Not having trained as a furniture maker, British menswear designer Paul Smith didn't try to re-invent the wheel. But then he didn't train as a car designer either and that didn't stop him from putting stripes on the outside and painting the engine a bright lime-green when he created a limited-edition Mini Cooper a few years back. For his first foray into furniture, Smith took what were fairly standard cabinets and turned them into something new and fresh through the use of trompe l'oeil. In Sir Paul's case that meant using digitally reproduced prints of rocks and stones (from photographs he took at his house in Italy) or of an amazingly ornate Russian table (that he first saw in Chatsworth House). Besides the trompe l'oeil humor of the images on the outside, there is another surprise inside—the shelves, echoing the trademark linings of a Paul Smith suit, are painted a brilliant shocking pink! Digital printing, which is fine and detailed, involves an expensive process, so these cabinets do not come cheap (some cost $15,000). But then one isn't too likely to bump into many others of their ilk.
More recently, Smith has been producing a series of one-off customized pieces of furniture. Mostly he takes chairs—usually rather ornate Victorian chairs, but sometimes modern classics like those by Charles Eames—and gives them new life by reupholstering in wild, unexpected materials.
Often he paints the frames in adventurous ways as well. For example, he might use bright pistachio-green leather or an animal skin, brilliant black and white polka dots, or a particularly vibrant tweed. It's the contrast between the extreme conventionality of the object and its exuberant treatment that gives the whole thing such particular verve. It's no good pretending they're to everybody's taste—they're not.
Fortunately, the Paul Smith collection is no longer available in the United Kingdom only. The trompe l'oeil pieces are being sold through Cappellini worldwide (www.cappellini.it) and a limited selection of reupholstered chairs will be available at the Paul Smith men's store at 108 Fifth Avenue in New York (212-627-9770).
Trompe l'oeil is also used by Paul Smith in a series of witty slipcovers for dining room chairs. Graphically reproduced on canvas, the covers include a variety of designs. Among them are a lobster, a book jacket with reading glasses, a handbag where contents overflow, and a well-stuffed wallet with a set of keys. Each is enormous fun and the collection, a treat; $1,300 per slipcover.