Loving the clash

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am

As a teenager in the 1980s, Ross Urwin dressed in classic 1940s British suits, sported Dr Marten boots and wore a little cap on his shaved head. He hung out with 'all the cool kids' on London's fashion-obsessed King's Road and worked at a stall on Notting Hill's Portobello Road, famous then as now for its antiques market.

'I was 16 and I was selling all kinds of vintage items, clothing, shoes and cases like that ...' he says, pointing to a nest of bank trunks at the foot of his bed.

Such hands-on experience and love of things vintage (typically dating from the 1920s to 80s) have stood him in good stead. Urwin may have put away his outlandish outfits but he continues to nurture his long-standing aesthetic sense when it comes to homeware and interior design. Now, as creative director, home and lifestyle, at Lane Crawford's central buying office, he sources merchandise worldwide and is involved in product development. Which means he not only moulds tastes but also caters to them.

It's little wonder then that his home, by the water in Sai Kung, is a charming reflection of the look he loves and one he predicts Hongkongers will increasingly embrace: vintage and mid-20th-century style combined with contemporary design. A three-storey, 2,700 sq ft house with picture windows that make the most of pretty water views, his rented abode is a charming repository of desirable items, some of them once-in-a-lifetime finds made during vintage-fair trawls around the world.

The best seat in the house, accorded prime position, facing the water on the first floor, is a 50s easy chair. He discovered it on a wet winter's morning in 2003 at a market in Newark, northern England. Apart from being 'the most comfortable chair in the world', Urwin says, 'I just fell in love with the shape.'

Another keepsake is a gaudy ottoman he received as a gift from Australian designer Suzie Stanford, famous for her kitsch-but-covetable furniture upholstered in vintage tea towels.

'She asked me where I was from and I said, 'Kent, in England.' Three weeks later that arrived.' The pouffe Stanford customised is covered in bright 50s tea towels with scenes of Kent on one side and on the other, for Urwin's Australian partner, Darrel Best, pictures of kangaroos, Surfers Paradise and the like. 'It doesn't really go with anything here,' Urwin says. But, because of the story behind it, 'I want it in our sitting room.'

Reflecting his love of combining new and old in striking ways are a 60s Willy Rizzo coffee table, with built-in champagne bucket; several simple white Established and Sons floor lamps, with red cords; a hexagonal side table designed in 1957 by Isamu Noguchi; and a blue-and-white Design Conduit rug, designed by Best and available at eco-chic furniture chain Tree.

Before moving to Hong Kong three years ago, Urwin says, he promoted a similar look, for Liberty of London. 'I'd put something from Established and Sons next to something that was 400 years old,' he says. 'I love the clash of design.'

Colliding but cohesive shapes, colours and styles can be found on fabrics covering cushions on every floor and include vintage designs by, among others, Svensk Tenn, the lifestyle company that defined Swedish modern.

Urwin is confident vintage and mid-century classics will continue to be popular, even among notoriously fickle Hongkongers, and points to developments that should augment their staying power. About the latter, in particular, he says there are many young designers reinterpreting their functional forms.

'They've got something from that period and they've made it contemporary,' he says. 'So it doesn't look like a 20th-century piece but it's got a little bit of that influence somewhere.'

But there's another, more heartening, reason consumers will remain fans of vintage and mid-cen- tury modern design, he believes.

'People want functional products in their lives. There was a period about 10 years ago when consumers were buying things for the sake of buying. They were by so and so, expensive, and mad looking.'

Ensconced in one of his super-comfy 50s easy chairs, an autographed book by Spanish contemporary designer Jaime Hayon on his lap, he says: 'Those days are gone.'

1 The contemporary-retro mix begins in the ground-floor living room, where a sofa from Ikea (various locations; www.ikea.com.hk) is accessorised with cushions covered in fabric from the 1950s. The wooden furniture was made years ago in Indonesia from driftwood. The Design Conduit pointillist rug, in 100 per cent New Zealand wool, cost HK$9,950 from Tree (28/F, Horizon Plaza, tel: 2870 1582). The black Eames shell armchairs (HK$4,140 each) are available at Lane Crawford Home Store (Pacific Place, Admiralty, tel: 2118 3668), as is the Ilse Crawford table lamp (HK$6,500). On the wall are two antique Japanese silk-screen prints that were gifts. The porthole-style wall lights came with the house.

2 The Willy Rizzo coffee table (about GBP700/HK$8,700), with built-in champagne bucket, was purchased years ago from a vintage market in Newark, England, before the designer's furniture became collectors' items. From Lane Crawford are the London-skyline Charlene Mullen cushions (HK$2,700 each), the Established and Sons Fold floor lamp (HK$8,600), the sofa set (HK$35,000) and the angel sculpture, by Qu Guangci (HK$3,800). Ross Urwin designed the black vase, which sits on a Vitra Noguchi Prismatic table (HK$4,500), also from Lane Crawford. The Suzie Stanford ottoman (www.suziestanford.com.au) was a gift. Similar one-offs are available at Lane Crawford for HK$26,500.

3 Under the Knoll Studio marble table, by Eero Saarinen (HK$39,800), and black Herman Miller Eames shell chairs (HK$2,840 each), all available from Lane Crawford, is Design Conduit's Retro Rug (HK$9,950), sold at Tree. The blue and yellow Artoni Arte Murano glass vase, from Italy, is sold at Lane Crawford for HK$17,000. The metal chandelier is a 60s Italian design bought seven years ago at an antiques fair in Parma, for about GBP700.

4 The easy chair, Urwin's favourite piece of furniture in his home, was picked up for about GBP550 many years ago from Newark and reupholstered. He found the 50s Italian trolley (Euro350/HK$3,700), the floor lamp (Euro800) and the 20s artwork, by an unknown Russian artist, at an antiques fair in Milan, Italy. The rug, designed by Darrel Best for Design Conduit, is available for HK$9,950 at Tree.

5 The scenic rooftop accommodates a round table (HK$19,980), made of reclaimed pine, bought several years ago from Tequila Kola (1/F, Horizon Plaza, 2 Lee Wing Street, Ap Lei Chau, tel: 2877 3295). The sofas, from Ikea, were also bought several years ago.

6 Urwin personalised the bathroom with a 40s industrial trolley; similar ones are available at Lane Crawford Home Store for HK$7,000 to HK$20,000. The photograph is a family hand-me-down and the 30s Deco mirror Urwin bought as a teenager.

7 The bed, which looks out onto the water, accommodates cushions covered in 50s textiles. The red coat stand by Thonet cost HK$2,750 at Lane Crawford. The 40s English industrial floor lamp (GBP400) was bought years ago at the Ardingly Antiques Fair, in Britain. At the foot of the bed the bank trunks, which are of similar age and from the same fair, cost from GBP100 to GBP400, depending on the size. The green velvet 50s Italian armchair was from a vintage show in Italy. The artwork above the single shelf is by an unknown cubist artist.

Tried + tested

Material comfort

Ross Urwin used his collection of vintage textiles to cover cushions scattered throughout his home, including curtain material from the 1950s, bought at antiques shops in Britain (top and second from the bottom). Bottom and second from the top are Who Found Otto linen cushions, available at Lane Crawford for HK$800 to HK$850.

Styling David Roden