Check It Out: `We all love tea towels here' - designer ones, that is

Check out the minimalist display in Margaret Howell's new Brook Street basement, but don't, whatever you do, call it a home collection. It's not just that everyone else - from Ralph Lauren to Marks & Spencer - has now started one, but also that Margaret Howell sees her new range as more utilitarian than that. Expensive utilitarian maybe, but Household Goods nevertheless.

While some other fashion designers have started offering bank-breaking signature furniture, Margaret Howell is happy to make a virtue out of life's little domestic necessities. Linen scrim, laundry bags, aprons, bedlinen, pyjamas; candles, lavender water, absinthe bottles, dustpans and brushes, and rubber gardening shoes - all exquisitely understated in the very finest quality.

Indeed, one gets the feeling that, should one ever be invited to Margaret Howell's house for tea, these would be exactly the things you'd see there. "It's all very much her home and the things she uses," confirms Patsy Blair, who works with her on the collection.

It all started with the pyjamas Margaret Howell has been doing since she first began in fashion. Then, five years ago, she added a few household items - like beeswax candles - for Christmas. The progression to a larger household collection had long been planned, and when her menswear department recently vacated the Brook Street basement for its own premises, the next step was obvious.

She repainted the space, including the chairs, in two shades of white, left the long table with its limewashed top, and moved in the collection she'd been putting together for months.

"When we did the original brainstorming, we thought we would start with what we are known for - linen, cotton shirting and so on. So the bedroom and bathroom were the first areas we looked at," says Patsy Blair. The collection divides into four: kitchen/scullery, bedroom, bathroom, and linen cupboard. It is an eclectic mix of specially commissioned items, one-off discoveries hunted out from French markets, and the occasional bought-in product, such as the woven dustbin. Pressed-glass French jam jars and absinthe glasses, all original 19th-century, make up this season's glass collection.

Bought from French street markets, and ideal for posies of flowers, they will inevitably be hard to repeat. As will the antique-linen table cloths and napkins, plain with a red or blue occasional stripe; and the grain sacks, evocative of French peasant life, but more useful as modern-day laundry bags.

"We buy in one-of-a-kind pieces that we like," continues Blair, explaining how she uses the kitchen bags as a discreet place to house Sainsbury's bags for recycling. "We are not trying to be retro, but it's about having beautiful things in your house."

In a similar vein, the tea towels are French with the Margaret Howell name monogrammed into one corner ("We all love tea towels here"); while top-whack Irish linen is used for bedlinen.

Ceramics come from four hand-picked potters. Jacqui Roche, whom the design team met at the Crafts Fair, produces unglazed flower pots without her habitual motif: "They will look lovely when they get all mucky," suggests Blair. Daniel Smith, a friend of a friend, provides a nest of five bowls (pounds 98); Hilary Roberts, extended porcelain milk jugs in three sizes; and Victoria Bryan worked with Howell to come up with a large, unusually shaped bowl. Every detail is attended to; every piece is as tactile as the next.

Attention to detail is a big part of the collection. In stationery, to achieve the desired plainness, intense discussions took place over the exact shade of white for the paper; the alphabetic index is handblocked; and the leather "just had to be" that used on the Howell bags. The finished writing set is a pleasure to handle, although not cheap at around pounds 75. Less, as they say, is more. Everything, bar the occasional stripe, is in the neutral colour-palette for which Margaret Howell is so well known; even the packaging is a buff, if beautiful, cardboard.

If you love Margaret Howell and subscribe to her taste, you are bound to love her collection of little bits and pieces, and if you've got a few spare pounds, why not have some of them from Brook Street, rather than traipse round Paris searching. For those with a more limited budget however, you can always do what I'll do: browse round those markets yourself to find a few of your own antique linens.

The Margaret Howell Household Goods Collection is at 29 Beauchamp Place, London, W3, and at 24 Brook Street, London, W1. For enquiries, call 0171 495 4888

Karen Falconer

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