Velvet and yearning
by Sandra Hofmeister | Jan 29, 2016
Comes in velvet and with history: The "Mayor Sofa" by Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen at & Tradition. Photo © & Tradition

Sometimes, items of furniture express yearnings, indeed desires. At which point the settee, table or chair professes to hidden wishes and covert inclinations. Other times, the furnishings cast a nostalgic glance back into the past and coquettishly toy with some vague wish for tradition and history, or they are optimistic and spread a sense of confidence that the future will be more progressive than is the present. The sector likes to call these actual phenomena manifesting diffuse sentiments ‘trends’ and sets out to identify and grasp them systematically. For the so-called trends have to function as a barometer for the tendencies and currents of coming years – although in many cases they will simply disappear again in the shortest conceivable period of time.

Flattering the hand and eye

At the Cologne furniture fair one of those strong moods was to be felt almost everywhere: It has been a long time since as much velvet and velvety upholstered furniture was on show. The soft fluffy fabric emphasizes the tactile, sensuous properties of upholstered furniture – you notice the flattering qualities of the materials at the latest when your hand runs over the armrest of a velvety club chair. Although velvet is almost always only one of many upholstery fabrics on offer, designs such as Marco Dessi’s “Mono” fauteuil for Wittmann show that the material is predestined for a specific concept of armchairs that takes its cue from the past. For the dark, petrol-colored velvet emphasizes the real character of the armchairs and sofas in the Mono range. The soft fabric lends their classic shapes a nostalgic note that promises comfort and also brings to mind the fin de siècle at the close of the 19th century: Thomas Mann could easily have sat in such an armchair while writing “The Magic Mountain”. However, Marco Dessi has spun the typology of the fauteuil in a contemporary idiom. He subdivides the upholstery into symmetrical fields and has them float on thin wooden legs. “Mono” thus professes nostalgically to a tradition that is underscored and also advanced by the velvet covers.

Old and new friends in Velvet (from left to right): chair "375" at Walter Knoll, "D.154.2" by Gio Ponti at Molteni & C, "Romy" by Patrick Frey for Freifrau, "Rubie" by Murken Hansen for Freifrau. Photos © Manufacturers

Anyone looking for historical role models for comfy velvet armchairs could find the objects of their desire at various booths at the fair. Not just Josef Hofmann’s “Alleegasse” armchair dating from 1912, which Wittmann fielded in a version covered in bright orange velvet, can be pigeonholed as soft and comfy. Gio Ponti’s extravagant “D.154.2” armchair, which Molteni&C recently included in the Ponti collection, is one of these soft snuggly items. Ponti designed the armchair in the mid-1950s for a villa owned by collectors Planchart in Caracas. The two polyurethane shells, stiff on the outside and soft on the inside, were covered with rosé-colored velvet at the fair. This pastel shade not only emphasizes the 1950s roots of the curvaceous armchair, but also promises a stronger sense of intimacy. At Gubi there was also a new collection combining lounge chair and sofa. The designer duo from Space Copenhagen calls the result “Stay” – it boasts organic and sculptural shapes and is all the more sensuous for being clad in velvet.

Homely everywhere

Both the Hofmann and the Ponti armchairs were designed for private living rooms. Today, the two stand for home comfort par excellence – be it in a private home or a public zone. At the latest since the cocooning of the 1990s, that yearning for warmth so adroitly captured by US trend researcher Faith Popcorn, the elegy to moments of private withdrawal is omnipresent in the furniture world. Office spaces are even outfitted with dedicated cocooning zones, people prefer to receive their friends in their own kitchens than at a restaurant, and private homes and everything associated with them are now everywhere you look – at work and in public areas, too. At the same time, the enhancement of private homeliness, as can be achieved by using velvet, means that sober functionality and rationality as is exuded by tubular steel structures now takes the limelight less.

Sitting on velvet (from left to right): "Stay" by Space Copenhagen for Gubi, velvet pillowcases at Schönbuch by Raf Simons for Kvadrat, "Plumy" by Annie Hieronimus for Ligne Roset. Photos © Manufacturers

The latter do not sit so well with so much sensuality and nostalgia, with colorful and soft textiles. After all, everything has to be snuggly and soft – the velvety deep upholstered furniture at the imm cologne show just what the idea of a cozy home can deliver. Two years ago, Kvadrat’s Raf Simons collection heralded the presence of a high-grade upholstery velvet that corresponds to a contemporary notion of home living. Thus, Eileen Grey’s 1926 “Bibendum” armchair on show at Classicon gleamed in a velvety Raf Simons blue.

From spatial concept to style

In an epoch of the comprehensive public sphere such as the digital media and social networks celebrate in everyday life, the need for privacy and intimacy rises. “Form follows function” is long forgotten, and today what seems far more important is a homely feeling, surrounded by cushioning, soft upholstery. One can discern behind the sensuous velvety furniture versions a yearning for analog comfort with extravagant qualities. Sometimes, this involves yearning for a boudoir style with heavy red, rose or violet fabrics. And other furniture items presented on the trade fair fit the boudoir, such as dressers or the small bureau with extra drawers for secret love letters.

Sofa "Grand Piano", designed by Gubi-Founder Gubi Olsen (left) and "Mad Chaise Lounge" by Marcel Wanders for Poliform. Photos © Manufacturers

Patrick Frey designed “Romy” for seating maker FreiFrau consciously relies on the typology of the 1950s cocktail club chair. The purple velvet runs across the curved backrest in clear folds, quoting both the Austrian Empire and Louis XVI, packaged in pleasant comfort of course. Ligne Roset draws on a different velvet tradition associated with the Hippie and Bohemian worlds: "Plumy’s" iconic 1980s design (Ligne Roset) stems from the hand of French designer Annie Hieronimus and was re-issued this year. Here again the velvet covers are but one possibility, but no doubt the best one for a settee for lounging on – as the velvet emphasizes its sensual properties all the more and the upholstery of the solid foam sofa makes it seem softer, regardless of whether you are lying, sitting, hopping or dancing on it.

Architecture or style

In fashion, designers such as Dries van Noten have long since rediscovered velvet. In the furniture industry, the soft fabric arrived a little late, which possibly has to do with its properties as covers: Since velvet requires quite a lot of care and is prone to dirt, for many years it got ignored. It was considered traditional and not very functional – features that are suddenly all the rage again. Velvet expresses the yearning for intimacy and history in a very flattering manner. Moreover, however, the velvet fauteuils and small canapes on view at the furniture fair also symbolize a new grasp of upholstered furniture. While in the past settees were used to structure room layouts, today’s standalone sofas have now liberated themselves from their setting. A question of architecture has turned into a question of style once again.

"Plumy’s" iconic 1980s design (Ligne Roset) stems from the hand of French designer Annie Hieronimus and was re-issued this year. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
Marco Dessi’s “Mono” fauteuil for Wittmann show that the material is predestined for a specific concept of armchairs that takes its cue from the past. Photo © Wittmann
Josef Hofmann’s “Alleegasse” armchair dating from 1912, fielded in a version covered in bright orange velvet at the Wittmann stand. Photo © Wittmann
Eileen Gray’s 1926 “Bibendum” armchair (at Classicon) gleamed in a velvety Raf Simons blue. Photo © Elias Hassos