Back for another curtain call

Floaty muslin and minimalist blinds are being usurped by heavier, traditional window fabrics. Lights out, says ANNALISA BARBIERI

When the super-fashionable One Aldwych Hotel opened in London last year, owner Gordon Campbell Gray knew exactly what he wanted on the windows. Curtains. No trendy, floaty muslins or organzas blowing in the wind, but proper thick curtains lined with a layer of black-out fabric that let no light through.

"I am fanatical about sleeping in total darkness," says Campbell Gray, "so the curtains were a very conscious thing. It's all very well having nice blinds but our guests come in at any time of the day or night and need to get a good night's sleep." (The hotel has "nice blinds" as well, so guests can have privacy and light if they wish - they just leave the curtains open.)

Curtains, and sleeping in total darkness, is enjoying something of a resurgence. This isn't due simply to the whims of fashion. In June news broke in the Journal of Cancer that lack of a dark night's sleep had been linked to breast cancer. (The presence of the hormone, melatonin, produced by the pineal gland, is disrupted by artificial light - potentially allowing oestrogen levels to rise to dangerous levels.) But even before this it was curtains for wispy window dressings.

"Curtains have not really been fashionable since the late Eighties," says interior designer Nigel Harris of Harkin, "but I think we are on the verge of a big curtain revival." Also, we've had enough of sheets of star-embossed white organza. "You see them in all those 'home make- over' programmes because they're so easy," says Harris, "but interiors are moving on now."

Although Harris himself has "never had curtains" (because they don't suit his home, he says) he does have shutters. "I too must have absolute darkness to sleep," he says. "But if I had curtains I'd have really heavy, simple ones." Proof on the high street that curtains are back is the 50 per cent increase in made-to-measure curtains in Habitat, with off-the- peg versions almost as popular. A delighted spokesman can only admit to being "very surprised" at the sudden fabric frenzy.

In certain Mediterrean countries, curtains hardly exist. Greece and France have shutters. Italy has something called "tapparelle", which come down in horizontal opaque stripes of perforated plastic to give various degrees of darkness (and coolness for sleeptime).

Despite having an Italian MD, Selfridges doesn't sell tapparelle. But it does have an "interiors personal shopper", Richard Morgan-Hughes, who can come round to your house and measure you up for curtains or advise on any aspect of window coverings (or anything to do with interiors). Perfect if you don't have time or can't be bothered to do it yourself. As such, Morgan-Hughes gets to go into an awful lot of people's houses. What is he finding on people's windows?

"When people go for curtains now they go for streamlined and simple, and they actually use them instead of having them more like dress curtains with chintzy swags and tails. And I would definitely agree with the 'sleeping in the dark' thing. There's a noticeable trend towards this and our sales of black-out blinds are up by about 30 per cent from 1998. The really good thing about them is that you can use them with last year's sheer organza."

When Kelly Luchford, PR for One Aldwych, visited her client for the first time, she liked the curtains in the hotel so much she had the exact same ones made up for her house. "I loved the use of silk and the fact that they were so feminine. A lot of curtains can look manly and solid, or completely OTT. But these were gorgeous. Plus, muslin looks nice but you get light streaming into your room and I like the dark."

Of course, that whole "lots of light" ethos comes from the early Nineties and the move towards minimalism, big windows and loft-living. The man who brought us that was John Hitchcox, founder of the Manhattan Loft Corporation. So what does he have on his windows then? "Wooden Venetian blinds that block out the light completely," his house-mate tells me.

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