Category: Shopping

Great Brownings hallway and landing

Updated 13 February 2019

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Based on the photos, I appreciate that the hallway and landing don’t look all that different from how they looked before (new wooden floor downstairs and new carpet upstairs aside) but the old photos didn’t quite capture all of the damage caused to the walls by the previous owner’s fixtures and fittings, messy wiring snaking around doorframes and of course, the wobbly cardboard ceilings. With all of these issues fixed, these parts of the house really do look a whole lot better in person than they did before.

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I’m glad that we insisted that the carpet fitters install our (admittedly very thick and unmalleable) carpet as a runner on the open tread staircase, exposing a strip of the wood on each side rather than agreeing to one of their lazier suggestions of carpeting the whole of each step (which is what was there before) or leaving them bare (slippery, lethal hazard).

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We still haven’t quite decided what we’re going to do with the space under the stairs – at the moment, it’s just somewhere to put that Tom Dixon jack light. We’re also not sure whether to do anything about all of the wooden panelling and balustrades – it could do with some kind of treatment to restore it to its best.

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The tall-pronged coat hooks on the way to the loo are from SCP as my rather flimsy replica Hang-It-All definitely wasn’t going to be able to hang all of our bags and other crap.

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We still haven’t worked out how on earth we’re going to change the lightbulbs in the chandelier.

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One of the main selling points of the house for us was the main entrance and hallway – we really liked the double height space, long mid-century chandelier, open-tread staircase and the way in which all of the rooms upstairs and downstairs seem to branch off it in a logical way.

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While we like the timber-clad wall, timber staircase and timber balustrade on the upper floor, it is a bit of a timber overload when you walk in, which will probably intensify when we lay the new wooden flooring, which is sort of the same colour as the stairs and the wall.

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Some of our neighbours have painted the timber wall white, which does bring out the staircase and balustrade more and reduces the timber overload somewhat but we don’t think we will – it seems a bit sacrilegious to permanently paint over it, even if it is a bit 70s ski chalet/porno.

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In terms of furniture, there’s a space under the stairs where the previous owner had her piano – we’re not sure what to do with this. We liked the idea of putting up a mirror on the wall behind the staircase like one of our neighbours to create an interesting reflection of the stairs and possibly some kind of sideboard, again like a lot of our neighbours have.

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We’re currently in the midst of redecorating so there’s a big scaffold in the middle of ours – we made the unwelcome discovery that all of the ceilings upstairs were made of wobbly cardboard (apparently a thing in the 60s) and so had to reinforce it with plasterboard before plastering over it. A layer of white paint, wooden flooring downstairs and carpet upstairs and we should be done. I still haven’t worked out how we’re going to readily change the lightbulbs in the chandelier when they run out though.

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Entry to be updated once it starts looking decent.

This collection of objects looks rather on the bland side but I thought the overabundance of timber was probably enough of an assault on the eyes.

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1. Mid century version of a chandelier – I’m pretty sure this is original from when the house was built because I’ve seen it in one of the other houses on the estate

2. Alvar Aalto 66 chair recycled from my current flat

3. Fake Eames Hang-It-All recycled from my current flat

4. Rug from LaRedoute recycled from my current flat

5. Mackapar shoe rack from IKEA – shoe racks are fundamentally ugly things but are preferable to shoes being strewn about the place. I think this one looks vaguely like something from Norman Copenhagen if you squint.

6. More coat hooks – these vintage teak ones are from eBay

7. Giant Hovet mirror from IKEA recycled from my current flat – this can go under the stairs (in an imitation of one of our neighbour’s flats)

Great Brownings study

Updated 12 February 2019

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As planned, my study in the new house is a ported and condensed version of my old study (a lot of Marie Kondo-inspired getting rid of stuff that didn’t spark joy was necessary) with a new String unit and a Muuto e27 pendant lamp which I picked up in the Twentytwentyone sale. The frosted glass desk looks more early 00s than ever but the view from said desk out onto Great Brownings almost makes up for it.

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10 December 2018

We plan to use this narrow single bedroom next to the master bedroom as a study.

