Shopping: Update your windows with designs worth their salt

A London-based duo are transforming window blinds with their innovative use of textiles.

Wake up to the sight of a blind from Salt and you might easily think you were still dreaming. It's not hard to see why: in the half-light, the company's organic-looking, three-dimensional creations could conjure up surreal visions of, say, a rockface smothered with barnacles, dinosaur vertebrae or tetrahedra. Blinds hazily reminiscent of trips to the Natural History Museum might not be everyone's dream design discovery, but don't be put off.

Made of knitted and woven textiles in the subtlest of hand-dyed shades, the blinds are as beautiful as they are arresting. "Blinds are a product no one had really looked at for years, so it seemed a logical area to go into," says Karina Holmes, who, with June Swindell, set up Salt in 1996. "We had a gut feeling that there was room for our ideas. And there was: we discovered that people wanted different, interesting blinds.

"Contemporary design had been about furniture for the past 10 years," continues Holmes. "But we've entered a new area, which we call `working textiles' because our blinds are not only functional but also decorative, thanks to their textures and forms. The funny thing is, big furniture designers are now using highly textured fabrics: boucles and unusual yarns. Even so, agents still don't know what bracket to put us in because we're not textile designers in the traditional sense."

Not that the Salt duo - who also make screens - have always relied on agents' help. Holmes, who has an MA in knitted textiles from the Royal College of Art, and Swindell, with an MA in woven textiles from Nottingham Polytechnic, bonded while working at a "loathsome, unprofessional" homeware company. Their experience there - "we learnt how not to do things" - and a realisation that they shared a "common interest in light and transparency", galvanised them to apply, successfully, for a Sainsbury's scholarship.

Thanks to this, they were able to set up a studio at London's Oxo Tower Wharf. "The press quickly picked up on us - Elle Decoration featured us on its `New Talent' page - and we got commissioned straight away," says Swindell. Since then, Harrods has been stocking Salt's ready-made blinds (from pounds 400) and screens (from pounds 1,200). And the company, which has corporate as well as private clients, is currently kitting out the British Embassy in Moscow. "Consultancy work has started to land in our laps, too," says Holmes. "Strangely enough, the paper company Arjo Wiggins Fine Papers asked us to develop some paper textures."

While Holmes works with knitted fabrics using an industrial knitting machine, Swindell specialises in woven textiles made on a loom. Salt's extraordinary, sculptural vertical blind systems - some of which incorporate aluminium rods to support their three-dimensional "totems" (its name for louvres) - are made from knitted textiles. These, says Holmes, are inspired by modern architecture and by "tall, skinny proportions, like the people in Modigliani paintings or Brancusi's sculptures".

Even Swindell's old-fashioned looking loom is put to innovative use: one of Salt's most original blinds, made from woven textiles, is near- transparent at the top and opaque at the bottom. While bringing in some light, it guarantees total privacy, which relates to another inspired Salt idea: blinds which let in a controlled stream of light - or, more surprisingly, to double as a funky light source. Indeed, Salt has developed a "beam blind" incorporating glow-in-the-dark fibres, which, says Swindell, looks "great in restaurants".

Meanwhile, Holmes is designing a blind called Lighten. "A sheet of paper with an electric circuit that lights up will be inserted into the knit," she says. Yet, while Salt's blinds can be impressively hi-tech - some open by remote control - others are comfortingly low-tech. In the pipeline is a range of "warm blinds" - roller blinds in a thick, tribal-looking felt, made by artisans in Central Asia. As with all Salt's designs, these come in super-subtle, tone-on-tone browns and beiges. "Our blinds have very busy textures," says Swindell. "If they were colourful, there'd be too much going on."

The blinds can also be made to measure, in which case Holmes and Swindell like to visit their clients to decide on what would best suit their space. "It's like buying a wedding dress, not in a twee sense, but in that the customer is involved in how their blind will look," says Holmes. "We ask for 50 per cent of the cost upfront, so clients need to feel confident with what we're doing," adds Swindell.

The clients' involvement doesn't stop there, however. Many of the blinds are fashionably modular, too. "Components can be detached or added to alter the blind's look," says Holmes. The screens, meanwhile, were conceived with open-plan living in mind - they can be moved about to change the layout of a room. "Many of our customers," says Holmes, "live in loft conversions. Some people still value traditional interiors because they're associated with wealth, but there's a new group of people - and interior designers - interested in contemporary design."

Yet your average interior designer still has some catching up to do on the modern design front, believes Swindell. "We thought the bulk of our clientele would be interior designers or decorators, but it's actually our customers who put them in touch with us. Old-school decorators still source stuff from the chintzier Chelsea Harbour end of the market, but they're having to change to meet different tastes."

By the sound of it, then, Salt isn't going down a blind alley. The company's designs might look unsettlingly surreal, but they're nothing if not directional. Frou-frou Austrian blinds or, for that matter, standard roller blinds - your days could well be numbered.

Salt products are available at Harrods (0171-730 1234) or contact the company direct on 0171-593 0007

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