Shedding Skins

Why do we crave furnishings that change with the yank of a hemline?

In 2004, partners Renee Gravel and Jean Ayotte of the Montreal furniture studio Non-Useless debuted a collection of occasional tables with peculiar names (To Dissimulate the Pyjamas, To Distribute the Thingummies) and highly specific functions (the former is topped by an egglike cocoon for storing lingerie; the latter’s profusion of test tubes can be used to organize household junk like pennies or buttons). To accompany the line, Gravel and Ayotte created garments-tights, belts, veils, and sheaths made of organza, linen, vinyl, and feathers-that could be slipped on and off the long legs and slim tops of each piece. "If one day the furniture is too cold for a person, if it doesn’t suit their emotional temperature, then they can put a tie on it," Gravel says. "They can put a flounce on it to express happiness. Or they can let it go nude."

For most people, the idea of dressing furniture conjures nightmarish images of tie-on cushions for dining-room chairs or Laura Ashley bed skirts. And yet, for the past few years, designers have been updating this formerly middlebrow practice and, in doing so, offering consumers yet another opportunity for sartorial expression. Three years ago, Tord Boontje designed the Witch Chair for Moroso, whose black leather scales resemble the shiny paillettes of an evening gown. A year later, Boontje introduced his Doll Chair, which, like its namesake, can be clothed in billowing floor-length "dresses" of organdy and muslin. And Christofle’s current "A Poil" collection includes serving utensils and a tray with handles swathed in rabbit fur, like old-fashioned muffs. The Christofle line borrows much from Meret Oppenheim’s famous fur-covered teacup, saucer, and spoon, and, like Oppenheim’s fetishized objects, exploits the material of high fashion. Meanwhile, designers have begun using fabrics more often seen on the rack than the runway: British duo Thelermont Hupton’s Tight Lights are sheathed in patterned black nylons that create filigreed shadows on the wall, and Swedish designer David Taylor’s Kenny lamp, named for the character on South Park, wears what amounts to a red knit leg warmer.

Upholstery has long evolved alongside fashion (think of Victorian ruffles and lace or the hideous denim craze of the early 1990s). But the notion of "dressing" furniture-trying on new looks almost as frequently as one changes clothes-is likely a contemporary one, notes Cara McCarty, curator of decorative arts and design at the Saint Louis Art Museum. "In the past, textiles were very expensive, and when people bought them to upholster their furniture it was a big commitment," she explains. (It is often said that the Victorians, in their wide-ranging prudery, shrouded even their piano legs. But, as Thad Logan notes in his 2001 book The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study, this is likely apocryphal; the Victorians were just very fond of drapery.)

Among the first contemporary chair dressers, McCarty says, was Mario Bellini, whose 1977 Cab Chair for Cassina featured leather "skins" in multiple shades that could be zipped on and peeled off the armature. "Ron Arad’s Ripple Chair is a sort of update on what Bellini was doing," she adds, referring to the 2005 thermoplastic seat for Moroso. On an upholstered version, designed in 2006 with Issey Miyake, the brightly hued seat cover can be removed and worn as a sporty jacket.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of slipcovers that allow for whimsical changes of mind or fashionable updates of pattern. That seductive idea is behind Marcel Wanders’ Naked Sofa for Moooi; introduced last year in Milan, it can be outfitted in 20 different "sofa dresses." In using the term "Naked," Wanders not only appropriates the language of clothing-or lack thereof- he also engages in some clever marketing: A nude sofa not only needs a dress, it surely requires a wardrobe. Christofle also plays with the term, giving it a naughty twist: Poil means fur in French, while a poil means naked. Enough said.

But what to make of a hybrid work by the Dutch firm WAT Design? Their couch-with-a-coat is covered in a brown, pinstriped Paul Smith textile. Connected to the couch at a single point, the coat (and the attached slipcover) can be removed and worn, but a swath of excess material hangs down the wearer’s back. When the piece was shown in Milan, a model lounged on the couch while wearing the coat and served bonbons to passersby. This "crossbreed," as the members of WAT call the piece, raises an interesting question: When fashion and furniture meet, do the results become more or less usable? Many designers contend that utility is beside the point. "This was a statement," says Andrea Schrijen of Randomactions, who collaborated with WAT on the couch. "It’s an experiment. How will people interpret the piece? Is it fashion or is it furniture?" Arad offers another take: "The Ripple Chair is good-looking naked, but nothing ever stopped people from designing fashion for good-looking people."

In many ways, dressing up furniture is a phenomenon very much of our cross-disciplinary time; in an example from the fashion side of the equation, Hussein Chalayan designed, for his 2000/2001 show, a coffee table that transforms itself into a tiered wooden skirt, slipcovers that become dresses, and chairs that fold into travel cases. "It doesn’t matter if it’s something you wear or something you sit on," says Arad. "The modeling, prototyping, and visualization are all the same." It may also be that such quick-change attire can increase the lifespan of a piece of furniture, a draw in our eco-conscious moment. Or maybe designers are simply reacting against an era of mass production, when every big-box furniture store peddles the same sleek lines and iconic silhouettes. None of these cultural forces seem likely to abate soon, so how long until we see tutu-clad appliances and bespectacled bookshelves? Let’s hope that things don’t come to that.

Amanda Fortini, a regular Slate contributor, lives in Los Angeles.

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