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I plan to pretty much port and condense my existing study into this smaller space, save for some new bits of String shelving and storage that I picked up in the sales.

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It’d also be nice to replace my old desk with something slightly less evocative of the early 00s when we can afford it – I like this Eierman desk, which is quite reasonably priced compared to all other higher-end desks I’ve looked at.

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At this stage of our renovations, the walls and ceilings have been freshly replastered and painted so all we need to do now is to lay the carpet, fit the blinds (we’re going for those vertical blinds throughout – having seen them in our neighbours’ house, we decided to copy them even going as far to use the same company that our neighbours used) and we’ll be done.

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Entry to be updated once it’s finished.

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1. SCP pendant light bought from an SCP warehouse sale and never used (it’s a slightly less neutral shade of pink though)

2. String cabinets and shelves – again I picked up a heavily discounted sliding door unit from an SCP warehouse sale without having anywhere to put it in my current flat so I was determined to put it to use somewhere

3. Utensilo wall unit recycled from my current flat

4. Modernica rolling wire chair from SCP warehouse sale

5. Kartel Componibilli unit recycled from my current flat

6. Vintage desk lamp from a Berlin flea market recycled from my current flat that needs rewiring because it’s most probably a fire hazard in its current state.

Great Brownings renovation – lessons learned

After four months of daily calls and meetings with different contractors, missed deliveries, trips to Argos and Leyland for supplies and consecutive weekends spent sanding and painting walls, the renovation job on our house is finally finished.

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While our project seemed to go more smoothly than this renovation of a Parkleys Span flat that I followed on another blog (though this could be due to the fact that theirs was a sensitive, faithful mid century restoration and ours was most definitely not), it wasn’t all smooth sailing. With the benefit of hindsight, I thought I would set out some (basic) things that I should have known at the start of the process.

1. It makes more sense to engage one contractor to do everything (or subcontract work if they don’t have the specialist expertise) than separate contractors who have to having to share the work space and who end up blaming one another for problems or mess. We didn’t appreciate this and ended up hiring a separate builder, plumber, electrician, blinds fitter, rubbish removal company and carpet fitter – this situation was less than ideal.

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2. It’s important to get on with the builders as people because out of all of the contractors, you will be dealing with and seeing an awful lot of them. Thankfully, the builders that we used were great – they were transparent and communicative in relation to costs, competitively priced, paid attention to small details, seemed invested in our project, had a very “can do” attitude to everything (unlike another builder we saw who tutted, shook his head and generally couldn’t hide his dismay at everything he’d have to do to our hot mess of a house) and were generally nice people.

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3. When builders provide an estimate for painting, it seems really expensive for a task that doesn’t really require any skill or expertise, especially when compared to some of the stuff that they do which definitely does require skill and expertise. As such, we decided to ask the builders to paint everything downstairs but leave the whole of the upstairs for us to paint in an attempt to save on costs. I’m not sure if I’d do this again – while we did save a fair bit of money and there was some satisfaction to be derived from doing a little of the work ourselves, it took us weeks and there is a marked difference in quality between the rooms that were professionally painted and the rooms that we attempted.

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4. If you want smooth, matt walls but the existing walls are covered in layers of old wallpaper, the only way to achieve a flawless result is to painstakingly strip back the walls to the plaster, sand it down, fill in holes, repair damaged plaster, paint and then paint again. We ran out of energy towards the end of the project and decided to slap lining paper on top of old wallpaper in certain rooms to save time (including, unfortunately, the master bedroom) and it just doesn’t look as good – you can see where the lining paper joins up and it has already started to bubble.

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5. Decorative mouldings on wardrobe doors are easy enough to prise off but they leave marks which are almost impossible to get rid of. We would have just bought new wardrobe doors for the master bedroom at the outset if we’d known that repeatedly sanding, filling and painting them would only achieve a not-quite-perfect result.

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6. Tile paint applied over the top of tiles with a textured or embossed surface looks a bit shit, quite frankly. I did one bit of border and decided I’d had enough and that the pink tiled walls would have to stay.

