With the decline of minimalism continuing, homes dressed with “things” are increasingly in vogue. This is no time for the return of clutter, however, rather the judicious arrangement of possessions such as rugs, books and even once derided houseplants in a way that adds to a home’s contemporary but lived-in feel.
In uncertain times, there is something solid and reassuring about rows of hardbacked antique books, spines embossed with gold lettering, arranged in neat librarian rows from floor to ceiling. The diarist Samuel Pepys went as far as placing little wooden blocks under some of his shorter tomes to achieve a perfect alignment but for those who find such walls of brown regularity too dark there are many routes to a more contemporary, less imposing style.
Although many people would baulk at the idea of ripping the spines off beloved books, that was what the Conran design shop did recently at its South Kensington branch in London. The effect of the ragged, textured, yet uniformly creamy-white spines on an uncompromising modular metal bookcase looked far from the result of a rampage by illiterate vandals. The volumes, interspersed by the odd piece of pottery or other monochrome object, looked both calming and contemporary.
“We wanted something interesting and textural,” explains Conran design director Polly Dickens. “These were old books but giving them that pre-cut, beaten-up look not only exposed some interesting things such as the stitching and cloth under the covers but also made them look very modern.”
Dickens lives on a houseboat on the River Thames and is consequently accustomed to finding novel ways to display books without compromising either space or style. One of her favourite ideas is to stack her cookery books on their sides in a floor-to-ceiling column – hidden shelves allowing her to extract a mid-column favourite without also removing its neighbours.
She believes that linear rows of books can also look contemporary rather than fusty. “I love rows of paperbacks in spaces such as corridors,” she says. “Placing them on shelves in a strong, graphic frame looks like a big square work of art, more installation than bookcase. But make sure the books are all mixed up on the shelves, to get that lovely, vibrant, multi-coloured feeling.”
Clare Jameson of Potterton Books, a highly respected dealer with stores in Yorkshire (northern England), New York and Los Angeles, is regularly asked by clients to source books with spines of a particular colour or combination to create a striking and artistic look. But for those for whom only creamy-white spines will do, the antiquarian bookseller Ben Brierley, who also supplies private libraries all over the world, advises vellum.
“It has a particular organic quality because it is bleached calf-skin and looks fantastically smart in rows in both contemporary and traditional settings,” he says.
“Look out for poetry sets and early religious or Latin books if this is the look you’re after, as both can be quite cheap. There are also some lovely sets of Dickens in vellum, brought out in 1903 and illustrated by T.E. Brock, with lovely gold tooling on the spine. They will transform a space: a room without books is a sad room.”
Henry VIII not only collected wives during his reign as king of England. He also had a keen eye for rugs, vying with his chief adviser, the wily Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, to amass the most fabulous collection. That urge to gather rugs – as works of art rather than mere floor coverings – is now enjoying a renaissance. They can look wonderful in both modern or traditional homes and the emphasis is on quality: Jan David
Winitz of the California-based Claremont Rug Company has taken on staff throughout the recession as the wealthy have started to invest more in art-level pieces from the 19th century.
Some clients, notably in the Midwest of the US, have been buying up to 50 rugs for their homes at a time – mostly for the floors but a few particularly delicate ones for use as wall hangings. With more than 20 different types of Persian rug alone, there can be different styles in every room. Some parents even create the whole decor for children’s rooms inspired by a rug. “For an ocean-front house in California we found a beautiful rug for the daughter’s room that was evocative of a field of wild flowers and was very celestial and graceful. The son’s room had one with deeper colours and geometric medallions,” Winitz says.
A number of the company’s clients constantly top up or swap pieces in a never-ending search for the best possible collection. One or two are interested only in museum-quality examples, the highest standard available. Despite prices starting at about $20,000 and rising to $500,000, Winitz maintains that rugs are still undervalued compared with other works of art or antiques – although the best are at least maintaining their values. The quality shows through in different ways, he says: “The level of beauty, the level of harmony and grace, the uniqueness of design and the unusual wide range and richness of colour … overall, the rug should sparkle like an old master painting. With natural dyes and the patina of time, the rug assumes a depth and glow as if you are looking into the colour not at it.” Winitz advises buyers to look for nuances in the shades and ebbs and flows of tone that are the result of natural dyes. Solid block colours are often suspect, suggesting mass-produced pieces.
He asserts that the best examples are Persian, Caucasian or Turkish but points out that there are many different styles even from these areas. Rugs made by the Bakhtiari tribal group, for instance, often feature flowers and delicate colours and were usually made for weddings. “They look wonderful in bedrooms or the halls of country homes, evoking what lies outside,” says Winitz. Caucasian rugs, by contrast, can have a more contemporary appeal, featuring more geometric designs with symbols such as the eight-pointed star of wisdom, the wheel of life or the zig-zag depicting running water or mountains.
“A hard-nosed businessman client of mine said he had looked at one of his rugs after a very hard day and had found it somehow comforting in times of trouble,” says Winitz. “They are so much more than ways of covering the floor.”
Splashes of colour or pattern are one way to humanise and lift a minimalist or contemporary interior but a carefully chosen plant can be just as effective. Trends are now driven by events on the catwalk and in furniture design, borrowing colours, shapes, texture and even styling and materials from these other disciplines. For the modern, urban studio look, for instance, it is now possible to choose species and containers that complement the style.
The Flowers and Plants Association in London creates interior sets revolving around a chosen plant that are not only great compositions and works of art but also fashion statements. One of the most cutting-edge looks at the moment is what they call “atelier grey”, in which the centrepiece will be a plant with grey-green foliage and a distinctive shape that brings a contemporary interior to life.
Carex, a wispy, grassy-looking plant “introduces rhythm to granite and grey walls,” says the association’s Sarah Holland. “The pale green blades sway ever so slightly as you pass by when hanging gracefully from a cement bowl (shaped like a giant shell). The plant creates a tranquil scene in a space of corners and edges.” In one of the association’s room sets the rotund Euphorbia obesa in a modern metal container is as “affable and calming as the laughing Buddha and brings vibrancy to harsher textures of steel, string and jagged linen,” she says. “Its smooth, striped panels look like they’ve been hand-stitched together, like the cloth-covered book the plant sits on.”
Possibly the most graceful option is ceropegia or rosary vine, in a hanging container against a backdrop of fashionable gun-metal grey. The slender tendrils, with their heart-shaped leaves, look like strands of hair in a Botticelli painting and are, as intended, very calming and elegant. The mixture of strong, modern colour with a plant so gloriously ephemeral is inspiring in its surprise.
Another striking look from the association is “modern vintage”, which echoes the revival of 1960s and 1970s fashions on the catwalk and in homes. It uses surprising objects as containers and old favourites from the 1970s plant list are given a crisp, contemporary facelift. A Gold Grest Cypressus – an indoor conifer – planted in a tall, silver metal bin is grown into a dramatic twisting shape and teamed up with a retro white leather space-age chair to bring history up to date.
The overall effect of these compositions is to dispel the idea of houseplants as dust traps and ornaments, and to transform them into fashion and personality statements. The imagination can be allowed to run riot.
Claremont Rug Company, tel: +1 800 441 1332, www.claremontrug.com
Ben Brierley, tel: +44 (0)7768 058 632, firstname.lastname@example.org
Flowers & Plants Association, tel: +44 (0)20 7738 8044, www.flowers.org.uk
Kalpana Brijnath, tel: +44 (0)20 7727 9170
Potterton Books, tel: +44 (0)1845 501 218
Conran Shops, www.conran.com