'Nothing is more modern than antiquity," said the late great Karl Largerfeld on the launch of his last ever furniture collection in 2018. The tables, lamps, columns and mirrors (from €22,000) were made of carved marble with delicate fluted columns and elegant capitals. The influences were straight from ancient Greece but, being Lagerfeld, he made them look iconic.
Architectural Digest described the collection as "an elegant mishmash of 18th century European design with modernism, minimalism, antiques and abstraction fused together in a way that disrupts classicism with a dash of brutalism." Not a straightforward take of classicism, so.
Greek and Roman art and architecture never really goes out of fashion. That's why they call it classical.
"I'm inspired by the perfect proportions of Greek columns," Lagerfeld continued. "They truly are the standards for beauty, fixed, once and for all. The Greeks didn't know about bad taste."
That may be, but classical features can look mighty dodgy out of context. Witness the porticoes and columns that adorn the front of many a modern Irish bungalow. Every generation has a new take on classicism and some of it works better than others. Just because something's classically-inspired doesn't mean it's nice.
Just now, classicism is having a moment. Elle Décor tagged it as one of the key interiors trends for 2020, quoting Rayman Boozer, the American interior designer behind Apartment 48. "Classicism is back!" Boozer commented. "Busts and Grecian details add the perfect perspective to any contemporary vignette. Embrace these time-honoured elements without taking them too seriously - playfulness is the perfect final touch."
The accompanying illustration shows a Grecian bust, possibly of Apollo, wearing a rainbow necklace of pom-poms. This is classicism for the post-irony generation: teasing, respectful and often downright funny.
There are different approaches to contemporary classicism. One is to take a straight-up reproduction of ancient art and display it in an ironic way. Other objects come pre-programmed with humour. The design studio Young & Battaglia have designed a truly hilarious series of pendant lamps in the shape of classical stone busts. Goddess, Hero and Muse are based on Apollo, Venus and Diana and cost €605.51 from Mineheart. The LED downlight is in the base of the statue. They're good fun, but it seems an awful lot to pay for design witticism and you can't help feeling that statues were placed on plinths for a reason. Diana's head is at an unfortunate angle given that she's suspended on a cable from the ceiling. She looks like she's been lynched.
Sculptures from Jonathan Adler, a potter and designer based in New York, include two classically-inspired busts, the Grand Tour God and Goddess, each 61cm high, made in screen-printed acetate suspended within clear acrylic. "My formula?" he tweeted. "Ninety-nine percent classicism, one per cent witticism."
It's a fair comment, but I reckon the design is mostly wit, approached from a classical angle. Adler's work is available from Amara (free delivery to Ireland) but for larger items like these, you'll probably need to contact his UK website to organise delivery. It's a big commitment and so is the price - the Grand Tour Busts cost £795 (€929) each. If you love them that much, get your interior designer on the case.
For more accessible classical décor, consider the range of ceramic sculptures from the Greek design company Sophia. These are in the contemporary vein of witty deconstructed classics but, being Greek, are a little bit closer to source. In 2016, Sophia won a silver A' Design Award for their Marathon Boy bookends - a design based on the bronze sculpture (c. 340-330 BC) found in the bay of Marathon in the Aegean Sea in 1925. The bookends replicate the head of the boy mounted on a plinth and split in vertically so that one side of his head supports each end of a stack of books. The similarly constructed bookend, Hygeia, is based on the Greek Goddess of health. These are 27.5cm high and cost €125 from Mokum Interiors in Camden Street, Dublin.
Sophia's range includes many different busts - large and small - in truly glorious colours like Mint (my favourite) and raspberry. They're made in cast ceramic, the craftsmanship is superb and they have a real sense of connection with the cultural heritage of ancient Greece.
Small busts (17cm high) start at €35, medium sized items are around €125; larger pieces are priced on request. The catch is they're made to order and there's a four-month lead time. Be prepared to wait. "It's a pop-art version of classicism, but the quality is fantastic," says Eoin Deeleman, interior designer and Principal of Mokum Interiors.
According to Deeleman, classical accessories can be used in one of two ways. Take your pick, then stick to it.
"A classical sculpture can be the eye-catcher in the room - the statement piece - but it needs to be made in stone or ceramic, not resin, and not painted. Or you can use smaller pieces like the bookends in the background."
Contemporary classicism, he suggests, works best as part of a theme.
"Bring several classical elements together in a room, don't just have the bust sitting there on its own with nothing to make sense of it. I'm not a big fan of the mantelpiece bust with a candlestick on either side. It ends up looking like an altar!" Instead, find some prints to balance the motif or use a wallpaper that plays on columns. These can be subtle, like the Ancient Greek wallpaper mural from Behangfabriek (€80 per metre) or Colonade from Mind The Gap (€175 for 3 rolls).
Classical designs, he suggests, work really well with plants. "A fern on top of a Corinthian column looks rather well - it gives a different kind of sophistication."
If you're considering styling a room to a classical theme, Mokum Interiors offers consultations: €75 for a one-hour in-house session and €200 for a call-out. For that you'd get a 1.5-hour meeting in your home, a document outlining the advice given, and a follow-up meeting back in store.
"We have access to some really good accessories," Deeleman says. "They're not the easiest items to find and we can make them work in a room without looking obnoxious and without being lost."
See shopmokuminteriors.com, uk.jonathanadler.com, sophia.com.gr, mineheart.com, behangfabriek.com.