Shopping: Just follow the signs to create a more stylish home

They're fun, they're fab, and they're the latest fashion accessories - symbols are back. By Rhiannon Batten
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Next time you head for the toilet, take a second look at where you're going. Those brushed stainless-steel WC signs apparently directing you on your way may well have been bought at The Conran Shop (pounds 26 for two) for no other reason than to hide a mottled section of wallpaper. The reason is that conspicuous details are in again.

But before you rush joyously to Harrods and the new Lacoste boutique (opening next month) in a swoon of Eighties nostalgia, be aware that this time around the details are in keeping with the understated Nineties. Now they are all to do with the subtleties of symbolism and very little to do with parading a tongue-torturing designer name across your chest.

Hence the current platoon of standardised miniature people standing inanimate guard on the shelves of fashionable shops, from clothes to kitchenware. Octopus washbags (pounds 28, while stocks last), for example, picture an appropriately hygiene-slanted "ladies and gents" symbol as a clue to its function, and Ocean's Lung ashtray (pounds 9.95) is a sleeker way of stating the obvious than having a Government Health warning tripping round the rim.

Some of this symbolism is more surreptitious. Where Out of the Earth's Eat plates (pounds 9.95) and Milk and Water glasses (pounds 4.95 each) are as upfront as can be about their purpose, Aero's milk glasses (pounds 1.50) are positively undercover. Made from recycled glass, these incorporate an embossed cow poking out from the side, just to lay down the law should you foolishly try to fill their insides with anything more racy than a milkshake. Similarly, the pictocards designed by Pentagram for Aero (pounds 1 each), are versatile enough to underscore the significance of any message.

So, why this sudden popularity for symbolic decoration? Nazanin Kamali, Creative Director at Aero suggests the picture-tells-a-thousand-words explanation. "Symbols are a universal language and have been around for a long time," she maintains. "With people becoming more computer literate, and using books of symbols as reference tools for their work, they are becoming even more familiar with this way of communicating. It is no surprise that this is translating into the products that people want to buy."

The appeal of symbols in the workplace is obvious. Who wouldn't prefer to express themselves in a way that takes 10 seconds rather than 200? And this practicality extends to the home. Plug ikons (pounds 5.95 per pack with six A5 sheets of 12 ikons) from Out of the Earth could save masses of fuddle-time by displaying immediately which plug is connected to which appliance, especially useful for anyone with dyslexic tendencies.

The problem with all this, though, is that life has the potential to be excruciatingly dull. Minimalist interiors are all very well, particularly if they free up the mind for more creative pursuits, but where is all the fun in a lifestyle where you drink in sorry sequence from a numbered glass (Numeri, pounds 1 each, Habitat) and wash with a soap that reminds you just how far off Friday is by having the correct day of the week inscribed on it (Daily soaps by DMD, pounds 4 for seven, Same)?

Even worse, imagine preparing for dinner with the Zero earthenware range from The Conran Shop (from pounds 13.95 each). Instead of actually having to lift the lid off a storage container to find which jar the pasta is in, you would simply pick up the insta-labelled container from the shelf.

But before you reach into your Thomas Ericksson First Aid cross-cum-bathroom cabinet (pounds 313, Viaduct) for a large dose of pills, take heart from the fact that the image of domestic horror that these objects evoke, is not what it seems. These "symbolic" products aren't designed to be taken seriously - the fun starts where the stereotypes are reversed, and practical and functional everyday signs are used simply and brazenly for decoration rather than for utility or meaning.

Felicity Warbrick, of Minx Design, suggests that the popularity of its symbol lightboxes (pounds 140) is to do with the two ways of using them. "The symbols don't necessarily mean anything," she explains. "They can be used in a practical way - if you have the Telephone lightbox above the phone or the Toothpaste one in the bathroom - but others are purely decorative. Somebody once bought the Shopping Trolley lightbox to put in a nightclub, where obviously there are no shopping trolleys hanging around."

This lighthearted use of graphic-type symbols is perfect for playful decorators. If the design gurus are right, and bright colours are "out", then symbolic decoration is an appealingly quirky way to jazz up plain white objects without ending up with an eye-popping multicoloured extravaganza for a home.

You can serve up bright-coloured juices to masters, mistresses and whoever else you please in Miss, Mr and Mrs glasses (pounds 2 each, Purves and Purves) and loll on the barcoded lines of Carouschka's Round Medium rug (pounds 1,090, Same), without letting it come anywhere near a checkout's laser scanner.

Creative types can get in on the act in time for Valentines Day with a trip to Glazed & Amused to craft their own symbolic designs (from pounds 9). Alternatively, you can simply head down to Habitat and pick up a set of Graphics tablemats (pounds 3.50 each), and coasters (pounds 5.95 for a set of six), some Numbers crockery (from pounds 2.25), a co-ordinating Cutlery picnic rug (pounds 20) for al fresco luncheons, and a Showerhead shower curtain (pounds 15) for the bathroom.

The main thing is to have some fun. So, if you see someone casually walking down the street with a cross emblazoned on their bag, don't be tempted to ask them for medical assistance - the most they're likely to be carrying in the way of medical supplies is a packet of cigarettes and a pot of lip balm.

Stockists: Aero (0181-971 0066 for mail order); The Conran Shop (0171- 589 7401); Glazed & Amused (0171-792 9394); Habitat (0645 334433 for nearest store); Minx Design (0171-289 5621); Ocean (0870 8484840); Octopus (0171- 836 2911); Out of the Earth (0181-563 9991); Purves and Purves (0171-580 8223); Same (0171-247 9992); Viaduct (0171 278 8456)