Turning the tables

House style: The British just love their mock period furniture. But at a major exhibition next week, designers will be advocating styles that are practical, fun - and contemporary. Photographs by Patrice de Villiers
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Last year saw the introduction of 100% Design, Britain's first exhibition dedicated solely to contemporary interior design. While mainly aimed at architects and interior designers, the public day attracted more than 2,000 people. And when the exhibition returns to the Duke of York's barracks in Chelsea a week tomorrow, it will be twice the size, making it the largest collection of contemporary design ever brought together in the UK.

Sheridan Coakley, manufacturer of contemporary furniture, worries about publicity: "Articles often just focus on the wackiest, weirdest pieces and it puts people off." The British are traditionally wary of modern design, partly, he thinks, because of the class system: "There's been a stigma about being `the kind of man who buys his own furniture', as Alan Clark said of Michael Heseltine. And we have a large stock of period housing, which probably also affects people's tastes."

Coakley set up his company, SCP, 10 years ago to showcase such young designers as Matthew Hilton and Jasper Morrison, and work with them to produce stylish and practical modern furniture. For a long time, most sales were to buyers abroad.

But things are changing: "In the past two years, the situation has completely reversed," says Coakley, "and now 60 per cent of our sales are in the UK."

"Britain has some of the finest contemporary furniture designers in the world," says Janice Webster of Heals, one of 100% Design's selectors. "And it's outrageous that until now they've had to work abroad. But people are getting more interested, partly because they're travelling more and seeing what's available in Europe."

"There is a public that buys cutting-edge fashion and music, and they're beginning to demand the same standards in their homes," says Sam Booth of Savage & Booth, who will be launching "metal origami" furniture at 100% Design. The flat pieces of metal used to make the furniture are thin enough to be hung on a dress rail, if necessary. ("We're hoping they won't just be sold in furniture outlets," he says.) You fold the furniture along pre-cut lines and secure it with screws. "But all the screws are the same, so there's no fussing about," says Booth. "It's quick and foolproof."

Making something easier, cheaper or better is at the core of contemporary design. As Coakley points out, "The design of a table hasn't changed much in several thousand years." But ways of manufacturing it, choices of colour or material and the price can be improved, and Simon Pengelly thinks he has the answer with a special patented joint which attaches - or disassembles - the legs to the tabletop with a few quick taps.

"It's designed to work with a very thin laminated top, which can come in a fantastically wide variety of colours," he says. "The main advantage is that the manufacturers won't need glue, fittings or screws, so there's potential to make it very cheaply. And being able to put the table easily to one side is an extra bonus."

A set of shelving designed by Terence Woodgate for SCP is equally simple: traditional flat-pack furniture may be cheap and offer thousands of options, but assembling it can wipe out an afternoon and try the temper. Woodgate's Parallel Shelves have just two components - the shelves themselves and ladder-style uprights. The two slot together in seconds - even the least practical person could do it in less than five minutes.

Furniture for dual-purpose rooms is another new demand in a world where space is increasingly at a premium. Award- winning husband-and-wife team Shin and Tomoko Azumi's table-chest is a neat, light chest with two drawers, perfect for a bedside or occasional table. It quickly unfolds, without disturbing the contents of the drawers, into a low coffee table.

"There's a history of using rooms for several purposes in Japan," says Shin Azumi. The table-chest is an ideal piece for those with small homes and low budgets but, at pounds 535, Azumi thinks it too expensive for most of those, so it is mainly bought by better-off lovers of modern design. "We hope to get involved with larger-scale manufacturing soon, and this would bring the price down," he says.

Small runs and high manufacturing costs can make some pieces more like one-off works of art than furniture. "Our pom-pom stools finish up costing pounds 300 by the time they're in the shops," says Evelynn Smith of the design duo Precious McBane. Fortunately, the company has clients such as Prince to commission distinctive one-off works - starting at around pounds 1,200 - which include tartan chests of drawers with nipped-in waists and sturdy Scottish legs, stools that take their inspiration from shaggy Highland sheep and "Hair Chairs" - where the back of each chair is upholstered in black and white with a different "hairstyle".

