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Practitioners of ‘modern’ design are softening their traditional starkness

For minimalists, even a whisper of decoration is like a flaw on an otherwise perfect diamond. But one reason that a more modern aesthetic currently is appealing to a broader segment of consumers is because it’s showing a softer side. That may translate to a loosening of form or color — both unabashed and subtle — where something more neutral is expected.

And with a less rigid interpretation also comes a bit of well-chosen embellishment.

Even when the dress-up is low-key, it can be so dramatic. Woven fabric trims are popular as borders on everything from drapery to chair skirts. But in Mary McDonald’s new collection for Guy Chaddock Furniture, the deft placement of parallel bands of Greek key tape, from sofa back continuing through to seat, create just enough striping on the solid-colored gray upholstery to make a wow statement.

One reason that minimalism in its purist form is unsettling to some is because it’s too stark. Practitioners such as Claudio Silvestrin, a London-based architect who believes that the best faucets are invisible, gets that minimalism is not in fashion.

“What dominates is decorative-ism,” he told Elle Decor. Still, he prefers “warm minimalism,” using natural materials, to the “ice cold” interpretation that has been trendy.

In the June issue of House Beautiful, the editor-in-chief, Newell Turner said: “What’s modern now is not all-white, pristine, uncomfortable or ‘less is more’ — especially not all at once. Modern is a highly personal expression of style that draws on the rich history of design and the treasures of cultures from around the world, even while utilizing the new technologies that make life both better and more beautiful.”

Curiously, the most intriguing introductions at recent furnishings shows are those that take chances with convention: more streamlined forms somehow dressed so they don’t feel self-consciously naked; a modicum of trim on upholstery fabric, even furniture; a little bit of bling, sheen in weaves or fabrics like glazed metallic linen; texture, such as hammering or roughed-up surfaces; dressmaker details such as pleating and channeling — even on leather; and fabric-like treatments such as draping are extending to other materials from resin to glass.

At the same time, more hard-core traditional is sporting an edgier look.

Especially powerful is the marriage of opposites. Sometimes it’s well-planned; other times it’s totally serendipitous. A French-style fauteuil from Roche Bobois, for example, takes an unconventional turn with its upholstery. A jaunty marine stripe delivers some attitude, but the overprinting of a baroquey cherubic image down its center, like a fashion T-shirt reference, takes it to another level. And the featured Botticelli-like figure is outfitted in a striped bathing suit, another surprise, in this fabric from fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.

Phillip Estlund, a sculptor and collage artist who works both in Florida and New York, drew inspiration for his tweak of iconic seating from a simple, random placement. He was organizing and laying out cutout images of flowers when he began placing some on the seat of his Charles Eames molded fiberglass chair.

“The otherwise stark surface became immediately activated in a way that I hadn’t considered, and after arranging and adhering the flowers to the seat, the result was the Bloom chair,” Estlund said. It’s the first in his Genus series for Grey Area (www.thegreyarea.com). The flowers are hand-decoupaged onto the Herman Miller-produced chairs.

For the most part, the kinds of details that are distinguishing new furniture design are not really novel — it’s just the way they are used that shakes things up.


Pleating and draping.

A fashion reference (think pleated skirts or bodices of a gown) or the kind of folds created in drapery design, the crossover to upholstery isn’t as much of a stretch on skirts of sofas. But trompe l’oeil draping or real folds on a wicker console by Mariette Himes Gomez for Hickory Chair really push the envelope.


Dressmaker details.

Some are signature characteristic of clothing; others are drawn from handbags and shoes. There are channeling and tucking, a kind of sewing that creates parallel folds of fabric, which sometimes is seen on bedding and also has shown up on sofa skirts; “trapunto,” a stitchery technique that Himes Gomez employed on the arm of a leather sofa. British designer Bethan Gray used the kind of stitchery, perforations and serrations that are signature on brogue shoes for the apron of a table.


Jewelry-like hardware.

More manufacturers are paying attention to this simple dress-up. And, of course, changing out hardware is an easy re-fresh on existing furniture or cabinetry.


Nature as inspiration for form and pattern.

From the geode-inspired women’s collection of Phillip Lim, the mineral structure itself has showed up in naturally jagged-edge agate light sconces as well as in printed fabrics and area rugs with a similar swirly vibe.



Again, there’s nothing new about this, as it’s the equivalent of using veneers as surfacing materials. But clever takes and applications have created a buzz. Chests cloaked with grass-cloth wallcovering or fabric have been trending in Europe. Wesley Hall (www.wesleyhall.com) showed trunks and parsons desks covered in plaid fabricat at the spring High Point furniture market.

Eglomise — reverse-painted glass — is becoming a decorative tour de force again; perhaps most arresting are more abstract mottled patterns, especially with sparkling flecks.

Decoupage, applique, flocking and gold leaf command attention. Skins — crocodile, shagreen, ostrich and suede — are covering entire pieces of furniture, such as bureaus and desks. Decorative molding also is applied to create fancy patterns like Moroccan tracery on simple frames.

Figured and/or stained veneers are employed to create distinctive patterns, such a herringbone, on the face of furniture. Even shells, long a crafty solution to designing with beachcombing souvenirs, are assuming a more modern look as insets on tabletops or door fronts.

To many, the idea of details is perhaps more palatable than embellishment, which seems almost colored to suggest excess. But even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s furniture sometimes sported dressmaker “embellishments” like channeling and button tufting.

Then again, wasn’t it Mies himself who said: “God is in the details”?