Shopping: All the world's a store

Ethnic is chic again, but care is needed to find the right items - strong shapes are the most stylish.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Think again if talk of ethnic trends evokes images of colourful Indian bazaars and ageing hippies. And this time think big, think bold, think clutter-free karma. For, while ethnicity is clearly ruling the domestic roost, it has been born again as global minimalism.

The new global chic is about beautiful pieces and a very modern look. Quiet and cultured, it is the ultimate in all that is calm, meditative and perfectly proportioned. Yet, as Michael Reeves (1998 International Interior Designer of the Year) reflects, it can be large in scale and is certainly not afraid to make dramatic statements via shape or colour.

In Reeves's South Kensington shop, African masks (pounds 185), heavy wooden shanti stools (from pounds 325), and Mogul shields (pounds 720) provide highlights around modern sleek chairs (he's about to launch a collection in Joseph, Fulham Road) and imposing, in-laid cabinets.

"I love art deco, but 100 per cent art deco is dead," he says. "The whammy, wow factor comes from something old, ethnic or oriental. It's the eclectic mix and the scale of things that matters. I'm not one for Chinese, Oriental or African knick-knacks. I use pieces for statements, anything ethnic that has a very strong shape."

Reeves opened his shop after realising that he spent most of his time scouting around trade fairs or antique markets for his interiors clients. Among his favourite pieces at the moment are Chinese hardwood chairs (pounds 750), and aged wooden cartwheels which he mounts on wooden plinths with steel rods, and which are as effective as any modern sculpture. At pounds 675 they are not cheap but, nevertheless, are in short supply. "I just went to the dealer to buy another 10," says Reeves. "But I only managed to secure four as they've sold out so fast."

Contrasts - scale and texture, old and new - feature strongly in fellow interior designer William Yeoward's warehouse in Battersea. He's transformed it from an old wreck into a place where, he says, people would want to live.

After working for others, like Tricia Guild, Yeoward decided to go it alone: "I'd started travelling - Asia, Australia - and realised there was a lot in the world that was wonderful. So I started to import stuff. I love really good craftsmanship - bone, basketware, pottery - but often when I see good quality work, the design isn't what I'd chose, so I work with them. For example, in Indonesia the bottles are covered in the finest wicker. But I'd decide to do wicker lamps, tables or bases. It can be the same in Cornwall: I'll change a mug into an umbrella stand, I'm not frightened of scale. It's a matter of twisting the elements and making them fit into the formula."

One of the advantages of shopping with a Yeoward or Reeves is that they help you organise disparate pieces into a harmonious whole. Simon Scott Ray, owner of Chichester-based Encompass Furniture and Accessories, doesn't do that. But his imports, hunted out from Mexican villages and made using indigenous skills (he studied and worked in Mexico and now spends many months there each year) have already been noticed by the likes of David Champion, Louis Vuitton and the General Trading Company.

"In Mexico, there's a different attitude to artisans" he says, anxious to knock back any idea that he might be exploiting people. "They're a respected class, revered for the traditional, beautiful things they make, turned into their own art form."

He sells several different ranges: latticed furniture, made in Mexico by a Frenchman from sustainable tropical hardwood (from pounds 220 for a footstool, or pounds 1,035 a loveseat); sand-cast aluminium furniture (from pounds 1,189 for a table and four chairs), calada lamps (from pounds 169) and hand-carved basalt sculptures (pestle and mortar pounds 12, planter pounds 165). "The artisans have taken the traditional pestle and mortar form, for which they are famous, a few steps further," explains Simon Scott Ray. "As they are non-porous, they're suitable for beautiful, minimalist interiors filled with lilies or orchids. Or as bird baths or sculptures outside." He also sells antique sweet moulds as candle holders (from pounds 160). "If things look good together, they can be antique, Mexican, or Swedish - they all work for me," he adds.

This is the essence of Browns Living, the homewares extension to the designer fashion store, where Vietnamese crackled porcelain bowls (pounds 18) and black lacquered plates (pounds 45) are equally at home with woven Vietnamese chicken baskets (from pounds 35) or African oak plates (pounds 600). There are even cushions (pounds 1,395) and bolsters (pounds 850) made of antique Japanese kimonos. "We constantly have new things coming from all over the world - Europe, Middle East, Africa, America," says the manager, Guity Benjamin.

Finding beautiful products from around the world is certainly not a problem today. Country-specific shops, like the India Shop in Marlborough (mail order catalogue also available) or the more Indonesian-biased Ananda in Brighton, are springing up all across Britain. The Somerset-based Sala Design, for example, has a wonderful, diverse collection of contemporary African pieces, including bowls and jars made from Kenyan soapstone (from pounds 8.95), sisal baskets (from pounds 6.95) and milk jugs made from African old wood (from pounds 24.95).

Many high street stores also have an excellent selection: John Lewis has Andrew Martin's striking fabrics, including Ming (pounds 29.90 per metre) in a choice of rust red, caramel or cream with large black calligraphy (unfortunately, there's more style than substance as the words mean nothing); and hand-woven Gabbeh rugs made by Iranian tribes. Designer's Guild has a selection of Japanese incense (from pounds 27) and beautifully packaged Vietnamese rice bowls (pounds 4.50) and teapots (pounds 39).

Modern ethnic is modern chic. Wherever one looks, it will be there in some form. But, it's worth remembering that it only works when dipped into in an occasional, selective manner. The art is in spotting a beautiful piece (or two) from around the world that speaks volumes, but which is too modest to want to be the centre of attention at the household party.

Ananda: 01273 725307

Browns Living: 0171-514 0000

Designers Guild: 0171-351 5775

Encompass: 01256 862353

John Lewis: 0171-629 7711 for nearest store

Michael Reeves: 0171-225 2501

Sala: 01935 827051

The India Shop: 01672 515585

Yeoward South: 0171-498 4811