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The Flowering Of Tord Boontje

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page C02


Design history is littered with arresting objects that briefly turn heads and set fashion.

The current moment belongs to Tord Boontje, the Dutch-born London designer whose exquisite lighting, exotic chairs and fantasy textiles are expanding the definition of furniture from functional necessities to bejeweled, petal-strewn accessories to soothe the soul.

Boontje's feathery black hanging lamp illuminates a space that includes Witch, foreground, his chair of black leather paillettes. (Photos Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

How long such a romantic revival will last, and how much the public will adopt, is anyone's guess. But no interior design force since William Morris, who founded the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th century, has made decoration so respectable or more lyrical.

Boontje's inventions include chandeliers designed as crystal-encrusted branches, wool felt and paper screens dripping with cutout flowers, and chairs dressed in embroidered ball gowns. For the past year, he has dazzled the design world, largely in Europe. Now, New Yorkers are getting their first comprehensive look.

For a solo show at Murray Moss's new gallery in SoHo, the white-and-glass-walled space has been transformed into a fantasy of stylized flora and fauna. At the opening on Tuesday night, a singer delivered an aria, while suspended panels of crimson, yellow, ivory and black fabric cast gently moving shadows of flowers onto the floor and walls.

"It's an extraordinary experience," said Alan Heller, a manufacturer known for plastic designer chairs, who wandered through.

The Moss show, called "The End," is a tamed version of "Happy Ever After," a warehouse-size exhibition of Boontje's works staged last April in Milan by the Italian furniture maker Moroso. There, a blast of vibrant color was accompanied by the unrestrained emotionalism of rockers and porch swings draped with lacy felt, which Moroso now sells. The show sent shock waves through the capital of minimalist design. It also firmly challenged the notion that steely gray industrial chic could provide a nurturing cocoon. (For armchair travelers, this month's House & Garden magazine recalls the Milan event in a two-page spread.) A second exhibition, "Forever," was held in London in September.

At Moss, the curated sampling of Boontje's work includes a fantasy narrative drawn on the wall. Chairs are offered in a wardrobe of shimmering, floor-length slipcovers. Extras have been suspended from the ceiling on coat hangers, like cocktail dresses. But fair warning: Boontje has shifted from the purely romantic to Gothic mode. The black-and-white mural includes a skull. A signed chair in paillettes of black leather was modeled after a suit of armor and named Witch. A feathery hanging lamp made of silk flowers and fishnet crochet is a study in black.

"Not everything could be like the princess in the ballroom," the designer explained. "Something had to be scary."

To modernists steeped in Bauhaus traditions, the soft-spoken designer can be scary. Boontje, who was born in 1968 in Enschede, the Netherlands, studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven, a well-known incubator of the avant-garde. He received a master's degree from London's Royal College of Art, where he met his wife and partner, Emma Woffenden, a glass sculptor.

The couple attracted modest attention with a collection of glassware made from recycled bottles. Woffenden moved on to large-scale art, while Boontje developed utilitarian wood furniture that urban nomads could make themselves. A chair constructed with kindling-size pieces of wood and a folded blanket is on view at Moss. It is the only sure sign of Boontje's design origins.

"I come from Holland, from a very modernist tradition," the designer said, with a touch of humor. "We don't 'decorate.' It's against the law."

In the 1990s, Boontje collaborated with Alexander McQueen on watches and eyeglasses, which Woffenden wears. Neither presaged the descent into ornament. Boontje traces his breakaway to the birth of a daughter, who celebrated her fifth birthday on the night of the Moss opening. The baby's arrival sparked a search for softer surroundings. Boontje looked into decorative needlework at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. He went home and embroidered a large crow on the back of a chair.

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