7. A dated bathroom still looks dated even with a few choice embellishments. While the ensuite does look a bit fresher with the wallpapered panel painted over and a new vinyl floor and shower curtain, it’s still the same pink bathroom with rust spots in the bathtub covered up with Tippex.

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8. It’s important to look at a large enough swatch when choosing a carpet. I thought I’d picked out a cool toned light grey one for upstairs but once it’d been fitted, it looked decidedly more oatmeal (the brown tones and flecks weren’t as obvious when looking at a small sample).

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9. Getting a blinds specialist to fit measure up and vertical blinds is worth the additional expense. I’ve attempted to buy off-the-shelf blinds and cut them to size in the past and it’s always resulted in a bit of a mess so it was a real luxury to have them measured up and then installed in the space of a few hours.

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10. A replica George Nelson bubble lamp from a Shenzhen-based eBay seller costing a fraction of the price of the real thing was always going to look akin to a flammable nylon swimming costume stretched over a clothes hanger. I learned my lesson, swallowed the expensive import duties, shipped it back and bought an ex-display model from SCP.

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George Nelson apple shaped bubble lamp from SCP

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11. The actual cost of a project is about 20% more than the anticipated cost.

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Modernist pilgrimage to Brussels

I had a day and a bit of free time in Brussels tacked on the end of a business trip so I decided to use it doing three of my usual pastimes: rummaging through tat at a flea market, taking photos around a brutalist building and looking at (but not buying any) mid century modern furniture.

Place du Jeu de Balle flea market

Established in 1854 and reportedly the only antique and flea market in the world open every day of year, the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market was fully of pretty good tat compared to flea markets I’ve visited in Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki, New York and San Francisco.

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The market was made up of stall after stall of miscellaneous objects, sometimes strewn out on blankets and sheets or crammed into cardboard boxes, ranging from antique to 20th century porcelain, pictures, pottery, fabric, clothes and furniture. Even though the market was limited to professional dealers, it had an informal yet organised junkyard feel to it, which I liked.

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Prices were about average for a European flea market but in retrospect, I was massively ripped off with my first purchase – a bust, which I liked the look of but was clearly complete junk and totally not worth what I paid for it (I found remnants of a “Made In” sticker when I got it home). I went on both Friday and Saturday – apparently dealers tend to replenish their stock on Thursdays and Fridays but Saturday had a livelier feel with more stalls.

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Westrand Cultural Centre

Although the exterior of the Westrand cultural centre was interesting enough (concrete punctuated with panels of bright colour), the interior really was something else.

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Sort of like the Hayward Gallery in London but on smaller scale and a lot weirder, it was filled with concrete indoor landscaping which appeared to serve no actual purpose other than to provoke and confuse. A section on the lower floor was particularly installation-like, resembling a drained water feature crossed with a child’s adventure playground.

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The sense of strangeness was heightened by unexpected inclines, circular openings in the concrete (which didn’t really lead anywhere) and the fact that the whole building was almost completely deserted – there wasn’t exactly a buzzing programme of cultural events on that day.

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I did eventually find signs of life in the building – the easterly end housed a pleasingly designed public library and the westerly part contained a pleasant enough informal bar and restaurant.

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Dandelion, Rue de la Victoire 184

There seemed to be a real appetite for high end mid century modern furniture in Brussels with antique stores on practically every shopping street selling the stuff, usually piled high and at prohibitive prices.

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Dandelion stood out from all of the other antique stores due to the quality and condition of its pieces (each piece had been expertly restored by the owner before being put up for sale), the uncluttered presentation of the pieces on the shop floor (small but unpretentious) and the reasonableness of the pricing (substantial items of furniture such as desks, sideboards and armchairs were priced between €250-350).

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The depth of the owner’s passion for mid century modern furniture and design really came across in the selection of pieces for sale and his knowledge about each piece – whilst there were some classic items that I recognised, others were more obscure, made by European designers that I hadn’t come across.

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I was particularly taken by a compact black and teak 1960s Pierre Guarriche desk, beautifully restored and priced at a rather unbelievable €250 (a similar one is priced at in Panamo at €900). I would definitely have bought it for my new study were it not for the fact that the shop didn’t do or arrange for deliveries overseas.

