Interiors: The objects of our affections

Does Granny's chintzy armchair clash with your white walls? Don't give it another thought. Welcome to the comfort zone, says Kate Watson-Smyth

Wednesday 26 March 2003 01:00
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The flamboyant designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen once said that he loved visiting minimalist houses because it reminded him of all the fabulous stuff he owns. He has a point. Now is the moment for everyone to put their own "fabulous stuff" on display. War, economic uncertainty and a general air of the jitters have hastened in a new fashion for interiors: comfort.

Styled (because these things must always have a label) "home as haven", the new look is a reaction to several years of minimalist interior design. No longer must you sit in your starkly beautiful spaces on a "Starckly" designed chair and contemplate the horrors of a volatile stockmarket. Now you can lounge on your outsize squashy sofa with your feet on a big fluffy rug and enjoy being surrounded by your favourite objects.

As Naomi Cleaver, of the Echo Design Agency and presenter of Channel 4's Other People's Houses, says: "This movement is about a reaction to stark, uncomfortable environments and a desire for security in an uncertain world. People feel they need to make their homes into a refuge. They want to be surrounded by beautiful objects that are familiar and bring happy memories. It is not a crime to love ornaments. If you've got some knick-knacks, then get them out. It's going back to what houses should be about. In the Stone Age, caves were a safe haven from the world outside and we are moving back to that."

Orianna Fielding-Banks, owner of Gloss Design and author of Modern Eclectic (Mitchell Beazley, £25), says interior design has finally moved away from the notion that homes should be merely a showcase for good taste and displays of wealth. It is time comfort was combined with modernity rather than being sacrificed in favour of it. "It is awful to go into a house that looks like a hotel room," she says. "If you have a fantastic lampshade that you adore, then decorate the room around it – you can always change it a few months later. It's all about doing what you want and not trying to conform to fashion. I have the greatest respect for the minimalist designer John Pawson, but I would really like to have a chat with his wife and children about how they cope with living in his house."

Fielding-Banks also believes that the new style has been born out of the current world mood. "In times of political crisis, people tend to go over the top. The recent fashion shows have been an example of that – the clothes are really bright and draw attention to themselves to distract from this background of anxiety. Interior design is simply following that trend. People are beginning to put themselves first and have the courage of their convictions. If they want a richly styled house full of objects which they love, then they are now brave enough to do it. It's about saying 'my taste is fine and I'm comfortable with it'."

This new comfortable look doesn't mean you have to forsake the clean lines of modernity completely, though. "You can do what you want – have a Chesterfield sofa next to a Perspex cube if you really like it," says Cleaver. "This look is far more sustainable because it is based around things you really like and not just about fashion. I have seen so many homes that are beautifully styled but there is no emotion in them and it is like no one lives there. This is a way of telling people who you are as soon as they walk into your house."

Shideh Shaygan, from Shaygan Interior Architecture, is even more forthright about what she terms "stupid, pretentious, minimalist fashion". Speaking with the zeal of the convert (Shaygan began her career with a strong minimalist streak), she says that too often designers forget that they are creating homes for people to live in. "You need to use the space and create somewhere that is comfortable, and I don't believe that a blank, white space is comfortable to live in. But don't fall into the trap of arranging things as if your home were a permanent photo shoot, either. You don't need a bunch of dried twigs on one wall like Kelly Hoppen or Changing Rooms – that is stupid, it's not beautiful and it serves no purpose."

The much-derided television makeover show is not without some fans, however. Fielding-Banks says that Carol Smillie and her team should be credited with at least giving people the courage to try things out for themselves. "The programme did help people work out what they liked and disliked. We don't want to live like our parents and keep the same style for ever. Our homes need to be multi-functional and they need to reflect who we are. People are finally finding the confidence to do what they like and not be dictated to."

Furniture has also changed to reflect the new style. In the same way that cars are becoming more rounded, so is the furniture. The hard lines of minimalism have been replaced by curved edges. Advances in textile technology have also brought a more luxurious feel, with fake furs, washable velvets and faux suede not only delivering grown-up style but childproof care labels. As Shaygan says, this all adds up to "furniture that doesn't hurt when you bump into it". Which is probably just as well, given current property prices. Not many of us can afford a vast minimalist space. Even if it was in fashion.

To contact Shaygan Interior Architecture or Gloss Design, call Echo Design Agency, 020-7251 6990

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