The art of modern living: Wonky shelves and a beanbag

The latest trend in home furnishing is small, friendly stores with individually chosen and ever-changing ranges. Angela Buttolph goes shopping
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have seen the future of furniture - and it's tiny. Not

the furniture itself, of course (although Spaced Out's

"bum-loving" beanbags are surprisingly compact).

I'm talking about the current retail revolution in independent interiors stores that are small but perfectly furnished with the coolest in contemporary design.

"Smaller shops are taking off because people want to see something a bit different," claims Zack Pulman of Spaced Out. "All the new lifestyle magazines have given people the confidence to start finding their own style."

"We do sell different things," says Emma Oldham of Space. "One of the advantages of being small is that you can move faster to get things in- store before everyone else." While she admits bigger stores have better pulling power with big-name suppliers she contends that "we can buy in small quantities from up-and-coming talent".

Modern Living's Alex Godikian agrees buying power is overrated: "Top furniture showrooms have an obsession with exclusivity, but it can make a store static; there's no pressure to move on and find new stuff. We always try to stay one step ahead."

One of the ways the new indie stores are doing this is by producing their own capsule collections. According to Pulman, "It's possible for small shops to produce small runs of their own products." Andrew Harrold of Nice House claims his collection, Home Produce, keeps the store feeling "brand new - rather than just filling a showroom with the classics".

Some of the new shops are not exactly stacked with stock. Spaced Out currently only has three different products on sale: a beanbag, a CD rack and a lamp. At Mission, meanwhile, the small books kiosk in the entrance is sometimes the only selling space. This is because the shops are often sidelines for other ventures: Lipp is also a design company; Spaced Out is an architectural practice; Bow Wow is an interior design firm; Nice House is a furniture distribution business; and Mission houses a public relations company and architectural practice as well as the "commerce and culture showspace". Which perhaps explains why each company is so keen to spread the word about contemporary design with such passion.

The new indie interiors stores are putting the fun back into furniture shopping. Tell Same's Rory Dodd that his squashy silver Air Bag chair looks ridiculous and he'll snigger and agree with you. Make the same comment in a swish showroom and they'll probably lock you in the nearest (Jasper Morrison) cabinet. These new stores want to make you feel at home - what better atmosphere for furniture shopping?

Bow Wow "People will buy these pieces on emotion," says Ahmed Sidki, of Bow Wow's touchy-feely textiles - Mongolian-lamb cushions, "koala skin" throws, ponyskin seats. "If you run your fingers over a cushion and it makes you feel good, you'll want to take it home." The store itself is a home-from-home, "candles, nice music, a glass of wine or a coffee and a chat. It's like visiting a friend - except you can buy everything."

Bow Wow is full of surprises; a holly-wood bowl by Gordon Mitchell is egg-shell light, Mari-Ruth Oda's stunning "sitables" look like huge white stones but are moulded ceramics (Sidki calls them "large friendly shapes; perfect to have around the pool"). The store is testament to Sidki's interior design skills. He also takes commissions for his own furniture, such as a chic coffee table that looks like beechwood, but is actually calfskin.

The personal touch is important to Sidki. He loves, and stocks, a range of Fifties Scandinavian glass. "If you like pieces individually, you can make them all work together; face it, the style of most people's homes is quite eclectic. Everything finds its place somehow." Bow Wow, 70 Princedale Road, London W11 (0171-792 8532).

Modern Living "We really believe that stuff shouldn't cost any more just because its well designed," says Alex Godikian, owner of Manchester's Modern Living store, pointing out that even the famous Italian design company Alessi has begun to lower its prices. Now a year old, the small split-level store has "affordable accessories in exuberant colours", from Droog's squashy rubber vases to Koziol's genius pod-shaped plastic bread bins. "I like funky minimalism; simple designs which are trendy, but will also last. Our style is logical, effective; we believe in utilitarianism."

Godikian's own label, UFO (Unidentified Furniture Objects), includes wacky two-seater beanbags, deceptively simple glass-framed mirrors and the UFO lamp, a giant glowing plastic cube for pounds 14. Ron Arad's curly bookworm shelf and Zanotta sofas stand next to local design talent such as Nick Giourgiou's brightly coloured Wonky shelves and Steve Newby's stainless-steel armchair. It costs pounds 1,200, but a matching ashtray is available for pounds 49. Modern Living, 14 St Mary's Street, Manchester (0161 819 2880).

Lipp Lipp was launched as a showroom and design company in November 1997 by 30-somethings Kyle Shipstone, Tara Ford and Heike Brandt. "We all buy the pieces together but a lot of time is taken up with the design work," says Shipstone. They design and build their own furniture, including design-savvy desks and purple pouty sofas. "People are starting to think, why go to any of the big stores when all you can find are really similar things?" claims Shipstone. "We've got something more specialised."

That speciality is stealth wealth: low-key luxury such as leather storage boxes, ceramic-mosaic framed mirrors, suede floor- cushions, large scented candles, paper lampshades on wengewood bases. Even the radiators have a certain elegance: tall silver springs or mysterious slim black tubes that somehow manage to combine feng shui with function. Lipp, 118a Holland Park, London W11 (0171-243 2432).

