Design: Reflections of all your desires

Mirrors were once thought to hold strange powers. Nowadays they're a miracle of design, a cure-all for lack of light and space. By Ros Byam Shaw

Think of any famous interior and the likelihood is that somewhere it features a mirror. It may be a towering overmantel or a pair of slim pier-glasses, a wall of mirror or a dressing-table mirror; it may be incidental or central to the design. Look around you: mirrors are in your handbag, in your car, over your washbasin, behind the bar in the pub and the cosmetics display in the supermarket.

At once commonplace and magical, mirror possesses a magnetism irresistible to the human eye. Used in an interior, it has an unrivalled power of transformation, doubling and redoubling space, creating unreal vistas on to a world that is back to front but still the right way up. And, while mirror has been used to create some of the world's most extravagant rooms, including the Salle des Glaces at Versailles, Coco Chanel's Paris salon, Indian palaces and American casinos, thanks to modern methods of manufacture it is no more expensive than good wallpaper and no more difficult to install than tiling.

It wasn't always so. For centuries after its discovery in pre-Roman Egypt, mirrored glass could be produced only with great difficulty, and in very small sheets. Like the finest jewels, it was believed to hold mystic power. A reflection, it was thought, could capture the soul, hence mirrors were turned to the wall throughout illness and after death, until the soul was safely delivered. The chemical decay that attacked the silvering of old mirrors was blamed on moonbeams. Seventeenth-century Dutch housewives protected their mirrors with curtains in order to preserve their reflectiveness, lest it should run out through overuse. No wonder breaking a mirror was thought to bring seven years of misery.

In the late 17th century, sponsored by the French king's passion for mirrored walls, a method of casting molten glass and grinding it smooth was discovered so that, for the first time, a sheet of mirror large enough to reflect more than a head and shoulders could be produced. Mirrors like these were a phenomenon, a marvel, a new experience. The Salle des Glaces at Versailles still astounds with its scale and grandeur. How much more extraordinary it must have seemed when the mirror itself was a rare and extravagant commodity.

Methods of manufacture improved with small bursts of innovation throughout the 18th century. Robert Adam made extensive use of mirror, most notably for the "glass drawing-room" at Northumberland House in London, now long since demolished. By all accounts it was an astonishing room, with its walls of glass backed with a dark red pigment, punctuated by pier-glasses and overmantel, the whole linked and embellished with ornate metal fillets.

By the 19th century, large mirrors had sprouted over the mantel of every self-respecting parlour, bringing light to the darkest wall of the room and emphasising the central importance of the fireplace.

In the age before electric light, mirror continued to serve a practical as well as a decorative role, effectively doubling the light of candles and dim gas flames.

By Queen Victoria's death, mirror had been democratised. Brilliant-cut for extra sparkle, mirrors were adopted by the fairground, the pub, the Gypsy caravan and the long-boat.

The ability to make glass in large sheets has had a profound effect on the history of architecture, famously described by Le Corbusier as the battle of the window to attain the greatest dimensions in the face of technical limitations. Today that battle has been decisively won.

Modern plate glass is floated on molten tin, minimising the need for the grinding and polishing that made old mirror so labour-intensive. In 1937, architects Raymond McGrath and AC Frost wrote a book entitled Glass in Architecture and Decoration, a paean to the new possibilities allowed by this "medium capable of endless adaptation without loss of integrity". Some of that period's most important interiors, inspired by what the authors describe as "the recent purge or spring-cleaning of architecture and design" use mirror in a way that still looks up-to-date; the fashionable interior decorator Syrie Maugham's all-white drawing-room with its chrome- and-mirror screen; the film star Tilly Losch's mirrored bathroom; Norman Hartnell's mirror-panelled salon.

Mirror's recent image has suffered from its ubiquity. As a cheap means of invoking glamour it is too often used indiscriminately in restaurants, cinema foyers and hotels. The horrible Seventies vogue for bronzed mirror glass; the smutty connotations of mirrored ceilings; the popularity of mirrored fitted wardrobes - all have further contributed to the suspicion that mirror, as opposed to the venerable looking-glass, is rather vulgar.

This is unfair. Poor design makes mirror look nasty but, used well, it can still delight and transform. David Hicks was a master, and used it to enhance the sense of space and grandeur in his own, small Albany apartment. Other decorators have made much of it: Michael Inchbald mirrored opposing walls in his hall to give the illusion of endless vistas punctuated by an ever-diminishing file of reflected obelisks; Frederic Mechiche lined a stairwell with it; David Gill used it to line his bathroom. Charles Jencks, like Sir John Soane before him, used jewel-like fragments of mirror inlay to highlight his architectural fantasies.

At this year's House & Garden Fair in Earl's Court, of four room-sets given pride of place at the centre of the Great Hall, three featured mirror.

Emily Todhunter's included a bath panelled in mirror, a mirrored chest of drawers and a mirrored coffee-table. Just across the aisle, Alidad's circular "gentleman's cabinet" was entirely panelled with mirror glass that had been distressed and decorated for an effect utterly different from the clarity of Todhunter's style. Most hip of all, Jonathan Reed used two large mirrors, one of them an antique convex mirror the size of a luxury car wheel, the other a simple oblong, plainly framed in wood.

Once, the cost of the glass itself vied with the price of the most elaborate frame. Today a frame of real quality, old or new, remains very costly, but mirror glass is cheap, DIY superstores sell an array of unframed mirrors, round, square, large and small, some bevelled and most under pounds 30. They also sell mirror tiles in different sizes.

Every town has a glazier. Here you can order mirror cut to size and, within reason, shape. And now the fun begins. Stained coffee table? Cover it with mirror, bevelled at the edges. Soon you will find yourself arranging pebbles or candles or even ash-trays, and marvelling at the effect. Dreary fireplace? Tile it with mirror. Dark basement? Mirror the window sills, or better still the whole embrasure. The increase in light is dramatic.

Interior bathroom with no window? Mirror a wall and the sense of claustrophobia almost disappears, And if the sight of yourself, rubicund and wobbly, fresh from a hot shower is too much to bear, you needn't rely on the misting effect alone. Brutally honest modern mirror can be "antiqued" for a more flattering reflection.

As a cure for lack of light and space, mirror requires little training or expertise to administer. As a material in itself, mirror glass has no particular style allegiances. Mirror is as appropriate in a modern loft as in a Regency rectory; its effect can be luxurious or sober, sparkling or mined, extravagant or spare.

Play with it, experiment, be brave. It won't cost you an arm and a leg. Just try not to break it; no one deserves seven years of bad luck.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
MasterChef 2014 finalists Charley Boorman, Wayne Sleep, Sophie Thompson and Jodie Kidd

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Trade unionist Ricky Tomlinson (right), later a television actor, attends a demonstration in London, 1975
theatre
News
The three-time Emmy award winner Elaine Stritch
peopleStar of stage and screen passes away aged 89
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor