Walking through the homeware area of some of our smarter department stores, you might sometimes think you've taken a wrong turning, judging by all the fashion names you see. Missoni, Ralph Lauren, even Jigsaw, have been crossing over into furniture and homewares for a decade or two and, even in these downturned times, there's no sign that they're going to stop. In the 1990s, Versace's plates, towels and throne-like chairs seemed to be everywhere; the label's signature Greek-key pattern, which decorated everything from sunglasses to bags to the bottom of Gianni's Miami pool, being seen as quite a status symbol in some quarters (and the height of vulgarity in others). Then Mr Armani decided it was time to play house, too. Armani/Casa entered the market in 2000 with the sort of square-edged but luxurious sofas which mirrored the smart and not so casual feel of Armani's perfect greige suits.
Now there are some more recent arrivals from the fashion world to take up the furniture challenge. The trendy Swedish denim company Acne is having a go, as is the avant-garde designer Martin Margiela. Diane von Furstenberg will be launching a homeware line in 2011; Diesel started one last year, and is now moving into lighting. Even A Bathing Ape, the uber-fashionable Japanese streetwear label, has created its own version of the Eames Plastic Shell chair, originally designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s, decorating the outside with the Bape trademark camouflage print. While the label is much loved in the hip-hop community for its graphic T-shirt designs, starburst sneakers and incredibly expensive hoodies, its founder, Nigo, is also a huge fan of mid-century modern. "I am a collector of furniture by [the French designer] Prouvé and Eames," he says. "I like that period. The design seems more modern and forward than that of the present." Well, who'd have thought.
But are these furniture ranges actually any good? "I always used to be a bit worried about the fashion/furniture crossover," says Ross Urwin, the creative director of furniture and lifestyle at the prestigious Hong Kong store Lane Crawford. "But some of them are doing a really good job now. We tested the market last season with a Diesel sofa, dining chairs and coffee table and they sold really well. So now we're adding the range of lighting they launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in April." As you might expect, the Diesel range, called Successful Living, aims to be alternative, young and edgy; and, in its own Italian way, it is. There's a side table with a streaky, worn vintage paint finish, for example, and a sofa with stone-washed linen upholstery. The lighting, meanwhile, would come under the heading "funky industrial". Far from being a throwaway side project, Diesel has gone into partnership with the high-end Italian design firm Moroso for its furniture and with Foscarini for lighting. The quality is as serious as that of its jeans.
For any store, of course, the whole point is to lure the sort of fashion consumer who'll happily spend £180 on denim, into the home department. Does it actually work? According to Janita Khangura, the assistant homeware buyer at Selfridges, it most certainly does. The London, Birmingham and Manchester stores stock Orla Kiely, Jigsaw (bed linen and bath products) and Missoni. The latter, in particular, is "fantastic business", Khangura says. "It's such a trusted textile brand, and it's known as high fashion; customers love it. You wouldn't believe how much we sell." (The Middle Eastern customer, apparently, is especially Missoni-mad.)
Acne's new sofas and armchair, which were first unveiled in Paris in January, are on show in its astonishing new Dover Street store in London (all four floors of a Mayfair town house). But this month, they will appear on the fourth floor at Liberty, upholstered in the vintage "Bianca" print – white flowers on a royal blue background. "It's a classic print from the archive," says Liberty's home buyer, Michelle Alger, "and it's the first time we've done something like this. But Acne has such a strong cult following that we are hoping it will bring all the fashionistas up to the fourth floor." For those who are wedded to Acne's jeans heritage, the sofas will also be shown in denim.
Of all the brands, Acne is possibly the most obvious label to make the crossover. Its name is an acronym for "Ambition to Create Novel Expressions" (not a reference to a nasty pubescent skin condition), and the company started as a creative agency in 1996, but ended up mutating into a denim brand when it sent out 100 promotional pairs of jeans as gifts. Since then, it has added fashion ranges for women, men and children, as well as movies and toys, to its repertoire. Oh, and publishing, too. It doesn't advertise, but instead produces its own magazine, the Acne Paper, twice a year.
Just like Nigo, the company's creative director, Jonny Johansson, is passionate about design. He is particularly keen on the 1910-20s "Swedish Grace" period, when a stark form of neoclassicism was developed by the country's leading architects. Johansson's Stockholm house was designed by the Swedish architect Torben Grut in 1906 (he went on to design the city's 1912 Olympic Stadium and the royal family's Solliden Palace) and the company's Old Town offices occupy a grand old bank. "We're not modernists, more like neoclassicists," Johansson says as he explains how the furniture was developed. "I took the New Berlin chair and sofa design of one of Sweden's most famous 20th-century designers, Carl Malmsten, scanned it in 3D, put it into the computer and squashed and squeezed it." The result is a series of three sofas that go from super-skinny to a little bit bloated, and two armchairs. It's neoclassical elegance with a 21st-century twist. For Johansson, the venture is also a rebranding exercise – for Sweden. "Swedes are known for their functionality," Johansson says, "and with these products we want to reposition what Swedish means. They are much more romantic than functional."
Meanwhile, at Maison Martin Margiela, the Paris-based fashion house known for wilfully challenging clothes, often with a body-defying silhouette, the furniture follows in the spirit of the Margiela stores' unique interior design which mixes trompe l'oeil and various objects clad in white cotton covers. Groupe is a sofa which seems to be made of three vintage armchairs of different styles, lashed together and then dressed in white linen. Emmanuelle is an outsized armchair wrapped in white canvas. This is furniture that looks to the world of fashion in both intention and price. The sofa costs €5,000 (£4,160) (small), €5,500 (£4,580) (large) and the armchair €1,900 (£1,580).
Price, however, doesn't seem to be an issue when it comes to buying right into these brands. Bottega Veneta, one of the most prestigious and unaffordable of Italian labels, started producing furniture in 2006, its launch in Milan made most memorable by the velvet ropes that kept back visitors, as though the pieces were antiques in a stately home. Delusions of grandeur aside, the collection of super-bourgeois pieces, which often rely on the idea of travel for inspiration, and the company's signature woven leather for detailing, sells and sells. Bottega also recently completed a suite at the St Regis Hotel in New York, in subtle shades of brown and generous helpings of cashmere and suede (price per night, around $6,000 (£3,900)). This year, it really hit its stride with a chic elephant grey leather mini-sofa, woven leather bedheads, and burnished metal desks and tables based on travel trunks and flight cases. Linen, it was announced with laughable solemnity at the Milan Furniture Fair, will henceforth also come in the colour called coal. But no doubt millionaires and interior decorators around the world are applauding the news and reaching for their black Amex cards.
With Rick Owens (chairs with horns), Byblos (garish neo-baroque), Paul Smith (bright stripes), Roberto Cavalli (animal prints and big blousey roses) and many more playing the furniture game, it would be easier to list the designers who aren't capitalising on their names and reputations by dashing off a chair or two. Even Vivienne Westwood has dabbled – her famous squiggle print was used for cushions at the Italian company Molteni and C – though she has yet to make the complete leap into the world of metal and wood. But who knows, maybe by next year, the Vivienne Westwood commode could be available at a chic retailer near you.
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