LAUGH if you like, but it looks like some of the hippest names in decorative arts have been raiding your grandmother’s attic. Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ Crochet Table is made entirely of lace hardened with epoxy and looks like a genetically engineered doily. Gran’s Candlestick by Harry Allen is a colorful resin reproduction of his grandmother’s silver neoclassical column candleholders. Jonathan Adler’s needlepoint pillows, the kind Nanas spent hours making, have found a place on the couch again.
What was once granny now appears groovy. Damask is divine, crewel is cool and wicker is wicked. Lace, it seems, isn’t just for Stevie Nicks anymore. Bored with sleek midcentury reissues and chain-store modernism, some trendsetters are cuddling up to the idea of granny chic -- old styles cast in new materials with a Pop Art-influenced sense of scale and color.
The look is not limited to pricey designer goods. PBteen’s catalog offers harp-legged nightstands and ruffle-edged two-tier tables. Target’s Waverly Home linens have a florid print that might’ve been found on wallpaper in a Dickensian drawing room and www.interfaceflor.com sells Amazing Lace, a carpet tile that looks like a wedding veil under a magnifying glass. Domino, the home shopping magazine for fashionable females, plans a modern lace tribute in May.
Romantic motifs have never really left the house. More than a decade ago, shabby chic turned scrolled iron furniture and floral linens into a lifestyle. The country and cottage styles enmeshed in California casual have repopularized woven furniture and embroidery. More recently, Hollywood Regency has revved up old damask patterns.
The current incarnation, which has been called bohemian chic and neo-Victorian and boasts a more tailored and gender neutral disposition, has been pervasive in fashion for a while, and its influence is being increasingly felt in home decor, says Brooke Hodge, curator of architecture and design at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It is a reaction to the more prevalent minimalism -- design that is so pared down it does not engage the imagination and emotions.
“There’s a new iPod every three months, but people want to make a connection to romantic things that are familiar and comfortable, not smooth, glossy and alien,” Hodge says. The success of Martha Stewart and do-it-yourself magazines such as ReadyMade from San Francisco along with the continued popularity of flea market and EBay shopping indicate a move away from stark modernism to handmade individualism, she adds.
“There has been a resurgence in personalized crafts. People are crocheting and joining knitting circles where they can make cozies for their iPods.”
Today, designers reinvent granny classics using shapes, patterns and decorative elements from the past as a visual shorthand that infuses new products with a witty sense of now. Everyday wicker, a staple of Victorian London and arts and crafts L.A., has a fresh allure whether it is Leslie Curtis Antiques’ aqua-tinted, princess-size replication of an 1890s Heywood-Wakefield chair or it is sculpted into a sleek Spool Stool at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.
“Looking forward involves looking back,” MOCA’s Hodge says. “Especially at the turn of the century or millennium.”
The Victorian period enjoyed one of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution -- machine-made furniture -- sparking an unprecedented exploration and revivals of antique styles all the way back to ancient civilizations. It is hardly surprising, then, that it continues to be a touchstone. Today, however, authenticity plays second fiddle to ingenuity.
“There is no need to impersonate antiques,” says Wanders, who created the rope macrame Knotted Chair, a late 1990s butterfly lounger, “but there is a need for warmth and romance.”
Designer Allen, who cast the Gran’s Candlestick in six colors of resin for his Reality collection, understands that impulse. “People like to be surrounded by nostalgic and familiar things,” he says. “For a while now that has been modern items like Eames furniture; now we are going back a bit further in time to embellished designs that also tend to make people feel wealthy.”
They also create visual and emotional variety in rooms that have too many pieces in the same style, which, Allen adds, is the key to today’s mix-and-match, old-and-new aesthetic. “I loved that my grandmother’s antique candlesticks looked so incongruously elegant on my huge plywood dining table.”
He didn’t love that they were silver and had to be polished.
Casting them in plastic, as he also did with a carved wood picture frame he found in his brother’s closet, not only makes heirlooms fit modern decor schemes but also changes how we view them. “You would walk right past a silver candlestick or a gilt frame, but when they are made out of white resin, you have to look at it in a different way.”
Technology also lets designers create contemporary furnishings with antique style. Computer-guided lasers and cutting tools can mass produce intricate patterns, creating hit products such as Tord Boontje’s frilly lampshades and panels with stylized silhouettes of flora and fauna.
“It’s traditional craft techniques meeting modernization,” says Hodge, addingthat Boontje’s folkloric take on paper doll cutting was once done by hand in the designer’s studio. “They couldn’t keep up with orders,” she adds. “But with technology, he has been able to parlay the idea into infinite variations.”
It is this limitlessness that attracts designers and consumers alike. “I think it’s a shame when designers look to the future only and not also to the past,” says Wanders. “It’s a waste of possibilities.”
With the U.S. launch of his two recent collections -- Two Tops for the Dutch collective Moooi and New Antiques for the Italian company Cappellini -- that mix antique details such as turned legs and arms with tailored contemporary silhouettes, the designer makes a case for what 21st century decorative arts might become.
“Today we can ask far more from our industries,” he says. “It should not be about how can we make something easy, but how can we make it beautiful. There was a very good reason why Modern of the 20th century looked the way it did -- machines were only able to do minimal things.”
He is reminded of this every evening when he comes home. “My daughter loves her Barbie doll,” Wanders says with a laugh. “Is there anything minimal about Barbie? We try so hard to be sophisticated and conceptual, designers have been pushing modernism for almost 100 years, but people are not so abstract that they only like square boxes. We are all born princes and princesses, and we deserve the best.”
Spoken like a future grandfather.
David A. Keeps can be reached at email@example.com