for interior inspiration. Well-executed compositions are saved, studied and emulated to the extent that, arguably, these miniature mise-en-scènes have evolved into their own art form – a kind of social media still-life. “Everyone is putting so much more thought into creating curated corners in their homes,” agrees Eliza Dabron. “There was a time when people would just take a quick, natural snap of a shelf at home, but now everything is so considered.”
The duo apply the same approach to visualising their products using @moro_dabron as their moodboard. Here, their candles, which come in unglazed boat-necked ceramic vessels – referencing the late and legendary florist Constance Spry’s highly collectable designs for the Fulham Pottery – are thoughtfully presented alongside 18th-century tapestries and antique vases. Everything is executed with the spare, pure spirit of the still-life artist. “We try to capture this static moment of perfection,” says Moro of the imagery, which draws on Vermeer and the British painter William Nicholson. “It motivates people to want to recreate it in their own homes.” Their Spry-style potteries have ignited a flurry of posts from florists and decorators doing just that – particularly as the original vessels now sell for thousands of pounds at auction.
Over the past year, demand for diminutive decor and home accessories has increased, notably giving rise to a new breed of Insta-seller catering to a penchant for vintage and antique objets. “Instead of spending money on going out to supper, people have been buying jugs,” says Charlie Porter of Tat London (@tat.london), where, she says, there has been a surge in purchases of small, fun but otherwise impractical knick-knacks. “Getting that piece of oddity for your home is a real tick,” she adds. “There’s this cultural oneupmanship when it comes to what you’re buying and what pieces you’ve found.”
The designer Bridie Hall sees this proliferation of decorative peacocking as an attempt to reclaim dominion over our lives in a somewhat chaotic world. “It’s about taking control of your environment,” she says. “People are finally getting around to buying the piece they’ve wanted for ages but couldn’t justify. It gives you that shot of energy.” Together with the architectural designer and interior decorator Ben Pentreath, Hall is the co-owner of the beloved Bloomsbury store Pentreath & Hall, a cornucopia of decorative eye candy. “Sales have been absolutely mad,” says Hall, noting that more unusual objects and curios such as the vivid renderings of fruits, vegetables and conkers from Penkridge Ceramics, and quirky Staffordshire dogs, once ignored, are now swiftly selling out. “There’s been a very noticeable shift towards whimsy,” she says.
The impulse to share these finds with followers appears irresistible, but despite the new technology it is not a novel concept. “Artists have always surrounded themselves with objects that creatively spur them on. Think of all the Dutch still-life painters and the way that has filtered down through the years to places such as Charleston or Kettle’s Yard,” says Hall. “Those midcentury artists lived beautifully while they worked, and then captured it through paintings or photographs. Even the Grand Tour entailed aristocrats lugging stuff back from around the world to display in their homes as a way of showing off their knowledge, experience and aesthetic sensibilities.”
Swanking aside, Hall finds the act of creating the perfect vignette as creatively satisfying as making the obelisks, intaglio cases and alphabet pots for which she is known. “I love the way you can control how the eye moves around the room,” she says of the visual journey evoked in the store – and her own nearby home – by shifting around her collections of Victorian shells or replica Pantheon plaster reliefs. “Everything is chosen with the same eye, which creates a natural cohesion. You just play around until you find a pleasing little arrangement. For me, it’s a form of escapism that deeply connects you to the past.”
This sense of history is key to creating an assemblage. Take the Arles home of the renowned interiors photographer François Halard. Testament to a life well spent, Halard’s mantelpiece displays everything from Japanese vases and classical sculpture to Cy Twombly artworks. This ever-evolving array of objects is informed by 40 years spent training his visual eye while photographing the homes of everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Antony Gormley. It was only last year, during lockdown, that he turned his camera on his own interior, sharing vignettes from his 18th-century hôtel particulier on social media. These posts were an addictive daily dose of design that evolved into an exhibition of Polaroids that went on show at Avignon’s Lambert museum and formed a Libraryman book entitled 56 Days In Arles. Each is masterfully composed, and there’s a synchronicity between Halard’s Polaroids and his original Insta posts. “My favourite format has always been the square,” he says. “It creates a more abstract moment – both share the same instantaneousness.”
There’s much to be gleaned from Halard when it comes to the art of display. “When I look at the house I try to think about it as a series of still lifes,” he says. “So that everywhere you look, you find these moments of interest, not just for the pictures, but for my own eye.” The process of recording his home has, for Halard, been utterly unique. “I’ve been photographing these scenes in other people’s homes my entire life,” he says. “But being a witness to my own collection is very personal. It’s a kind of bibliography of all the things I love.”
It’s a sentiment that’s also shared by the interior decorator and antiques dealer Robert Kime. “Someone could write a history of me through objects,” says the lifelong collector, who began dealing at a young age. The art of arranging his unique finds, for Kime, is utterly instinctive. “If I put something very expensive next to something modest it helps both of them,” he says. “Everything has its own identity that you don’t get to uncover until you put it with something else.” More than a question of taste, it’s about revealing what an object symbolises that matters most to him. This is evident in his London apartment, which Kime put together in just three days – although it immediately looked as though it had been there 20 years – and hasn’t touched since. “Once something has a place, it has a place,” he says.
The art consultant and stylist Katharina Herold takes a much more transitory approach with the assemblages she conjures in her historic Hamburg apartment. Shared with her followers under the moniker @Heroldian_Journal, they’re a way to communicate with a clientele who charge her with filling their homes with nuanced art and antique finds. “Creating these vignettes has become a real tool in my work. It’s a way for clients to imagine these things in their own spaces,” says Herold, who also works alongside her father, Rainer Herold, a specialist in northern German art at Galerie Herold in Hamburg.
FT Weekend Festival
The festival is back and in person at Kenwood House (and online) on 4 September with our usual eclectic line-up of speakers and subjects. Infusing it all will be the spirit of reawakening and the possibility of reimagining the world after the pandemic. Don’t miss How To Spend It’s panel on ‘The Future of Design’ with Matthew Williamson, Martin Brudnizki and Beata Heuman, and Luke Edward Hall in conversation with FT Editor Roula Khalaf. To book tickets, visit here
“Unconsciously, the idea of still life is always in my head,” she says. “When I create these scenes it’s like painting with objects.” Herold’s arrangements can include anything from a midcentury rattan lamp to an ancient Greek vessel, a 19th-century framed coral fan or an art nouveau glass box – all in a single frame. So for those looking to try their hand, what’s the secret? “There has to be a story behind every object,” concludes Herold. “Each of the objects feeds off, and speaks to, one another. I might select something for its appearance, but ultimately it’s the story and history that brings meaning to your home.” Let the Wunderkammer commence.
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