Modernist pilgrimage to Taipei

Taipei had some great brutalist architecture and was clearly quite a design-centric city with some great independent stores selling beautiful objects at decent prices in the Datong district (the areas around Dihua Street and Zhongshan metro station in particular). I wish we’d had longer than a day and a half to explore.

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Modernist pilgrimage to Hong Kong

Hong Kong is notoriously unsentimental when it comes to preserving its heritage, constantly demolishing anything remotely old to make way for brand new glass and steel skyscrapers. That said, there was still plenty to appreciate from an architecture and design perspective during my recent trip there (even if none of it was really mid century or modernist).

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Highlights included:

– The three brightly coloured interconnected buildings in Wan Chai: the Blue House, Yellow House and Orange House. Now a grade one historic building, the Blue House is a four-storey tenement building and one of the few remaining examples of a tong lau: a style of residential building notable for balconies that were built in the late 19th century in Hong Kong and southern China. The Blue House houses a museum and contains private living quarters. The Orange and Yellow Houses are also primarily residential buildings featuring around 20 residential flats each.

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– The old Hollywood Road Police Married Quarters, a grade III listed 1950s building now used as a mixed-use venue for arts and design. In 2014, after nearly 15 years of disuse, the building was renamed PMQ and opened to the public. The building’s residential units were turned into studios, shops and offices for selling pleasing but overpriced design tat and hosting exhibitions.

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– Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a tiled salmon pink building which was designed in the 1970s but only opened in the late 1980s (and therefore has elements of both decades in its design).

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– Other interesting modern buildings

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Bertoia chairs 

Having recently upgraded my dining table to a Saarinen tulip table with a marble top, I thought it was time to do the same with my dining chairs (a cheap and cheerful mismatching collection of Eames knock-offs and Habitat), which were starting to look a little shabby in comparison.

One of the things I like about the Saarinen tulip table is that almost any kind of chair goes with it, not just the Saarinen tulip chairs it was intended to be paired with. While I quite like tulip chairs, I thought that a whole set of them would be a bit too space age for my liking.  I decided instead to go for a set of white Bertoia side chairs, which I’ve always wanted despite being fully aware that they are not at all comfortable and resemble patio furniture (they’re actually used as outdoor seating in the courtyard at the V&A museum).

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Tracking down affordable Bertoia side chairs that weren’t blatant knock-offs (I discovered that there are a lot of decidedly unconvincing knock-offs of this particular chair floating about) or extortionately priced (Skandium charges £766 for one chair, unupholstered) took patience. After a couple of months of checking eBay daily, I finally managed to get hold of a slightly shabby, rusty set of four for £270. The chairs were a vintage set, possibly decades old, and weren’t branded with an official manufacturer’s logo. Comparing them against the real thing and numerous unconvincing knock-offs, however, they looked like the genuine article with all of their proportions correct and everything in the right place. In terms of condition, the chairs were a bit rusty and there were bits where the nylon white coating had come loose, exposing the metal frame underneath.

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At this point I really should have consulted an online tutorial on how to restore Bertoia chairs properly (this article, which I read long after the event, recommends specific nylon-specific products and taking the chairs to a specialist company to sandblast off the existing finish and then repaint through a powder-coat process). Instead, I thought I’d just glue any bits of nylon coating that were hanging off back onto the frame, sand down any rough patches, cover any metal hardware with masking tape and then touch up with a primer, white spray paint and a glossy top coat and hope for the best.

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Halfway through this amateurish process, however, I discovered that spraying the nylon coating with spray paint was making the surface of the chairs unpleasantly powdery to the touch (and that no amount of glossy topcoat would rectify this). Rather than stop and source an alternative product more suited for use on nylon surfaces, I chose instead to only spray the really damaged bits of the remaining chairs (as a result, only parts of these chairs are powdery to the touch than the whole thing).

To finish them off, I bought some wool-covered seat pads specifically designed for Bertoia side chairs from this German online retailer (Knoll also produces official versions of these pads but they’re ridiculously expensive), which means that the chairs are now almost comfortable – as opposed to quite painful – to sit on.

