The new mail order companies are fast, affordable and design-conscious. And there's not a Dralon sofa-bed in sight, says James Sherwood
MAIL ORDER shopping needed a face-lift. For years, it's been the down-market option, largely peddling faux-antique or quaintly rustic-style goods for the mass market. No-one who sought innovation and fine design would go looking for it in a mail order catalogue. Now, however, made over for the Nineties, interiors home shopping has trimmed the fat and transformed.

"Eradicate from your mind cheap and cheerful," says Elle Decoration's shopping editor Suzanne Stankus. "The new breed of catalogues like Maison, Aeromail and Ocean are showcasing high-quality design in a convenient package." Home shopping is no longer about buying a sofa or a CD player on the never-never. Modern lifestyles drain the time and energy to shop and make catalogues a key player in interior design.

Ocean produces a quarterly directory of smart, sharp interior design and accessories. Delivery is guaranteed within a day. "Traditionally, mail order was a notoriously slow service - 28 days delivery - and used primarily for extended credit," says Ocean managing director Aamir Ahmad. "I launched Ocean because I knew there were customers with a high level of design awareness who wanted great design and top-level service." Contemporary classics like the Guzzini toaster (pounds 65) and Alessi cheese grater (pounds 22.95) marginally undercut major high street interiors emporia. But Ocean's strength is in its distressed wood furniture from the Ocean Drift range (from pounds 359). Ocean has cleverly worked with young British designers and features perky items such as the silver Rocker salt and pepper pot (pounds 44.95) and beech plywood magazine rack (pounds 34.95).

As Next home catalogue so eloquently demonstrates, it takes more than lime green emulsion and a calico shoe tidy to make a modern interior. The innovators are the interiors shops that stamp their own style on the market before moving into mail order. Maison, the mail order directory for the Grand Illusions shops, cleverly eschews the catalogue philosophy of "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap". It is a beautifully designed magazine which would sit happily on your coffee table. Directors Nick Ronald and David Roberts, celebrating Grand Illusions's tenth anniversary, identify "basic design that combines function with beauty" as the core of Maison's appeal. William Morris may have said it first, but Maison have tapped into an ethos as pertinent to the 1990s as to the 1890s.

The colour palette chosen by Roberts and Ronald - vanilla, pistachio and duck egg blue - is in sharp contrast to the current Manhattan-loft, industrial style. If you've seen the delicate rustic pastels in Monet's house at Giverny, then you'll understand where Maison is coming from. Many of the pieces are sourced in France, Spain and Holland, so you won't find them anywhere else in Britain. The gently distressed Monet's Love Seat (pounds 425) and butterscotch and blue earthenware ceramics (from pounds 6.50) are the closest you will get to heaven in a catalogue.

Nineties interiors are a balancing act between extreme schools of thought. Maison is on the right side of rustic modern; Aeromail is an urban modernist's bible. Opened in 1991, Aero in Westbourne Grove is a shrine to sleek, modern furniture design. Assistant manager Jonathan MacNab says, "Aero furniture and accessories are designed to be used. It is design with an eye to the utilitarian as much as the aesthetic. Aeromail was launched in autumn 1996 to meet the demands of people who couldn't easily make it to the showroom."

Aeromail have shot their directory like an interiors spread for Wallpaper. A coated steel Meco chair (pounds 25), or chrome-coated steel ten-drawer cabinet (pounds 105), from Aeromail are the kind of pieces you didn't know how you lived without. The sinuous Lolita sofa (pounds 1,250) is edible. The beech and silver Demo office chair (pounds 145) is a thing of beauty and practicality.

The new mail-order companies have targeted the Internet as the best forum for moving catalogue shopping into the next millennium. Haus, London's newest showcase of twentieth-century classic design, opened in W1 in 1997. Side-stepping catalogues altogether, Haus skipped straight on to the Net. 1011 surfers had already accessed the Haus site before Real Life logged on. The Studio collection from Knoll features pieces by design giants Mies van der Rohe and Charles Pollock. The contemporary design pages include young designers commissioned by Haus.

"We are a niche market operation for people who appreciate twentieth- century classics," says Haus director Michael Matthewson. "Our customers tend to know what they want. We launched on the Net because many of our customers are from the international market." With prices from pounds 200 to pounds 25,000, you get the feeling Haus is for the connoisseur collectors among us.

As Elle Decoration's Suzanne Stankus says, "People are using interiors magazines increasingly as catalogues. They use them to shop." Magazines also contain a slew of catalogue inserts that you ignore at your peril. McCord, one of the most ubiquitous, with its quality pine and rattan, is a million miles from the likes of Haus, but does contain some genuine bargains.

Some of the smaller catalogues contain the most interesting finds. House is a concise, uncluttered 15-page mail order book launched by the Hambledon Gallery in Dorset. "We are in no way folksy or country-style," says House director Victoria Suffield. "There are hundreds of people in the UK who want good design and don't want to travel to London for it." In House's closely edited directory are silver beaded waste-paper baskets (pounds 53.95), frosted glass jewel-coloured glasses (pounds 2.50) and Moroccan tea glasses (pounds 14.95 for six).

But the big surprise is in that giant of mail order, one that you don't readily associate with interiors or, it has to be said, with cutting-edge design. Freemans. Yes, it still caters to wannabe Jane Ashers with country kitchen bread bins and British racing green knife sets. But get a load of their "Contemporary Co-ordination" pages. Three stainless steel bowls for pounds 10. Three strainers for pounds 25. A chrome-based blender for pounds 45. It's not something you'd want to leave lying on your coffee table, but mine is going to lurk in my kitchen cupboard while I tell everyone the frosted storage jars (pounds 28 for four) are from Conran and the cow print kettle (pounds 28) by Philippe Starck.

Aeromail: 0181 821 4030, web address; Freemans:

Freephone 0800 900 200; Haus:; House: 01258 454884; Maison: 0181 892 2151; McCord: 0990 535455, web address; Next: 0345 100 500; Ocean: Freephone 0800 132 985

Captions: From Ocean: magazine rack, pounds 34.95, Ocean Drift coffee table, pounds 359, Alessi jars, pounds 10.95, bottle openers, pounds 9.95, Alessi cheese graters, pounds 22.95, salt and pepper set, pounds 49.95

From Maison: housekeeper's cupboard, pounds 1050, Monet's Love Seat, pounds 425. From Freeman's: clock, pounds 25, kettle, pounds 25, blender, pounds 45. From Maison: La Cuenco crockery from pounds 6.50

From Maison: heavy pot board server, pounds 470, wired bathroom cabinet, pounds 130. From Aeromail: Sebastian Bergne soap dish, pounds 14.50, cherry veneer bookcase cabinet, pounds 2,100

From Aeromail: wall clock, pounds 49, coloured steel occasional tables, pounds 29 each, shot glasses, pounds 13.20 for set of six. From Haus: glass chair by Cini Boeri for Fiam, pounds 2,550