Screen for style

Screens can add ornamentation to a space without the need for renovation.
Screens can add ornamentation to a space without the need for renovation.PHOTO: HIRODESIGN/ INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • You do not have to binge-watch classic movies to know that when a starlet wants to "slip into something more comfortable", she often steps behind a decorative folding screen.

As her dress flies over the top of the room divider, you think: That screen is so glamorous.

Today, such screens are not just a staple from old movies. Both vintage and brand-new decorative versions seem to be everywhere - on the pages of interior design magazines, on Instagram feeds and even at big-name retailers.

Online antique purveyors Chairish and 1stdibs have a wide selection of screens spanning various periods and styles.

The direct-to-consumer furniture brand Inside offers custom upholstered ones. World Market and CB2 sell rattan or wood versions to convey a bohemian vibe on a budget.

Decorative folding screens have been combining beauty and function for more than 2,000 years.

They originated in China and have been traced back to at least 200BC, but the most famous examples are the lacquered Coromandel screens, which were imported from China to Europe in the 17th century.

Screens' close association with a more glamorous era make them especially appealing to a new generation.

"Instagram has introduced photos of people like socialites Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli, who were known for their beautiful homes, and often these screens are in the background," said designer Josh Hildreth. "There's a chicness to those images people really respond to."

But the trend is not just about fetishising the past. Plenty of recent projects feature screens and images of those spaces are inspiring home owners as well.

Look no further than the March cover of House Beautiful, which featured a Nick Olsen-designed den with a vintage Japanese screen in the background.

"Whether it's through social media or some other source, people see beautiful spaces that are layered and textured and they want to emulate that," said Inside founder Christiane Lemieux.

For those looking to experiment, screens provide a low-lift way to add ornamentation to a space.

For instance, the upholstered versions from Inside are available in an array of zippy prints and could just as easily serve as a backdrop for a sofa or a headboard for a bed.

"If you prop a screen against a wall, you get the same effect as you would with a wallpapered accent wall. But, unlike wallpaper, you can take it with you when you move," Ms Lemieux said.

"It's a great intuitive way to inject pattern into a space without having to commit to anything."

In some ways, the resurgence of folding screens represents a shift in thinking about how to dress an interior. After years of mid-century-modern fever, home owners are looking for ways to bring personalisation to their spaces and achieve a more layered, well-travelled look.

"An antique screen can add a global element that blends beautifully with other pieces," said designer Mona Hajj.

By incorporating decorative screens, home owners are rebelling not only against bland interiors, but also one of the most prevalent trends of the past 40 years - the open-floor plan.

"With the creation of the great room, home owners have been preoccupied with knocking down walls and creating communal space," said designer Annie Elliott of Bossy Colour.

"Now, there's a slow move towards defining spaces by their functionality, while still maintaining that open feeling. I think people are trying to recover a little of what they've lost by opening up an entire floor and screens can help."

Given that screens have traditionally been used to divide and hide, it is not surprising they also appeal to the small-space dweller. They have long been a practical fix for those who live in studio apartments.

Ms Lemieux said: "They can separate a bedroom from the living area in a small apartment or they can act as a decorative storage area to hide junk or clutter."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2019, with the headline 'Screen for style'. Subscribe