August 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Cover Story

Designers embellish with flair in unexpected places

For minimalists, even a whisper of decoration is like a flaw on an otherwise perfect diamond. But one reason that a more modern aesthetic currently is appealing to a broader segment of consumers is because it’s showing a softer side. That may translate to a loosening of form or color — both unabashed and subtle — where something more neutral is expected.

And with a less rigid interpretation also comes — wait for it — a bit of well-chosen embellishment.

Even when the dress-up is low-key, it can be so dramatic. Woven fabric trims are popular as borders on everything from drapery to chair skirts.

But in Los Angeles-based designer Mary McDonald’s new collection for Guy Chaddock Furniture, the deft placement of parallel bands of Greek key tape, from sofa back continuing through to seat, create just enough striping on the solid-colored gray upholstery to make a wow statement.

One reason that minimalism in its purist form is unsettling to some is because it’s too stark. Practitioners such as the Italian-born, London-based architect Claudio Silvestrin, who believes that the best faucets are invisible, gets that minimalism is not in fashion. “What dominates is decorative-ism,” he told Elle Decor. Still, he prefers “warm minimalism,” using natural materials, to the “ice cold” interpretation that has been trendy.

In the June issue of House Beautiful, Editor-in-Chief Newell Turner notes: “What’s modern now is not all-white, pristine, uncomfortable or ‘less is more’ — especially not all at once. Modern is a highly personal expression of style that draws on the rich history of design and the treasures of cultures from around the world, even while utilizing the new technologies that make life both better and more beautiful. It’s original and fresh in its combinations, and it’s always filled with life and the joy of living.”

For the most part, the kinds of details that are distinguishing new furniture design are not really novel — it’s just the way they are used that shakes things up.

■Pleating and draping. A fashion reference (think pleated skirts or bodices of a gown) or the kind of folds created in drapery design, the crossover to upholstery isn’t as much of a stretch on skirts of sofas. But trompe l’oeil draping or real folds on a wicker console by Mariette Himes Gomez for Hickory Chair really pushes the envelope.

■Dressmaker details. Some are signature characteristic of clothing; others are drawn from handbags and shoes. There’s channeling and tucking, a kind of sewing that creates parallel folds of fabric, which sometimes is seen on bedding and also has shown up on sofa skirts. “Trapunto” is a stitchery technique that Himes Gomez employed on the arm of a leather sofa. British designer Bethan Gray used the kind of stitchery, perforations and serrations that are signature on brogue shoes for the apron of a table.

■Jewelry-like hardware. More manufacturers are paying attention to this simple dress-up. And, of course, changing out hardware is an easy refresh on existing furniture or cabinetry.

■Nature as inspiration for form and pattern. From the geode-inspired women’s collection of Phillip Lim, the mineral structure itself has showed up in naturally jagged-edge agate light sconces as well as in printed fabrics and area rugs with a similar swirly vibe.

■Cladding. Again, there’s nothing new about this, as it’s the equivalent of using veneers as surfacing materials. But clever takes and applications have created a buzz. Chests cloaked with grass-cloth wallcovering or fabric have been trending in Europe. For Wesley Hall ( at the spring High Point furniture market, there were trunks and parsons desks covered in plaid fabric. Eglomise — reverse-painted glass — is becoming a decorative tour de force again; perhaps most arresting are more abstract mottled patterns, especially with sparkling flecks. Decoupage, applique, flocking and gold leaf command attention. Skins — crocodile, shagreen, ostrich and suede — are covering entire pieces of furniture, such as bureaus and desks. Decorative molding also is applied to create fancy patterns like Moroccan tracery on simple frames. Figured and/or stained veneers are employed to create distinctive patterns, such a herringbone, on the face of furniture. Even shells, long a crafty solution to designing with beachcombing souvenirs, are assuming a more modern look as insets on tabletops or door fronts.

To many, the idea of details is perhaps more palatable than embellishment, which seems almost colored to suggest excess. But even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s furniture sometimes sported dressmaker “embellishments” like channeling and button tufting.

Then again, wasn’t it Mies himself who said: “God is in the details”?


Embellished furnishings can be found at Metro Detroit stores and these online sites:

■Bernhardt, (866) 527-9099,

■Bethan Gray, (email),

■Coleccion Alexandra, (email),

■Phillip Estlund, (561) 670-4693,

■Fortuny, (212) 753-7153,

■Guy Chaddock Furniture, (855) 535-6992,

■Hickory Chair, (800) 349-4579,

■Jonathan Charles Fine Furniture, (252) 446-3266,

■Ligne Roset, (212) 375-1036,

■Roche Bobois, (212) 889-0700,

■Thomas & Gray, (336) 859-2155,

■Thomas & Vines Ltd., (email),

A decoupaged floral by artist Phillip Estlund makes a Charles Eames molded fiberglass chair by Herman Miller blossom. / Phillip Estlund