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Barbara’s Blog #14: Z is for Zandra, and for Zing

Our guest blogger Barbara Chandler hits the Harbour for London Design Week’s opening day:
You know it’s spring in decorland when Design Centre Chelsea Harbour engulfs itself in its annual March London Design Week. This time the usual Sunday opening was jettisoned in favour of a rolling virtual  programme of global design interviews and seminars.
But my favourite session came from inside the Harbour itself.  Twice a year, the Design Centre’s press pundit Becky Metcalfe indefatigably briefs us on latest trends from the posh Harbour brands. On Sunday, however, I cosily viewed her from my bedroom as she animated my iPad with a typically racy round-up. You can watch a repeat here (you have to register first – but it’s free).  Then scroll through a raft of further interviews, demos and insights. Becky has quirky names for every season’s key looks – “fondant fancy” is  a spring favourite, it seems.
The next day I was in the Harbour itself, where a cascade of multi-coloured spheres filled the centre dome, and (fondant indeed) a palette of pretty pastels prevailed. Designer Arabella McNie (the Harbour’s secret weapon) had translated the trends into arresting displays. And, pastels aside, my favourite theme was “Sonia”  – a nod to that revolutionary artist of the last century. And there was Arabella herself, as ever with her little dog. She reckoned the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate in 2015 was still casting a long shadow – “and we’ve had Annie Albers since then.”  The result’s a plethora of large scale painterly abstracts on wallpapers and fabrics – which the more daring mix with a floral or three.
“Yes, museums are playing a huge part in textile design,” Arabella observed. Fabergé at the V&A has sparked a spread of decorated eggs at Manuel Canovas, and at Pierre Frey Merveilles d’Egypt celebrates ancient treasures of the Louvre.
Star of the day, though, was Zandra Rhodes, perched on a stool in the George Spencer showroom, to talk us through her zingy new edit for Gainsborough, the Suffolk weavers, famous for their archive of over 7,000 meticulously-recorded designs. These silky cloths now come in two new patterns – O Gee Whizz (ogee motifs, but of course…), and Fabulous Frills – check them out here. The colours may be muted (these are weaves, after all, and not jazzy prints), but they’re fresh and light and fondant. Dame Zandra captivated a packed room with her good humour, modesty, flamboyant outfit, and, of course, that famous pink hair.
“Do you mind people looking at you?” That’s a cheeky question, I thought. Dame Z is unperturbed “Oh, I never notice. Someone told me when I left school that the others had laughed at me, but I wasn’t worried  because I never knew.” On a more serious note: “Recent times have taught us we must treasure creativity on every day we have.” What are you doing at the moment? “Decorating my bedroom and cataloguing my fashions.” What did you last buy off the peg? “Padded jackets from Uniqlo but then my trip with Andrew Logan to see the Northern Lights was cancelled.” And a final bit of advice: “Always use a sketch book. A phone is a lazy way of seeing and doesn’t make you really look.”
Wandering out into  an eclectic melange of pop-ups along the “Design Avenue” (where indeed Design-Nation has been known to hang out…), I came across Pluck.  They are creating counter-culture kitchens that eschew excess and luxury finishes for cool, clean plywood in natural shades or painterly blocks of colour. I last saw them in their East London element at Clerkenwell Design Week (goodness, how long ago was that!), but here were co-founders Leila Touwen and George Glasier (dare I say pluckily?) in the den of SW haute décor. And looking very chic was a modernist dresser in a sassy sky blue, with a distressed rug on the floor. “Our kitchens are inherently sustainable,” said Leila, “made to last and easily repaired, with minimal hardwoods. And we demand the same high environmental standards from our suppliers.”
Along the aisle was Steve Nyman, happily balanced between interior design and craft. Passionate about wood, he rescues whole trunks from tree surgeons, and sculpts them into solid blocks of furniture, from simple tables to complex storage units. He has a team of three London woodworkers to help him.  A black scorched finish (as favoured in Japan) can add a touch of drama and there are ceramic bowls that nestle in the hollows, made to following the timber’s contours. The decorators love it.
And come June it’s the Design Avenue which will flaunt one of the Harbour’s most ambitious projects yet. They are calling it the Wow!house (yes, really) and top brands with ace designers will make a run of spectacular rooms. You’ll have to pay to go in (a hefty £35 on the door) but “early bird” tickets are £20, and some of it is going to CentrePoint. In the meantime, you could pop into the amazing Wow!house taster rooms which Arabella has created on the third floor of the South Dome.
Tissus d’Hélène is a hidden cave of multiple cubby holes each sporting samples from over 40 niche “artisanal” brands from England, France, Belgium, Italy and America, curated by Helen Cormack, who’s been trading since 2006. Many “brands” are essentially designer-makers who’ve grasped the potential of the interior design market, doing very “usable” prints and weaves in custom colourways to order.
Helen’s latest find is Boon & Up and it’s a lovely story. A man called Jonathan Hall was volunteering in Ghana, setting up local arts clubs, when he discovered cloths woven locally by the women of the Daagaba people. Their traditional market was the local farmers, but as climate change dried up the land, so it was parching local demand. Jonathan to the rescue. Out went the Chinese polyester the weavers had been using, to be replaced with sustainable cotton. In came a more subtle palette inspired by the soft shades used traditionally for painting huts. And – crucially – some of the old narrow looms were adapted for wider widths. Now there’s a chic offer of fabrics, cushions and throws for the most discerning of decorators, steeped in sustainability and craft.
Interior designer Justin Van Breda, born in Cape Town, was on Design Avenue with another African story. He’s presenting Safari – but of course – with sophisticated African-crafted furniture for high-end Western homes. “Africa is brimming with talent but working up their beautiful craft to international standards took some time. But now we have South African furniture makers, Zimbabwean and Malawi carvers, partially-sighted rattan weavers in Cape Town, and various rural women’s cooperatives.” All materials have been sourced from scratch, including mohair which is farmed, shorn, sorted, combed, spun, dyed and finally woven by local communities. Hand-decorated fabrics combine freehand brush strokes with block- and screen-printing. A clutch of top interior designers – including Nicky Haslam and Nina Campbell – have each created a special piece for the collection. And watch out for the hand-carved lions’ paws.
So how does it all go down in Chelsea Harbour? Says Justin: “It’s a very personal and passionate collection for us, with stories behind every piece – and we’ve been really touched by the emotional response.” Design, craft, provenance, passion and emotion: all will surely strike a chord with my Design-Nation readers. With a little bit of pink on the side.
* London Design Week ends on Friday 18 March 2022.

Images by Barbara Chandler, except where noted.

On news index page: Wow!house room set, courtesy DCCH.

On carousel: Dame Zandra Rhodes, Leila Touwen and George Glasier of Pluck, Steve Nyman with his wooden vessels, Wow!house room set (courtesy DCCH), Daagaba weavers in Ghana setting up  a warp for a Boon & Up project (courtesy DCCH), designer Justin van Breda.

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