Economic and social trends have a profound effect on the look and feel of our homes - not to mention fashion, films and other areas of contemporary culture. What the clothing industry has been doing for ages - embracing several, often contrasting trends at once - has emerged more slowly in interior design and furniture, constrained as they are by the reality of production cycles and cost. Yet we are now witnessing a major shift; for our homes there is no longer a single prescriptive trend.
With a sour economy, design is now polarised thanks to two very natural psychological reactions to crisis and uncertainty - namely the rejection of the excess in favour of an almost monastic paring down, or a desire to cocoon and nurture in a cosy haven of soft, organic lines and forms. This was highlighted at this year's Ambiente homewares trade show, where interiors trends cited an "interplay of opposites". Let's call them the Calvinistic and the Curvy.
"In general we are witnessing the return of a 'fewer and better' attitude to consumption in the spheres of fashion, food and home," affirms Caroline Till, the design editor of LS:N Global, the online lifestyle and news division of The Future Laboratory think-tank. "As we edit our lifestyles consumers seek out products that evoke an emotional response - products that offer comfort and reassurance heralding a new readiness to swap the glossy and aggressively marketed for the more rough-hewn and essential."
Molo's "softseating" furniture set addresses this perfectly, with its satisfyingly simple, flexible design. The honeycomb structure is made of recycled paper that fans into stools, benches and loungers. When not in use, it can be compressed flat and stored away. The clever, eco-friendly, fold-up furniture concept was immediately snapped up by New York's Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection.
Designers and manufacturers are heralding a return to modest products that are built to last for generations rather than seasons, celebrating artisanal skills, tradition and heritage. Established & Sons' recently launched collection of accessories for the home has a pared down, purposeful feel about it - albeit with a touch of boldness and flair - that sets them apart from the multitude of objects found in most high street stores.
The Soft Grid merino wool blankets make wonderful modernist cocooning friends, and the Store collection of storage jars (whose forms are inspired by space capsules) and the tactile Dip vessels are, to quote the company's sales patter: the perfect "punctuation marks in a room". The philosophy behind these products is best explained by Sebastian Wrong, the firm's design development director, who says: "Better to invest in something that you'll feel passionate about ... that means something."
Similarly, the Minimalux "jewels for the home" collection, developed by Mark Holmes, the former design director and co-founder of Established & Sons, has a lasting practical and material value - making for modern-day heirlooms for future generations. "I wanted to create a range that was simple and functional ..." he told Wallpaper* at the launch last year. The resulting objects - including salt and pepper pots, egg cups, paperweights, pen holders and paperclip pots - combine minimal form with precious materials and finishes. Made in solid brass, plated in silver or 24-carat gold, they have a satisfyingly solid presence, working particularly well when grouped together on a clutter-free surface.
"Consumers are looking for more than ubiquitous mass-produced goods and seeking original, authentic products made with longevity in mind ..." says Till. "Equally driven by the same concern for honesty and sustainability in a world overstuffed with ideas, product offers and choices, consumers are increasingly keen on social, cultural, aesthetic and graphic leanness. Psychologists refer to this intellectual editing process as 'cognitive fluency', an adopted short cut in a world in which so many things compete for our attention. As a result, we see an increased affinity for fluency and simplicity, a push towards a cultural decluttering and a renewed desire for a 'super-minimalist' design aesthetic."
One thing that should be made clear is that, while design is now becoming more sober and refined, this is not a return to 1990s minimalism, which followed the excesses 1980s yuppiedom. This time it's about a purifying process, with honest design and simple shapes that help to create livable spaces. Likewise, the new curvy trend for today's cocoon is nothing to do with frilly or frou-frou - and definitely no Austrian blinds.
For a parallel trend take a look at clothing - fashion designers, buyers and press are unanimously hailing this autumn's chicest trend as the "new perfection" - namely the reinvention of understated luxe, with precise forms and fuss-free detailing in a refined, neutral palette. Calvin Klein's designer, Francisco Costa, cited Uma Thurman in Gattaca as his inspiration for his Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. Fellow advocators of the new purity-meets-elegance dogma include Stella McCartney, Rick Jones, Roland Mouret, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. "When was minimalism not right?" asks Jones in Net-à-Porter's magazine. "It's such a great no to chaos ..."
