Breaking news: Brits abroad are stylish

The first ever overseas British Design Embassy opens later this month at Milan Furniture Fair. Annie Deakin catches up with its decorator, the fashion designer Paul Smith
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The Independent Online

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More than any other event on the design calendar, the high profile Milan Furniture Fair is important to showcasing new designs and meeting like-minded people. It can make or break a fledgling designer. Following the success of the Design Embassy at last year's London Design Festival, the first ever overseas British Design Embassy will be hosted in Milan. It will be a place to relax, stop for a break, browse the internet and use as a meeting place during the fair.

In today’s unnerving market, being British is a Trump card; Reuters reported last week that buyers are favouring typically British products in the recession. "I think it's this whole Britishness thing. There's been a lot of support for both Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, it's been the strongest this season," Fortnum & Masons accessories buyer Amanda Ware said, "Vivienne Westwood is more tartan, Paul Smith is strong with the Union Jack."

Smith was knighted for his services to design - on the same day he married his long-term girlfriend Pauline - and has been awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). Consequently, it makes sense that Sir Paul Smith, the quintessentially British fashion designer and homewares retailer, has been invited to decorate the British Design Embassy in true Brit style.

Instead of draping the national flag around the British Design Embassy (hosted in Milan's prestigious Villa Reale), Smith is going down his trademark "classic with a twist" route. The 62-year-old plans to suspend oversized, elaborate floral curtains decorated with pink and red roses, blue pansies and wild flowers.

Like his one of a kind shop Globe at Heathrow terminal 5, the embassy will be filled with Smith’s own unique and antique furniture, lightings and paintings. "I have always tried to make each one of my shops individual and do this by not only selling clothes but often selling things I have found on my trips around the world, ceramics, antiques, kitsch objects, anything." He might bring back a poster from Paris or upholster an antique armchair with a Union Jack, his own Maharam pinstripe worsted-weave wool or in quirky Fornasetti fabrics.

In just a couple of weeks, editors, bloggers, retail buyers and designers will throng around Milan and its suburbs to scope out competition and hunt down the hottest furniture designer talents. Prior to the show, Smith took a stab at predicting the next trends "Depth and colour." He advised, "I'm particularly interested in the English aesthetic movement at the moment - the work of people like Dresser, Godwin and Walto." 

British furniture design is yet to reach the starry heights of French fashion or Italian leather and yet, a high proportion of world-class designers, such as Mathew Hilton, Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison and Ross Lovegrove are British. In 2007, British furniture exports totalled over £1.2 billion, selling to over 186 countries.

"By taking the British Design Embassy to Milan we hope to enable the next generation of UK talent to establish a foothold in this exciting market." says Sir Andrew Cahn, Chief Executive of UK Trade and Investment. ‘Like London, Milan is one of the most important design cities in the world - where better to host our first overseas Design Embassy?"

Smith credits next month’s fair, Salone Del Mobile Milano, to be the most important design week throughout the world. He says, "It is a pleasure to represent the UK by curating the British Design Embassy at the Villa Reale. There are many British designers working for Italian manufacturers and they are well represented at the fair but it is nice to highlight some of their work with Moroso who have kindly sponsored the Design Embassy.

"I have tried to add some light heartedness of the Embassy to get across the lateral thinking of us Brits, playing with kitsch in this magnificent regal space."

With Smith paving the way next month, Brits abroad will be celebrated for their cutting edge furniture designs and not their beer swilling, crude antics. Roll on Milan, here comes Cool Britannia.

Annie Deakin is Editor of