Monday 9 December 2019

Why it's time to take a walk on the wild side...

Being risky with design choices isn't for everyone, but some rules were meant to be broken

Wilderness range from Sainsburys Home
Wilderness range from Sainsburys Home
Adventurous paterned tiles by Target Group
Candy Colours from Homesense
Risky patterns from Homesense
Jill & Gill
Gwen Kenny
Casalgrande Padana's Limpha collection
MW for Debenhams
Ritratto series tiles from Target Group

I once met a recently qualified interior designer. I asked her what she had done before. "I was Sweden's premier stunt woman," she said. I never saw her again, but I've often wondered how she got on as a designer. Did she find the thrills she needed in interiors or did she just learn to do without?

When it comes to risk-taking in interiors, the blogosphere is quick to recommend throwing caution to the wind. "Go dark! Bring the outside in! Go wild on one wall! Add colour! Use wallpaper in unexpected places! Make your ceiling stand out!" These pearls of wisdom are lifted from various blogposts and articles on 'Interior Design Risks That Are Totally Worth Taking'. Many of them are written by enthusiasts (rather than experts) and they reflect a general ethos that people should be more adventurous in their homes. Or as the interiors blogger on Homebunch writes: "You need to forget any fear you have about taking design risks, and unleash the inner you."

You'd want to take it with a pinch of salt. Taking risks can give you a buzz - the feeling of throwing caution to the winds releases dopamine in the brain - but that's a short-term reaction. And interior design features like wallpapered ceilings, dark walls and gold taps are a longer term investment. The world outside is full of jeopardy. Do you really want more of that in your home?

In a recent collaboration with the sofa company DFS, Irish designers Jill & Gill created a roomset. Their brief was to choose a piece of DFS furniture and style it accordingly. Their philosophy was "don't play it safe". They selected a French Connection Hoxton three seater (€1,199), cuddler (€949), and footstool (€499), all in rose-pink fabric and styled it against a black wall and concrete floor to bring out the textures and colours.

Ritratto series tiles from Target Group
Ritratto series tiles from Target Group

They anchored the ensemble with a wooden partition screen, designed and made for the shoot using offcuts of hand-printed organic denim from their 2019 fashion collection in collaboration with Worthy Design Studio. "Risk-taking for us in an interior sense is not being afraid to envision a space beyond its functional use, using it as a platform to showcase who you are," they said. "That can be a great thing."

It can indeed, but a roomset is a specific thing and its main job is to look magnificent in a photograph. It's not a space that has to be lived in. Sometimes the ideas in a roomset translate into a real-life living space and sometimes they don't. Also, isn't there something funny about adopting another person's self-expressive décor and trying to make it your own? That can go badly wrong.

"I once worked on a project with an architect," says Gwen Kenny, interior architect and Principal of Divine Design. "The clients were very clear about the feeling that they wanted to have in their home - light, bright and airy - but the architect insisted on a swamp green kitchen with murky colours, thick textures and heavy stone. They went along with the plan and ended up with this trendy home that they've never really settled in."

If you're taking design risks, make sure you do it on your own terms.

Kenny has recently launched a series of masterclasses, both for people undertaking a self-build project and for luxury interior design projects (each costs €375 a day, including lunch with reductions for early booking). The self-build class sounds extremely practical - think spatial planning and plumbing plans. The luxury interiors class is a little fluffier, with tempting inclusions like Styles, and Pinpointing Yours; Designer Secrets; and Styling Your Own Vignettes.

Kenny is a big fan of rule breaking, which is not quite the same as risk-taking because she's a professional and she knows what she's doing. But some rules are there for good reason. For example, she fundamentally disagrees with the theory that painting the walls with dark paint can make the room look bigger. "It doesn't," she says. "It can't. Dark colours come towards you and light colours recede away from you. It's a basic design principle."

Adventurous paterned tiles by Target Group
Adventurous paterned tiles by Target Group

Other rules can be called into question. One of these is the 'kitchen triangle' which dictates that the tasks in a home kitchen are carried out between the cooker, the sink, and the fridge. "I've thrown that one out the window," she says. "People don't live the way that they used to and now that we have dishwashers, we no longer move between the three points in the kitchen."

Similarly, the standard measurements of beds and the heights of countertops can be called into question. "They are based on research carried out by the American military in the 1950s and they are no longer accurate. Our bodies have changed hugely over the past 70 years."

She's also an opponent of situating kitchens in the return. "It creates a black hole in the middle of the house for living in," she says. "It bugs me. I see it all the time. And why do we always have utility rooms downstairs? You have to carry the clothes up and down again."

Probably, this dates from a time when rich people had servants and poor people had outside taps. "A lot of the things that we do are based on old rules that evolved for reasons that nobody remembers. People want things a certain way because it's the way that it has always been done. Question it. There might be another way."

Sometimes, the rules are limited by technology. Historically, windows were small because that was all that glass technology allowed. Now you can build entire houses from glass. More recently, ceramic technology has developed to allow for massive tiles. The Ritratto line from Target, with hand painted portraits on giant (2m x 3m) tiles is a visually spectacular example of this technology. It's bespoke, and probably astronomically expensive, but very large tiles are already becoming mainstream.

Even more mind-boggling are the large tiles from Casalgrande Padana's Limpha collection, designed to look like a wall of climbing plants, can also help to purify the air. The claim is that through photocatalysis (a chemical reaction triggered by light), the tiles can "reduce causes of pollution present in the air during sunlight hours" as well as "working to decompose the dirt left on the surface of the tiles, thus allowing rainwater to wash the tiles clean".

It's an interesting one to think about. What if tiled surfaces could actually clean the air in the way that forests can? That's rule-breaking in a fundamental sense.

For interior design masterclasses with Gwen Kenny, see See also, and

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