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Given the amateurish and slapdash nature of my restoration job, you can see all of the paint runs, uneven patches and bits of metal that I’ve effectively coloured in with spray paint when you look up close and when you touch two of the chairs, it feels like paint is going to rub off onto your hands. That said, I don’t think they look too bad (from a distance) and I do feel a sense of achievement that I would not have felt if I’d bought a full price set from Skandium for several thousand pounds.

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Mid-century shelving systems

Updated November 2017

When it comes to interiors, there’s nothing I like more than a good mid century-inspired wall-mounted shelving system.

I’m a bit obsessed – even though I already have that overbearing Poul Cadovius royal system and various other bits and pieces hanging up in the flat, I’m constantly on the lookout for more and have amassed a useless collection of random String brackets and shelves from sample sales over the years as a result (this will all of course go up in the mid century house that I will probably never live in).

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Not content with clogging up my own flat with this rubbish, I have taken to persuading any friend who asks me for interior decorating/furniture advice that their living room/study/bedroom/kitchen would greatly benefit from installing a wall mounted shelving system somewhere. Happily, there’s loads of choice these days – from Vitsoe to Ikea, there’s an option to suit every budget.

Here are some of my picks:

1. DK3 Royal System (from £160 for a rail to £2,200 for a workstation unit)

While I prefer the original, chunkier version of the Cado royal system, the modern slimline version reissued by dk3 is also pretty gorgeous, if eye-waveringly expensive. It comes in oak and walnut but unfortunately not rosewood.

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2. String shelving system (from £40 for a rail to £330 for a drawer unit)

Ok it’s totally ubiquitous and a bit of a Scandi cliche these days but I still think a bit of string shelving elevates any room. Having put some up in my study, I would say it looks great but it’s a little flimsy – I don’t think I would rely on the wall-mounted version to bear the weight of anything heavier than a few ornaments and paperback books.

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3. Vitsoe 606 system (prices unclear on website so I assume very expensive)

These are a tad officey-looking but I’ve seen them in various high-end homes and they always look great. If I ever decide to downsize to a studio flat in the Barbican, I would totally use a Vitsoe system to divide up the room like this guy has.

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4. La Redoute Taktik system (from £10 for the brackets to £500 for a large cupboard unit)

I have no idea what this system looks like in person but based on the photos on the website, it looks really high end and sophisticated-looking for the price. Something about it, perhaps the finish or the fact that the rails are made of metal rather than wood, gives it more of a modern than mid century appearance, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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5. Maisons du Monde Sheffield tv and shelving unit (£804)

This isn’t quite like the others as it isn’t modular/configurable and instead all comes in one piece but I do like the rails and the cabinetry going on at the bottom. It’s been styled horribly (very “show-flat-in-a-new-build-development”) in the in situ photo on the website though I’m sure it’d look alright surrounded by the right stuff.

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6. Ikea Svalnas system (from £20 for a shelf to £60 for a cabinet)

I’m actually surprised it has taken Ikea so long to bring out something like this. For the price, I think it looks amazing. I particularly like the range of accessories (desk, sliding cabinet, drawers), which are definitely String-inspired. I’m not entirely sure about the colour and grain of the wood – it’s a little orange-looking in some pictures – but I will reserve judgment until I see it in person.

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7. LaRedoute Watford system (£329 – 599 per piece)

LaRedoute has now brought out a second mid century-style shelving system alongside the TakTik system it brought out last year. The new Watford system is only made up of three constituent parts: a walnut desk with shelves, a narrow shelving unit and two large shelving units with cupboard storage. These parts can be used individually or combined in modular fashion to build a larger wall unit. It’s much less customisable than the TakTik system (which pretty much allowed you to build a system to meet your own specification) and the Ladderax-style rails don’t connect to adjoining rails or other parts of the system. At £329 – £599 per piece, it’s not cheap either. It does, however, look nice and must be much less of a faff to assemble than the TakTik system and most of the other systems in this blog entry.