Larger runs and mass-market manufacturing would require a revolution among Britain's furniture retailers, who've been accused of being moribund by even the most traditional of furniture manufacturers. "The success of Ikea shows that if people are offered modern design, then they buy it," says Coakley. And Habitat - still the UK's largest chain of contemporary furniture stores - has moved further towards clean, modern lines under the influence of the design supremo Gregorio Cappa, enticed from Italian furniture company, Capellini. "The latest lines are very streamlined and distinctively Italian, and their initial sales have been phenomenal," says Ben Weaver of Habitat. "But it's partly because we present them within a fashionable, but unthreatening, environment. Some furniture shops just put on a display of modern furniture and it can look quite scary."

Other retailers treat furniture shoppers as a race apart - look at the difference, for example, between Marks & Spencer's fashionable clothing ranges or stylish cookware section and their ultra-conservative bigger pieces of furniture.

Of course, a sofa is 10 times the cost of a dress or suit, and no one wants to find themselves with the furnishing equivalent of a puffball skirt. But if you ask an expert what to look for in modern design, you get a surprisingly old-fashioned list of qualities. "It has to have a good finish, be comfortable, practical and work with everything else you have in the room. And don't spend a fortune on something you're not sure about," says Joseph Corre, who imports Edra Mazzei furniture from Italy.

Edra is not for the fainthearted, but, as Vivienne Westood's son, Corre is accustomed to controversy. He came across the company when he wanted to start a sex emporium. "The finances didn't work out and we started Agent Provocateur, a small Soho lingerie shop instead, but Edra asked us to represent them." As well as the sensuous velvet sofas and chairs - a sofa with an adjustable back and side arms, called "A Man and A Woman" is their best-seller - there are also chairs and tables. "What's great about them is that the tables come in 40 sizes and 64 colours," says Corre.

"It's up to retailers and manufacturers to make sure that their designs are relevant to life today," adds Coakley briskly, admitting that in the past there has been an element of art for art's sake at the contemporary end of the market. "But what with the influence of people like Sir Terence Conran, and the use of modern design in advertising, people are now beginning to realise that they don't have to live in a pastiche of the past"

100% Design, 29 September-2 October (open to the public on 2 October, 10am-8pm). Entrance pounds l0. Duke of York's Headquarters, King's Road, London SW3. Advance tickets, pounds 5 from the Ticket Hotline 01332 345566. The first 50 `Independent Magazine' readers who mention this article will receive free tickets.

SCP, 0171 739 186; Heals, 0171 636 1666; Savage & Booth, 0141 221 1214; Simon Pengelly, 0181 947 8631; Shin & Tomoko Azumi, 0171 435 5398; Precious McBane, 0171 267 9643; Habitat stores 0645 334433; Agent Provocateur, 0171 287 5001.

Right Hair Chairs, commission only, pom-pom stools, pounds 300, from Precious McBane. `If the pom-pom stool gets dirty, you just give it a shampoo and set. And if it flattens out from people sitting on it, a quick re-style with a hairbrush fluffs it up again' - Evelynn Smith, left, and Meriel Scott, designers, Precious McBane. Below right Vanity Jane bedroom/bathroom/make-up cabin et, pounds 1,200. `The holster is really useful for make-up brushes, and there are leather bullet holders for lipsticks at the back of the belt'

Below Kitchen table, unpriced, by Simon Pengelly. `This is easier to manufacture - because you don't need screws, glue or fittings - and more convenient in the home because you can take it apart, and put it back together again, with a few quick tapsof a hammer' - Simon Pengelly, designer

Edra Rose chair, pounds 2,200. `I'd never seen anything like this furniture when I first saw it, and neither had anyone else. It looks stylish, but it's brilliantly comfortable. And it's even better in red' - Joseph Corre, importer

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