Spells and whistles

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 April, 2010, 12:00am

Fantasy, myth and legend may have enjoyed their heyday in centuries past. But where popular culture is concerned, everyone from movie directors to novelists to online game creators have relied on flights of fancy. Such escapism has also touched designers, who have taken elements of extraordinary narratives and come up with startling results.

XYZ Design is a group of artists and designers linked to the influential gallery Contrasts, which has bases in Shanghai and Beijing. Part of the group's interest centres on exploring elements of the ancient and present. Collectively, they say they want to 'incorporate elements of traditional Chinese culture in their products', which they do to great effect, mining the power of legend and myth.

Dragons may have become associated with the obsessives among online gamers. However, XYZ Design has rescued this beautiful creature from the depths of fantasy and given a nod to its pre-online regal past, when it was imprinted on the robes of Chinese emperors.

Although their Single Dragon Candle Holder might not actually be capable of breathing fire, the sinister aspects of the creature are exaggerated in its twisted body and aggressive stare. Also being lured out of the kingdom of make-believe is Lathe 1 chair, by designer Sebastian Brajkovic, who studied under Dutch designers Hella Jongerius and Jurgen Bey. Relying heavily on traditional folkloric colour combinations such as black, red and yellow, it looks like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Brajkovic - whose work is available from London's Carpenters Workshop Gallery - has also been commissioned by that catwalk maestro of fantasy and illusion, Jean Paul Gaultier.

Design that captures the spirit of fantasy and imagination need not always be so ornate, however. Another way to evoke the spirit of fantasy is to call on the serenity and elegance of white and silver. Francois Azambourg's Stick Lamp, for example, glitters with masses of shimmering bulbs. Intricate and spidery, it owes something to the spooky quality of an abandoned castle or haunted palace. His Silver Stool, available at Galerie Kreo in Paris, is equally ethereal. More Gothic than fairy tale is the beaded and feathered Copacabana chandelier. Also by XYZ Design, it is a clever update of the traditional glass and crystal chandelier, which has been looking increasingly tired in recent years. Replacing crystals with feathers makes it much more unusual and the catwalk colour purple brings it even more up to date.

Other works informed by the fairy-tale narrative may inhabit La La Land, but they are all unique. This is some feat when you consider many of us are familiar with the symbols of folklore and myth. After all, these timeless stories have already been plundered by everyone from Walt Disney to Angela Carter.

A case in point is the woodland gnome, a motif straight from the Brothers Grimm. Designer Philippe Starck rescued these pastoral creatures from the depths of the glade and brought them indoors via his Gnome table-stools. Suitable for the living room, these gnomes, cheekily called Napoleon and Attila, are hand painted and will either make you smile or gag.

Rather more subtle is Canadian architect and designer Omer Arbel's Series 28 chandelier. Showcased at the recent Salone Milan, this light fixture consists of haphazardly composed blown-glass pendants bursting from it. It is clear when you look at the illuminated sphere that Arbel - who designed the medals for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics - has fallen under a kind of magical spell.

'I like thinking of design and architecture as fundamentally romantic pursuits,' says Arbel. And being an innovator, Arbel is not interested just in the final result but in the overall execution, which also owes something to those fairy tale staples of distortion and manipulation. 'I am interested in exploring the unexpected - but in retrospect, obvious - aspects of the world around us,' he says. 'In this case we inverted the basic technique of glass blowing. If you can blow air into glass and achieve astonishing results, it follows that you should be able to suck air out too, and achieve an equally interesting form,' he says of his chandelier, which looks as though it could have been created by the Mad Hatter himself.

Similarly incandescent are creations of Seoul-born Ji-Hyun Chung. The ceramicist, who has exhibited at the Seoul Design Olympiad and Designboom in Sydney, shines very brightly using small, colourful bulbs. The only thing missing for the perfect fairy tale home would be a staircase reaching to the stars, but although the designers above might be capable of creating designs that are both rare and beautiful, magic, for now, is just a little out of their reach.