Nice House Next time you're sitting in one of Conran's restaurants such as Mezzo or Quaglino's, contemplating how to swipe one of those funky aluminium Prison chairs (along with the ubiquitous ashtray souvenir), contact Nice House's Andy Harrold instead. One of the UK's top furniture distributors, Harrold has the rights to London's neatest seats - "probably to Conran's annoyance" he laughs.

Nice House's retail operation opened a year ago in a vast double-height space in Glasgow's Italian Centre, stocking the best in contemporary international design, starting with Le Corbusier's 1927 chaise longue.

The distribution business is now in its 10th year, and Harrold is "happy in the role of producer and editor", especially now that he has launched his in-house collection, Home Produce, showcasing the hottest Scottish design talent. There's Janice Kirk Patrick's leather bull-shaped seats, One Foot Taller's light and transparent plastic chairs, and Will Mitchell's Quicken box, a beech cube with sliding lid for hanging files inside and standing a fax machine on.

"Home Produce keeps Nice House feeling brand new," says Harrold, "and we try to integrate it with the designer pieces." Nice House, Italian Centre, Ingram Street, Glasgow (0141 553 1377).

Same Set in a vast open space on Brick Lane, Same is the nearest you'll get to a designer adventure playground. Owners Piers Roberts and Rory Dodds met while studying furniture design at college, yet have maintained a laid-back, layman's approach: "We want people to enjoy new design." An exhibition space has been set up "to excite and educate customers".

Aside from the best of designer furniture, the chunky geometric upholstery, simple Swedish woodwork and exciting lighting by Ingo Maurer, Same welcomes you to "Droogy corner", displaying the innovative Dutch design forum's squashy rubber vases and basins, and "Michael Sodeau's World of Wicker" with furniture and standard lamps made from structured woven cane. The Brit pack is also featured: Inflate's rubbery letter-holders, Tom Dixon's Jack lamps, and tilting tables and house-of-cards shelving by Alex Macdonald. Pocket-money objects are a speciality, from clashy, chunky bowls by Memphis designer Ettore Sottsass to Alessi designer Alessandro Mendini's geometric wall vases. Same, mezzanine floor, 146 Brick Lane, London E1 (0171-247 9992).

Mission Designed by architect Misha Stefan, the compact, curvy interior incorporates his ingenious space-saving "Furnitecture", swivelling/folding storage, slide-away tables and shelving. But Mission is more than just a showroom for Stefan's architecture - "it's a commerce and culture showspace".

The venture was launched six months ago by Stefan and his partner, PR Yvonne Courtney, as a venue for exhibitions and events. The Mission statement was to "surprise, educate and inspire", starting with an exciting lighting exhibition, Out of Darkness, which displayed and sold Droog's Milkbottle lights, Sebastian Bergne's domino-shaped Lio lamp and Becky Young's LED bags. Four weeks later the space was reinvented as a (non-selling) retrospective of Diesel's maverick fashion.

In September, Mission launches Tonic, its own collection of modernist fibreglass furniture; including a hollow seat for storage with a cushion slotted inside, and a low-slung coffee table/magazine rack. Surprise, educate, inspire? Mission accomplished. Mission, 45 Hereford Road, London W2 (0171-792 4633).

Space Originally launched by Brit-pack designer Tom Dixon with Emma Oldham, who now owns it alone, Space has left its All Saints Road home for Westbourne Grove. The white space looks like a rock star's duplex, with pop-art vinyl furniture (Edra's white modular seating - pounds 6,000 a pop), installation- style lights (Owain George's glowing red cube on castors), and Le Page's wavy perspex vases with neon-coloured outer edges.

The look is quirky but cool, with individual pieces that are desirably different. No wonder Bjork, Damon Albarn and Donna Karan are familiar faces here. "I've really stuck with my own taste," says Oldham, looking reassuringly style-savvy in a Tracy Feith sari slip-dress. "I don't want to be different just for the sake of it." Space, 214 Westbourne Grove, London W2 (0171-229 6533).

Spaced Out Given that space is at a premium, it's probably just as well that Spaced Out has a very limited (if very cool) range of products. Those- in-the-know are dropping in on Saturdays (or by appointment during the week) to pick up products by Spaced Out's partners, interior designer Zach Pulman and architect James Engel, who claim their Pill light, Lozenger rack and portable pouffe define their style: simple but adaptable.

The endlessly versatile Pill lamp (a strip light neatly encased in a long plastic box) is available in a mix-and-match range of colours, which can make it look "trippy or suave", says Pulman. Their "sorted" storage has also been a hit; the metal Lozenger racks used to store "CDs, wine or socks" and transparent, self-supporting shelving made from riot-shield material (a blast from a hair dryer magically erases any scratches). Spaced Out co-resident Andie Scott has designed a compact beanbag -"the bum-loving cushion" - in leather or clear plastic. "The idea is you sit on it, not in it and it doesn't take up the whole living room." Spaced Out, 46 Penton Street, London N1 (0171-833 9236)