Why brown furniture is back in style
For the prolific Soho House’s latest venture, the zeitgeisty company has renovated part of the old BBC Television Centre to create White City House. Opened last month, it is packed with a customised mixture of highend, designer furnishings and expensive art on the walls, alongside pieces of furniture that would have looked more than comfortable in your granny’s sitting room (and to match the Sixties building it sits in).
Furniture from the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras has long languished, unloved, in garages, charity shops and auction houses. Now, it is making a comeback, either for those wanting something more substantial in their homes than cheap, flat pack furniture, or those bored of spending hours putting it together.
Designer Linda Boronkay, who led Soho House’s White City project, says the in-house design team has long used vintage pieces in its rooms. “Antiques give a lot of character and substance to a room,” she says. “They are the hero pieces that draw people’s attention and spark their interest.”
The resurgence of so-called “brown furniture” is part of a growing trend: the Office for National Statistics reported a 0.3 per cent rise in sales at the end of last year, which it said was largely due to a rise in people buying it at auction houses and antiques and fine art dealers. “We have definitely seen a resurgence of interest in 18th and 19th-century English furniture,” says Thomas Moore, head of furniture and works of art at Bonhams auction house.
In fact it was an old Bonhams catalogue, discovered in the old Midland Bank headquarters on Poultry in the City of London, which inspired the team behind the other recent Soho House transformation, The Ned.
Adam Greco, lead designer of the club, said the catalogue “was full of very good antiques from the Georgian willingness these days to mix styles and periods in interior design, and there is a real understanding of how the past and the present can live happily together,” he says.
The best news of all is that, unlike many other recent design trends, this one can be easy and cheap to copy. Search eBay for a mahogany chest of drawers and you can often pick up an antique piece for about £100, which is significantly less than many flat pack pieces of similar sizes.
“The funny thing is it carries on getting cheaper, not least because it’s so readily available,” says the designer Ben Pentreath, who counts the Duchess of Cornwall among his clients. He often styles his rooms with antique pieces of dark-coloured furniture.
At Bonhams – not, admittedly, where you could pick up a £100 chest – you can buy a piece of history; for example, a George III mahogany breakfront secretary bookcase, which was removed from The Cloisters of Windsor Castle in 1931. Moore thinks that “antique furniture represents exceptional value for money”.
Over the past decade, the value of high-end antique furniture has fallen by almost 30 per cent, according to figures from Art Market Research, which measures prices across decorative goods. But recently the market has picked up. “There are still a great number of high-quality traditional pieces regularly available at auction at reasonable prices,” adds Moore.
The trend also plays into our current mood to recycle. “I think that people are increasingly aware that buying these aesthetically pleasing, yet highly practical items, is a far greener choice than opting for new furniture which in most cases simply cannot compare in terms of either quality or design,” says Moore.
Pentreath is an expert at this, as evidenced by his own home in Dorset, where dark antique furniture sits next to a modern yellow sofa, pink walls, Chinese pottery and boldly patterned rugs and cushions. “I like brown furniture because it has charm and character, and a sense of meaning,” he says.
“You can bash it up without worrying. Like old people, it has more stories to tell, and that’s the purpose of all interior decoration – to create stories and narratives where none existed before.”
White City House, main and below; Cornell desk, left, £279 (made.com)
Two bedrooms in The Ned, a members’ club in the City
£1,200, Cox & Cox (coxandcox.co.uk)
£399, Made (made.com)