Amid all this Calvinistic simplicity, is the current crescendo of curves a paradox? A wealth of fluid and rounded furniture forms is creeping into the domestic landscape; arcs are appearing everywhere - from sinuous tables and organically shaped kitchen cabinets to curvaceous consoles and statement seating. But far from being merely decorative or "curly", these curvy shapes are also simple: drawn from natural forms they are undergoing a reinvention thanks to new modelling techniques, as well as materials such as Corian and fibreglass. The new curves have quickly gone mainstream in such items as pots and planters, where curves are balanced by dynamic lines and forms. Look out for the accessories by Karim Rashid (available at Boutique 1).
So why are curvilinear designs particularly prominent right now? What is fuelling the love affair with the curve? In functional areas of the house, such as the kitchen, curves can be easier to live with than more rational, linear lines (no sharp edges to bang into). Curves also promote flow and movement between different areas, helping to make a living space more convivial. Using curves for surfaces and furniture help to keep those happy endorphins flowing, nurturing a feeling of contented bliss.
Misha Stavrides, the founder of the architectural design studio Mishascape, explains why: "There are no straight lines in nature and architecture should emulate that." The self-described "soft modernist" designed a curvy "floating island" kitchen for a small apartment. "The client loved its fluid form," he says. "It was on a raised platform, freeing up the space, both physically and visually." The London-based furniture manufacturer Sé (launched in 2008 to great acclaim - attracting clients from Oman, Dubai and Bahrain) produces fantastically curvy bronze side tables and upholstered chairs in confident yet elegantly proportioned shapes and finishes. The pieces have a refined presence and, while verging on the classic, have a look of something distinctly modern. Sé's director, Pavlo Schtakleff, feels that today's interiors combine both minimal and curvy trends. "We believe that people are increasingly searching for unique modern classics that combine sophisticated lines and materials while respecting a desire for sumptuous comfort."
It is no surprise that the furniture created by the great French designer Pierre Paulin - widely considered the "furniture king of curves" following his collaboration with Artifort in the 1960s - are still strong sellers today (including the Mushroom armchair and Ribbon chair). Ligne Roset recently reintroduced Paulin's Pumpkin Sofa - updated from a one-off design made for the Presidential apartment of France's Elysée Palace in 1970. Its inviting, rounded shape is as full-bodied as its namesake, yet has an utterly timeless feel, making it one of the company's bestsellers.
The Italian architect and designer Piero Lissoni is a master of simplicity, describing his work as being primarily about creating a "visual silence". His distinctive Living Divani collection (available in the UAE at Purity in Dubai) offers products "to enhance your living environment". And boy does it deliver, with its fabulously sensuous Bubble Rock Sofa - perfect for accommodating several friends, if you should be socialising more at home these days. Similarly, its clean Extra Wall Bed and refined Menhir Low Table (available in marble or oak) exemplifies the modern minimal mood with a capital M.
Conversely, his fellow Italian, Paola Lenti, is renowned for her sumptuous designs - yet successfully shows how curviness can still be contained and pure. If you want to make a stark stone terrace feel cosy, her soft, welcoming textiles will instantly warm it up and make it feel inviting. Her outdoor Sand lounge chairs, produced by Minima and upholstered in the designer's signature Rope fabric using hand-weaving methods, are the epitome of minimal chic.
When the London-based Swiss designer Rolf Sachs couldn't find a simple console table that he liked, he decided to make his own. Today the former investment banker's creative output encompasses no-nonsense functional and conceptual pieces such as his witty tableware "chess set" and, often, objects made from felt - a material he favours for its "incredible softening and protecting" attributes. "The economic climate is driving brands and designers to offer products that respond to human needs and emotional desires," says Ryan Ross, the chief creative officer of Stylus, the new global "information and inspiration" resource for the design, retail and consumer industries, which launches in September.
"Spaces with spiritual resonance become important retreats for recharging emotional batteries. Individual style and connection with your personal space is more prominent than ever today in interior design ... and the value of now is defining what's important ... for a reasonable quality of life."