The Times Online - featuring Landscaping Pebbles

12 April 2008

One-off interior designs: - a backlash against mass-produced furniture
by Lucia van der Post

Well, after Slow Food it had to come, didn’t it? Slow Design, that is. It is to the home what the Slow Food movement is to the kitchen – which is to say a return to older values, to times when instant gratification was a phrase we hadn’t yet heard of.

Just as the Slow Food movement came about because Carlo Petrini, the wonderful Italian behind it, felt that in the rush of modern life we were losing sight of the deep pleasures that come from sharing good food, lovingly prepared, with friends and family, so the Slow Home movement arose from similar impulses. It’s a reaction to the might of the mass-produced and expresses a longing for more culturally authentic and ethically made artefacts. So a Piet Hein Eek table made from discarded wood that has been transformed into a thing of beauty is Slow Design. A table made from resin and mass-produced in some anonymous far-flung factory is not.


For several years now many designers – Piet Hein Eek, for one – have found no pleasure in the cold perfection of mass-produced objects. Many designers have long been affronted by the obscenity of designing for waste, by the vulgarity of over-consumption and the consequent depletion of natural resources. It’s only fairly recently, though, that these feelings have coalesced into a movement and been given a name. The manifesto of the movement is Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, which challenges the notion that fast is better.

Take John Brown, a Canadian architect. He seems to have been one of the earliest proponents of the Slow Home notion and his website (http://www.theslowhome.com/) propounds his ideas clearly. It is mainly architecturally based and is a reaction to suburban sprawl and what Brown calls “cookie-cutter houses and instant neighbourhoods”, which, like fast food, are quick, cheap and easy to create but are ultimately boring and provide no lasting solutions.

As a country with a much larger stock of old houses, we have been less affected by this suburban blight, but nevertheless we’d do well to consider some of the principles of the movement. At root it is a matter of of cherishing the unique, of involvement in creating our own environments, but with all the extra “green” concerns added to the mix. I sense, too, a feeling of loss behind the movement, a longing for the architecture and food and artefacts of yesteryear, which were more deeply rooted in cultural traditions. All those ties have been loosened by the rush to globalisation and only now, it seems, are some beginning to realise what has been thrown out along the way.

But good designers, who by definition are intuitively ahead of the Zeitgeist, are already there. One sees it in the rush to create pieces that are one-off and that are often finished with elaborate embroidery, hand-applied appliqué or inlay. One sees it in the tendency to customise the mass-produced. It’s there in the greater search for things that are made by hand as opposed to the machine. One sees it in the cult of the imperfect, which many designers – from Maarten Baas, with his smoked furniture, to Hella Jongerius’s Polder sofa and Jaime Hayon’s weird ceramics – have embraced. Possibly its apotheosis is to be found in the Icelandic designer Katrin Svana Eythorsdottir’s chandelier, which is made with nylon twine dipped into thick glucose sugar, the droplets refracting light from nearby sources. It is a design that, like a perfect rose, must be enjoyed while it lasts, for as the droplets disintegrate the chandelier falls apart. Its inevitable decay is seen as an inherent part of its charm and it is meant to teach us to savour every one of life’s precious moments.

The website http://www.slowlab.net/ is one of the cult sites those interested in the movement keep an eye on. In America, The New York Times points to one Natalie Chanin, whose company, Alabama Chanin, “sells exquisite hand-stitched garments made from old T-shirts and home goods like flea-market chairs with seats woven out of neckties”. She sells at grand stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. Here in Britain we have our own home-grown designers exploring a very similar aesthetic. Think of the work of the Abell brothers and their company, Based Upon (020-8320 2122), who sensed the need for products that were utterly particular. They take each customer through a personal journey, discovering what matters to them most, and then using liquid metal to create pieces that lie somewhere between the worlds of art, sculpture and furniture. Their work isn’t cheap, for it is labour-intensive and time-consuming.

De Ferranti sells what it calls “washed-by-time” pebbles, which have made a journey from mountain to sea before being hand-picked by artisans to create terraces and patios. The artisans use techniques that are more than 5,000 years old and each of the pebbles is painstakingly placed into position to create the result: a paradigm of Slow Design (http://www.deferranti.com/). Stuart Parker and Paul Green have a company called Life is Suite (http://www.raw-nerve.co.uk/) that has also embraced the ethos. It is perfectly expressed in its Nanny chair, which is upholstered with second-hand teacloths and aprons, and round which it has built pictures, poems and stories, thus compiling a narrative that gives it meaning and emotional content. Alastair Fuad-Luke has developed another technique to make us realise what we lose by hurrying – he designed a basket that tips over if it is filled too fast, “thus momentarily slowing you down as you rebalance it,” he says.

Then there are Anouchka and Cassandra Lefebvre De Lange (07789 845054; http://www.letramac.com/), two Spanish sisters who take great trouble to source vintage pieces which they restore, embellish, and re-upholster so that every piece tells a story of its own.

Meanwhile, the pleasures of the handmade and of traditional craft techniques are being revived in industries that have in recent times become mostly mass-production. Take wallpaper. Claire Coles (http://www.clairecolesdesign.co.uk/) uses needlecraft techniques to produce ethereally beautiful one-off papers. She embroiders roses and other flowers, uses felt, leather and gems to form intricate layers. Sometimes she takes scraps of old papers and sews them together to create something new. In much the same vein are Catherine Hammerton’s bespoke papers and fabrics (http://www.catherinehammerton.com/). She, too, is much inspired by a vintage aesthetic, and cuts, stitches and embroiders her creations by hand.

All this is authentically in the spirit of Slow Design. It is all about the search for things that have real quality and meaning in an age in which we are surrounded by too much choice and too many bland pieces. It is a movement whose time seems to have come.

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