Saturday, October 11, 2008

Old World Charm

Source : The Business Times, October 11, 2008

Decorating trends are leaning towards the stately and opulent. By Cheah Ui-Hoon

FASHION moves in cycles and it's no different when it comes to furniture and decorating style. From minimalism, we've seen eclecticism, which made way for modern baroque and now the newest style on the horizon seems to be aristocratic. Call it the democratisation of high-brow design because even the Queen of England has herself commissioned furnishings based on the Buckingham Palace, following the example of more than 30 Dukes, Earls and Lords who've given the green light for furniture companies to produce replicas of the furniture in their stately homes. Even the Russian noble houses have followed suit.

Meroni has brought in new Baroque brands lately (above and next) and the company's marketing director Cheryl Lee says Silver-leafed Baroque furniture is popular currently

If you've ever entertained notions of living like a Lord or Lady, this is certainly one way to do it - to own furniture similar to those in these stately homes or to have soft furnishings that are inspired by Buckingham Palace aesthetics. The options are wide: you could sit on a chair that the late Princess Diana used to sit on, seeing that her brother, the present Earl of Althorp has teamed up with Theodore Alexander to launch the Althorp Living Collection; or how about sleeping on a pillow with a royal crest, or lounging in a room with curtains and walls straight out of the Queen's drawing room?

A year ago, Queen Elizabeth II commissioned British designer Tricia Guild to come up with the Royal Collection Fabrics & Wallpapers inspired by the interiors and works of art of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

It's the first licensing arrangement of this kind, so the Royal Collection - comprising three catalogues of wallpaper, curtains, and upholstery - was launched about the same time here as it was in the UK, thanks to its exclusive distributor Romanez.

While the Queen invited 40 UK interior designers to Buckingham Palace for the launch, designers here were feted to a tea party at the Tanglin Club to view the gorgeous velvets on silk, embroidered silk, jacquard woven silk damasks and flock printed wallpapers in the richest of colours like deep reds and rich emeralds, gold, cream and black. The Arundale line is inspired by the state drawing room at Windsor Castle, for example, while the Tabinet is taken from the panels that upholstered the bed in the King's bedchamber also at the castle. For something more Oriental, the Augusta range is inspired by a detail from a pair of Chinese cloisonne enamel vases in Buckingham Palace.

Even though the collection is pricier than the normal Designers Guild's range, with starting prices at $100-$200 per metre, one way to sport a royal look on the cheap is with a crested pillow which costs just slightly more than $150. 'It's a bit of royalty that you can bring into your home,' says Romanez's Jennifer Hu of the collection.

A portion of the proceeds goes toward the maintenance of the Queen's residences, as you'd find for most of the cases where the gentry give permission for their furniture to be copied.

As for the target audience, Ms Hu expects there to be interest from hotels which are renovating their suites because of the luxurious exclusivity of the soft furnishings. Otherwise for the regular fan, it can well be an armchair that they'd like to re-upholster in richer fabric. The colours are richer, she says, because they're used in homes where there's a lot of windows and light. Likewise, that's something to keep in mind when decorating your home with these fabrics.

The look seems to be in line with designers' penchant for sophistication, elegance and luxury with gold and silver and dramatic fabrics.

Royal Collection Fabrics & Wallpapers by Designers Guild

In fact, it may be time to ditch beige and simple lines as designers feel style has become very individualistic with the penchant to mix and match. 'Consumers could be leaning towards more classical furniture because they're more unique and not as common as minimalistic furniture which is very easy to copy,' says Eleanor Kor, interior consultant with Designworx.

So far, the majority of the buyers of Baker's Stately Home furniture like the range for the look and details, more than the history, points out Chikita Nathasia, the showroom manager for Baker Furnishing.

Since the launch of Baker's Stately Homes collection here earlier this year, some 70 customers have walked in to order from one and two accent pieces to whole sets to furnish their entire house.

The demand isn't as high as it is for modern classics such as the Bill Sofield range, but then again, it's expected that the market for stately furniture is more niche, given its higher price points and grander forms.

