Interiors: Blast from the past... as retro returns
Retro's back as new things designed to look old make waves on the high street
Bring the mammy around to admire the new décor and she'll home in on your iconic vintage art vessel like a guided missile.
"What's that for?" asks the mammy, inspecting the precious item.
The object's owner shifts nervously from one foot to the other: "It's not exactly for anything. It just looks nice."
The mammy sniffs. "How much did it cost you?"
If you're foolish enough to confess, she'll plonk it down with a disparaging sniff. "Well, I suppose you could always put flowers in it."
Irish people are hooked on functionality.
While the English are quite happy to invest in vintage ceramics and glass, just for the sake of having something beautiful to look at, the supposedly arty and flippant Gael is extra reluctant to splash on anything simply decorative. That's the national prognosis of Geoff Kirk of Kirkmodern, who sells 20th century design furniture and décor both here and in the UK. "People want key pieces - original items that nobody else has," he explains. "But in Ireland, there's an idea that if something is functional, then you haven't wasted your money."
Kirk's main interests include the ceramics of Stig Lindberg for Gustavsberg in Sweden. His pieces start around €100 for iconic Bersa design cup and saucer, the average €300 to €700 for a hand painted piece from the 1950s, and some of the rarer pieces sell for over €1,000. The Brits are all over it but the Irish keep their hands in their pockets. We're much more likely to go for a teak ice bucket (€150 to €200) based on the design of a Viking longboat and designed by Jens Quistgaard in 1955.
"People like to be able to say that it's an ice bucket - it has a function - but I don't think that anybody actually uses it!"
The 20th century look is big on the high street and almost all the homeware brands have designs in a 20th century style. The key word here is 'retro'. All the ranges are focused on new things that are designed to look old. Dunnes Stores, for example, have the Stockholm chair (€325), which they describe as a "retro-inspired classic". It's upholstered in a vintage-looking orange fabric, with birch wood legs and arms set at an angle that screams "mid-century modern", if in a non-specific way. Similarly, Littlewoods' Monty Retro TV unit (€123) looks ready to brace itself for a cathode ray television, while both the Monty Retro coffee table and the Malmo two-drawer dressing table (both €110) have 1950s-inspired tapering legs.
In short, it's hard to find a high street homeware brand without a mid-century flavour. With retro furniture so cheaply and widely available, why would you want to buy an original? "People go for vintage pieces because they have a bit of patina," Kirk explains. "Sometimes they just like old things."
In fact, old things are so very popular that he's just opened a showroom in Blackrock, Co Dublin. "I'm doing a lot of work with interior designers and they like to bring in their clients so that they can actually sit on the chairs."
When it comes to furniture, Kirk finds that Irish people have no problem in forking out for a nice vintage chair, lamp or sideboard, even if it's almost as expensive as buying a new one. The Isokon Penguin Donkey bookcase (1939) has four legs and two panniers (hence the donkey moniker). The penguin part of the name came from Alan Race, the publisher of Penguin Books, who was so impressed with the design that he inserted advertising leaflets for the bookcase into 100,000 books. An updated version of the Penguin Donkey bookcase costs €714 from Skandium.
A vintage original from Kirkmodern costs just under €600. Where people prefer to buy the vintage version, they're probably not choosing it for reasons of economy. "Some people still want the old ones that look like someone has lived with them for 30 or 40 years," says Kirk.
His personal favourite, the Papa Bear chair, was designed by Hans J Wegner in 1953. It's still in production by the original company, PP Mobler, and costs a staggering €14,867 from Skandium. Vintage originals are rare and usually sell for between €10,000 and €15,000. The Papa Bear is a gorgeous big armchair with paw-like arms but, as Kirk admits, not everyone wants to take on a second mortgage to buy a chair.
At the affordable end of the spectrum, small desk lamps like the Anglepoise Classic or the MacLamp (€150 to €200), designed by Terence Conran, offer a way of adding vintage character to a room without a massive outlay. "Bright colours are more expensive - but then they always were," says Kirk.
"Most people bought the lamps in cream or black or murky brown. I think orange is great but it tends to scream at you. If you have a room with grey walls and a teak desk, it's a good way of putting in a splash of colour."
Overdoing the vintage look is never a stylish plan, but original furniture can be offset by some of the more gentle retro fabrics and wallpaper. If original mid-century patterns give you indigestion, it's worth noting that brands like Scion (€46 to €77 per metre or per roll from Kevin Kelly Interiors) offer designs that, although inspired by mid-century prints, are interpreted in a way that makes them lighter, brighter, and altogether more palatable. There's a practical element here too.
While 20th century craftsmanship was as good as anything that we have today, both textiles and wallpapers are much more hardwearing than they were 50 years ago. If you're having a 1950s rosewood chair reupholstered, it makes sense to go for a fabric designed for the rigours of 21st century living.
The Kirkmodern showroom is open on Saturdays and by appointment on 4a Annaville Avenue, Newtown Park Avenue, Blackrock, Co Dublin. Seekirkmodern.com. See also skandium.com, ie.nextdirect.com, heatonsstores.com, kevinkellyinteriors.ie, dunnesstores.com.