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8. Made Jory system (£149 – 499)

Made’s new Jory shelving system is blatantly “inspired by” the modern version of the Cado system: everything from the use of oak and walnut, the width of the rails and those metal bits which attach units and shelves to the rails look suspiciously familiar. Everything is a little less refined and blocky than the Cado system though – more Duplo than Lego, if you will. Price-wise, it’s £149 – £499, depending on how much you buy.

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Photos courtesy of brand websites

Modernist pilgrimage to Helsinki – Shopping

Artek flagship store

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Launched in 1935, Artek (an abbreviated portmanteau of the Finnish words for “art” and “technology”) remains the official licensor for Alvar Aalto’s steam-bent beech pieces seen everywhere across the city but also sells a range of furniture and design items from other Finnish and international designers.

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The large flagship store on the South Esplanade was almost a museum of beautiful mid-century modern pieces, which at full price were mostly out of my price range but I did manage to buy some pointless but pretty accessories such as a fluffy round seat cushion for my Aalto chair at home and a rather natty multi-picture display hanger.

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Artek second cycle

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Tucked away in a basement level space in the Design District of the city was Artek’s second hand branch. The store was full of beautiful vintage Aalto pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in Aalto’s studio and/or villa.

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This was a strictly window shopping trip – I wasn’t going to attempt to fit anything into my hold luggage (even an artfully battered Stool 60) and the setup, whilst slightly haphazard, suggested that the stock was being sold at antique-level prices.

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Marimekko factory store

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This factory store was located on the outskirts of the city in an unglamorous Purley Way-esque area made up of busy roads and hypermarkets but proved to be well worth the trek.

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The large store sold a broad range of Marimekko’s instantly recognisable 1960s-style printed clothing and homewares at decent discounts (I like their stuff but can’t justify buying it full price): I was primarily interested in picking up printed duvet sets and cushions but the glassware and crockery were decent as well. The building was also home to a full priced store, textiles factory and busy staff cafeteria which also appeared to be open to the public, judging by the number of buggies in there.

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Arabia

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Arabia is a Finnish ceramics company, founded in 1873 which appeared to specialise in tableware (a Finnish, much cooler Royal Doulton, if you will). The flagship, which was adjoined to the equally fancy Iittalla store, housed all of the brand’s retro pieces, including a section dedicated to one of Finland’s most recognisable exports, the Moomins.

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Hietalahti flea market

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I don’t know if we just came on the wrong day or too late in the morning (a Saturday at about 11am) but as you can see from the photos, this flea market was disappointingly sparse. The vendors who had bothered to show up were peddling decent stock, however. One stall was loaded up with vintage Iittala and Arabia pieces (I managed to pick up an unusually shaped vintage Arabia salt shaker for 15 euros) and there was a decent selection of mid century tat hidden amongst the rubbish on the other stalls.

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Mid-century dining table

After ten years of daily use, the faux-tulip Docksta table in my living room was starting to resemble a slightly grubby and scuffed piece of garden furniture (Ikea furniture isn’t generally built to last) so I thought it was time to invest in a replacement.

I’d long admired and lusted over that Hans Olsen dining set with the triangular-shaped chairs that slot neatly under the table, especially after having seen a beautiful white topped version in a flat in Stoneleigh Terrace on an Open House tour. However, I recall sitting on one of the chairs at a furniture fair and finding it really uncomfortable, especially across the back. I also thought that the combination of wooden Royal system and wooden dining set in my living room might be a bit much.

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The other option was to upgrade my faux-tulip table to the genuine article in Arabescato marble, another design item that I’ve been lusting after for a long time, which would allow me to keep my hotch potch of dining chairs.

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It so happened that a really nice example of both a white-topped Hans Olsen dining set and a genuine Knoll marble-topped tulip table in exactly the right size appeared on eBay at the same time.

After a bit of pondering, I decided to maintain my current living room aesthetic and went for the tulip table, which as luck would have it, ended up being a bit of a bargain. As you can see, it looks almost exactly the same as the old one, just a bit nicer.

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At the time of writing, the Hans Olsen set is still available to buy on eBay.

Photos of Hans Olsen table above courtesy of retroliving.co.uk