'But what we also try to do is to educate the buyer in the history behind these pieces,' says Ms Nathasia. Most of the customers tend to live in landed property, and most are also refurnishing rather than buying furniture for a newly built home, she adds. There has been one customer who bought more than $1 million worth of Stately Homes furniture and the starting prices for this collection are usually four-figure sums.

Irish Mahogany Wing Arm Chair by Baker Furnishing

Baker's Stately Homes collection are replicas of pieces specially handpicked by an English Baronet, Sir Humphry Wakefield, and popular accent pieces picked up by Singapore buyers include a commode and an 18th century Queen Anne armchair from Wollaton Hall in Yorkshire, a 19th century Regency Tub Chair from Stratfield Saye House in Reading, and an early Irish Mahogany wing arm chair from Cliveden Place, Oxfordshire.

Obviously, the high-end and branded furniture started coming to Singapore a year or two ago because of the economic boom, but with the economy taking a shelling now, would the demand for them be sustained?

Ms Nathasia notes that the people who buy Baker's furniture are quite 'settled' so even though the economy slows down, they still provide regular business.

Da Vinci Holdings's managing director Raymond Phua echoes that thought, citing consumers' need to deck out their luxury condominiums in befitting style. 'The people who buy furniture from us aren't speculators; they've bought a house to live in and they want to decorate it well.

'And you'd be surprised, that furniture brands like Theodore Alexander are quite competitively priced when compared to fashion brands like Versace and Fendi,' he says.

Theodore Alexander was founded only in 1996 by furniture designer Paul Maitland-Smith, and its variety of lines include the Althorp Living Collection and the St Petersburg Palaces collection, based on furnishings in the Pavlovsk Palace and The Hermitage.

'The St Petersburg collection has been especially well received, and they're different from American classical furniture in that they are more gilded and have more inlays,' describes Mr Phua.

Indeed one other reason to buy European furniture, if the stately furniture is a bit too high-brow for your home, is that it is perceived to be classic, timeless designs. 'Customers like the European-made furniture we bring in because they hold their value, plus their prices keep rising year by year,' says Meroni's marketing director Cheryl Lee, who adds that the company has brought in new Baroque and art deco brands lately.

Silver-leafed Baroque furniture is popular now, while art deco pieces in black and white are in, she says.

Interior designer Patty Mak sees a return to furniture that has more details and fine craftsmanship. 'Such furniture can still be modern, but the details add to a richer feel. More people are now looking for furniture they can keep for years.

The minimalist design also tends to be over-copied so very few will be able to tell what's original,' she adds. Designworx's interior consultant Eleanor Kor said that there is a move towards more traditional looking furniture now as minimalist furniture tends not to have as much character. 'But people do swing between the two extremes,' she says.

The trend might be individualistic these days, but for us common folk, it's definitely a boon to know that noble living is within reach these days.


How to furnish your home with period pieces?

Patty Mak of Suying Designs

Treat these pieces as art objects. Don't try too hard to coordinate with other classical-styled furniture, but complement them with lighter tones and textures. Because this furniture has a lot of detailing and handiwork, you can give your place a contemporary look by surrounding them with refreshing or soft colours. These pieces also look good in a small apartment, if you use one or two pieces of elegant craftsmanship.

Eleanor Kor of Designworx

To mix and match classic and contemporary, pick on a unifying detail such as the timber or tone and make them compatible. There could be a detail that's echoed throughout. Look also at the scale of the furniture and the texture. Arrangement of furniture is also important, and you want to make sure the symmetry is right. Just like works of art or sculpture, when you put them together with everything else, they have to make sense. Coordinating colours also work well.

Roy Teo of Kri:eit Associates

One way to mix and match old and new is with colours. Most contemporary furniture tends to be glossy, so you can polish mahogany furniture to the same level of shine and gloss, for instance. Or put a metallic candelabra next to a period piece of furniture to balance it. You can also put some silver/metallic-toned cushions on the classic sofa; or find cushions with tassels to place on a contemporary sofa to contrast. Otherwise, stick a potted plant between the old and new and the contrast will be neutralised!

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