My sofa? That'll be pounds 1,000

The new home shopping has nothing to do with trash TV. It's about seeing furniture in the right setting - somebody else's house. DOMINIC LUTYENS reports

High street retailers have brought design into the homes of millions, but their success has come at a price - originality. Save up for a settee from Heals and chances are that when you show it off, your friends will say "I know someone who's got one of those", or worse, "That's from Ikea, isn't it?". And buying is no picnic - have you ever dared the madness that is Habitat on a Sunday morning?

"We're witnessing a massive reaction against the bland, sanitised high street," says Jinanne Abou-Seoud, a half-Saudi, half-American interior designer. Her response has been to open her peaceful Notting Hill home as a showroom/design consultancy called Jinan, and other designers are following suit.

Jinan is a serious selling space for contemporary design with soaring ceilings, a magnificent Victorian fireplace and a modern chandelier that doesn't hang from the ceiling but hugs it. Much of the furniture and accessories are in fashionably dark wood or cream. Parchment lampshades contrast with mirrors framed with freeze-dried, black magnolia leaves.

In addition to Jinan's own range of furniture, Dialogica, there are stools made from reclaimed wood by Anthony Evans and lamps by Mark Brazier-Jones. Abou-Seoud sums up her style as "Fifties chic".

"What we're doing is selfish," she says. "We're all mothers." Business partner Maggie Greening is pregnant, colleague Lorraine da Costa has two young children and Abou-Seoud a baby girl, Talitha. "Sometimes, she sits in the middle of the floor, which our clients like. Many have children and appreciate a child-friendly environment."

Abou-Seoud used to run Jinan Furniture Gallery in Golden Square, London, but, heavily pregnant, couldn't hack the daily hassle of "noise, traffic, transport". "I needed a break from the chaos that is the West End. It suits our customers, too. In Soho, they suffered from the parking metres: pounds 1 for 15 minutes.

"I've lived in my basement flat for five years, and when the floor above became vacant, I thought why not sell our stuff from here. It makes sense to sell furniture in a domestic context. People can visualise how it will look in their own home. This kind of space gives a better idea of human scale. In the Soho gallery, people bought things on approval to check they weren't too big. Here, that's not so necessary."

Jinan's intimate atmosphere is also conducive to throwing parties so clients and designers can meet. This is important because the biggest danger with a project of this sort is that Jinan will get forgotten when people are shopping for furniture. "Being remembered is a hurdle which you have to address constantly. It's important to keep in contact with clients through invitations, events and exhibitions."

Jinan is part of a growing trend. Julie Thorne and retail veteran Sue Tahran, director of American Retro, are the brains behind Suite 3, subtitled "a different shop". A quarterly shopping event - the first takes place from 30 September to 3 October - it will sell funky contemporary design, clothing and art from Tahran's home in Canonbury, north London.

Suite 3 is an abbreviation of Suite 303 - a room at New York's Chelsea Hotel and now a showroom for up-and-coming designers. Suite 3 mark one will sell furniture by Jane Atfield, Shin and Tomoko Azumi and El Ultimo Grito, as well as soft furnishings by budding brands twinset and Claire O'Hea. "The goods will be more individual - there won't be any Alessi kitchen accessories. They'll more expensive, but we're sure our clients will be willing to pay more for something they can't get elsewhere."

Goods will be distributed around the house logically: kitchen things will be found in the kitchen, bathroom bits in the bathroom, etc. "In shops, the stock always looks static and artificial," says Thorne. "This way you can see things how you'd live with them at home."

Does she see it as the way forward in retail? "Very possibly. People are looking for a more personal shopping experience. We're all being sold this idea of buying on the internet but to me that seems very cold. You can't touch and smell things on the net. This approach is far more sensual."

Visits to Jinan (tel: 0171 229 9006) and Suite 3 (tel: 0181 546 6680) are by invitation only.

MORE THAN A PEEK THROUGH THE KEYHOLE

You can't buy the furniture in these homes, but they're a source of inspiration for designers.

SIR JOHN SOANE MUSEUM

13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2 (tel: 0171 430 0175).

Soane (early 19th century) used convex mirrors to enhance space. Colours are bright: the upstairs Yellow Drawing Room inspired Papers And Paints to manufacture a paint called Soane Yellow.

ELTHAM PALACE

off Court Road, Eltham, London SE9 (tel: 0181 294 2548).

This sumptuous Art Deco house was built in 1936 by millionaire Stephen Courtauld. Both ocean liner and Hollywood in feel. Look out for the black and silver dining room and onyx bathroom with gold mosaic tiles.

WIGHTWICK MANOR

Wightwick Bank, Wolverhampton (01902 761400).

A fine example of the Arts and Crafts style (built 1887). It has many Morris wallpapers and fabrics and tiles by

Kampe and de Morgan.

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