A twitcher's guide: Net curtains are being reinvented by avant-garde designers

If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then the windows of a house reveal the secrets of its owner. Which means you need to get the curtains right to avoid giving the wrong impression.

We all know that if you want to find out about an area, you should look first for signs of upmarket pizza chains and then for skips outside houses. And if you want to know about the neighbours, check out the windows. Net curtains or wooden slatted blinds? Etched glass or swags and pelmets?

The window-coverings market is worth more than £1bn a year, and much of that is spent on protecting our privacy. But what do you do if you live on a busy street and you want to protect your valuables from prying eyes while proclaiming your style credentials to the neighbours?

Some of the UK's hottest young designers are turning their thoughts to just that problem, and the results are a new set of alternatives to net curtains that are far more stylish than you might imagine.

Lauren Moriarty, an award-winning designer, has invented a 3-D curtain. Made from two layers of sheer lacy material with a butterfly pattern suspended in the middle, her curtain appears to move when you walk past.

"I wanted to create the illusion of something magic," she says. "We get bored of our surroundings and I thought that if something appeared to change, it would keep it interesting."

"This is an optical illusion, so that when you walk past it, it appears that the butterflies are fluttering. But if you are just sitting inside the room reading or watching television, they don't move, so they are not distracting ( www.rockettstgeorge.co.uk).

Moriarty has picked up on one of the biggest trends of the moment: layering. Elaine Williams, of Interior Couture ( www.interiorcouture.com ), says: "We are doing lots of layering at the moment. There are some fabulous sheer materials around which allow you to build up the layers, and you can then easily change the look of a room.

"The first one will just give you the privacy and diffuse the light, and the second and third can change the look. We do get bored with looking at the same thing all the time and this is a great way to be able to change the aspect.

"You can start simply with black, white and charcoal or be more adventurous with patterns and brighter colours.

"Another very hot trend is metallics. They give you a really soft look that diffuses the light and still gives you the privacy."

One company that has perfectly married this season's current love of all things sheer with that metallic look is Salt ( www.salt-uk.com; 020-7593 0007). It has produced a series of sheer curtains in delicately woven metal. "From a distance, it just looks like muslin; but close up, you can see the metal strands," says June Swindell, Salt's creative director. Prices start at around £165 a metre.

"During the day, they work like net curtains, and are just beautiful sheer material; but at night, they catch the electric light and give off a shimmer. If you are worried about people seeing in, you can put a simple roller blind behind, which doesn't affect the way the light catches them.

"The window is always the focal point of the room as your eyes are drawn to the light, and if there is a disgusting pair of net curtains, which look bad from both inside and outside, it speaks volumes about the rest of the house. We need privacy, but there is so much more we can do to create it. "

But if you still feel that's a little bit too "net" for your palate, then there are other ways to shield your modesty. What about a modern take on the old butcher's fly screen? Only this time, instead of strips of garishly coloured plastic, it's made with crystals or pearls. The more you hang, the greater the privacy and the more opulent the look.

This look has been perfected by Spina. Run by the Italian designer Robbie Spina and his co-director Joe Zito, Spina creates what it likes to call bespoke jewellery for the home. Its pearl and crystal curtains are all made to order and each one is unique.

"We can work to a budget. You choose the colour and the size of the crystals and whether you want each strand to hang 3cm or 10cm apart. Obviously, the closer the strands, the greater the privacy."

Prices start at around £95 per linear metre, which is probably not that much more than you would pay to have a pair of good-quality curtains made, and you won't need to have anything else hanging at the window ( www.spinadesign.co.uk; 020-7328 5274).

Finally, there's window film, which dispenses with the need for any material. A thin layer of film is attached directly to the window in the pattern of your choice. No one can see in, but you can't really see out either.

Emma Jeffs, of Surface Material Design ( www.surfacematerialdesign.co.uk; 020-8671 3383), has launched a range of patterns ranging from flower to retro circles in both plain white and jaunty colours. The plain costs around £47 a roll, and the coloured version, a kind of wallpaper for windows, retails at £250 a roll.

The rules of window dressing

Net curtains are being reinvented by avant-garde designers. What will the neighbours say? By Kate Watson-Smyth

* To create the layered look, it is worth asking if you can buy a returnable sample. This will be bigger than the free samples and will give you a better idea of how your colours will work together.

* Remember that you will need as many poles as you plan to have layers, so make sure that you have room for more than one curtain pole.

* Using a Perspex pole and finials will give the impression that your curtains are floating in mid air.

* Curtains should always reach the floor and puddle slightly at the bottom. Otherwise, it looks as if you couldn't afford enough fabric. If you have radiators under the window, then either have them moved or make sure that the curtains aren't so thick that they block all the heat.

* If you have a small window, try hanging the pole either very high above or out to the sides, which will give the impression of height and also allow you to pull them further back to the sides and stop you losing light.

* Don't forget: silk fades but velvet will never go out of fashion.

* Finally, Williams suggests that if you have spent a lot of money on a pair of really beautiful curtains, make sure you light them in the evening. " When you enter a room, the first thing you look at is the lightest thing. Either position a downlighter above your curtains or put a lamp there so they can become a feature of the room."

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