Rough it up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 November, 2009, 12:00am

Roughness and luxury may seem incompatible to most of us but designers around the world are showing how they can be partners. Instead of smoothing everything down to a precise finish, they are displaying partially sanded surfaces, bare wood and chipped paint. Design that looks slightly underworked is peeping out from behind rows of sharp-cut chrome.

Beijing-based Xie Dong's delicate china is a case in point. Her ceramics would look eerily perfect were it not for its creases. The Crinkled Bowls and Elderdown Quilt Vase are finished with a raw look that's totally unexpected from porcelain. Taking cues from the vagaries and imperfections of nature are never going to be easy but somehow Dong manages it with her sculptural ripples.

Netherlands-based designer Piet Hein Eek is another disciple of the relaxed form. When he first started he claimed he was reacting against the craving for flawlessness. Now he produces furniture that looks unfinished and exposed with rough and sawn edges. Often made of scrap wood, his furniture is nothing like the sleek, laboriously detailed products we are more used to. However, despite his enthusiasm for the trend, Hein Eek is not against more stylised designs.

'The Industrial Revolution was also meant to be an aesthetic revolution with perfect reproduction being the ultimate goal,' he says. But the designer, whose works are carried by Lane Crawford, also worries that appreciating perfect production means disregarding other beauty. 'Materials and products that age are also beautiful and this is often forgotten, ' he says.

It is this awakening of different kinds of beauty that defines the trend. Rabih Hage, who has worked on the train stations of Paris, Montparnasse and Nantes, agrees, saying: 'There has been a world of standardisation and copy for the past 20 years and people used to call it luxury. My design is about uniqueness and no standards.'

If Hage's words sound alarming then you have not seen his domino table and cabinets. Hage might claim he has no standards but his work is enticing, with more emphasis on originality and practicality than polish. 'Functionality and beauty are still there, present and part of the total design,' he says.

Taking risks is important, but there are some risks in the design world akin to tampering with the Holy Grail. However, Beirut-based Bokja is braver than most. Designers Maria Hibri and Hoda Baroudi, who make up the team, have the confidence to take something that is considered a perfect example of modern design and loosen it up. Arne Jacobsen's Egg Chair in its most well-known form is sleek and devoid of pattern. In Bokja's hands it's another chair, covered in clashing fabrics. But does this eclecticism improve on Jacobsen's original?

'We do not seek to improve the design. We are trying to apply our vision to give it another dimension,' they say. Part of this other dimension could come from the Ottoman brocade, Bedouin dresses or Chinese silk they search for in flea markets and antique shops. Reinvention is central to their work, but isn't it a sacrilege to tamper with something like a Jacobsen original, which, for many design critics, is about as perfect as it gets? The design team that has been selected for the new Matthew Williamson store in Manhattan and Christian Louboutin shops worldwide shrug, claiming, 'Our philosophy might shock some and please others. We always ask, Why not?'

Joining Bokja in a healthy disregard for what's considered acceptable in the frequently safe world of contemporary design is Paris-based Patrice Gruffaz. His Rose Table Lamp tilts with scant regard for geometrical precision. Gruffaz's other lamps also look slightly medieval and he often favours plaster left untouched. Saved from the clich?of glossy paint, it reflects a less uptight world, as do the other works. We are slowly becoming more accepting of new ideas of what's stylish. Eek is right when he says: 'If at a certain moment almost everything is perfect, people start to appreciate the opposite.'

But what if you wanted to recreate this look at home? 'It's not as easy as it looks,' warns Hage, who could be considered an expert on the subject after throwing together trompe l'oeil and plaster chandeliers from Gruffaz to create something truly original in London's Rough Luxe hotel. Since opening, the hotel has been the epitome of rough luxury, blending both to great acclaim. Achieving the charmingly scruffy is possible, and one way to start is to think about 'authenticity', says Hage.

You will need to spend time getting the look but once you succeed you will relish the fact your home 'expresses emotion and delivers a message', says Hage. If you find it difficult to form an attachment to the goods offered in cookie-cutter showroom catalogues, then perhaps a bit of roughing-up is what your home needs.