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Rooms get romantic and historic edge from a decorative screen

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Vintage and brand-new versions seem to be everywhere, adding layers and texture to beautiful spaces

You don’t have to bingewatch classic movies to know that when a starlet wanted to “slip into something more comfortable”, she often stepped behind a decorative folding screen before shedding her clothes. As her dress inevitably flew over the top of the room divider, you couldn’t help but think: That screen is so glamorous.

For budding interior design nerds like myself, it evoked a more elegant life and the kind of grown-up shenanigans that might be in my future. One day I, too, may have a spirited conversation with a gentleman caller while a beautiful screen protects my modesty. Today, such screens aren’t just a staple of old movies.

Both vintage and brand-new decorative versions seem to be everywhere – on the pages of interior design magazines, on your Instagram feed and even at big-name retailers. 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 200 BC, but the most famous examples are the lacquered Coromandel screens, which were imported from China to Europe in the 17th century. Either hand-painted or inlaid with mother-of-pearl or tortoiseshell, Coromandel screens have acquired many stylish fans over the years.

“If you think about the most iconic example of a screen, that’s cemented in every interior designer’s memory, it’s Coco Chanel’s apartment on the Rue Cambon in Paris,” says designer Josh Hildreth, who often uses the decorative accents in his projects.

A fan-style natural rattan room divider. Picture: CB2

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,” Hildreth says.

But the trend isn’t just about fetishising the past; plenty of recent projects feature screens and images of those spaces are inspiring homeowners as well. 

“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,” says Christiane Lemieux, founder of the Inside. For those looking to experiment, screens provide a low-lift way to add ornamentation to a space.

For instance, the upholstered versions from the Inside are available in an array of zippy prints, including classic ones, 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,” Lemieux says.

“It’s a great intuitive way to inject pattern into a space without having to commit to anything.” After years of mid-centurymodern fever, homeowners are looking for ways to bring patina and a sense of the personal to their spaces and achieve a more layered, well-travelled look – call it the maximalist effect.

 “An antique screen can add a global element that blends beautifully with other pieces,” says designer Mona Hajj, who often employs them to bring a dash of romance and history to spaces where architecture is lacking. By incorporating decorative screens, homeowners 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, homeowners have been preoccupied with knocking down walls and creating communal space,” says designer Annie Elliott.

This bespoke, avant-garde decorative screen will add charm to any room. Picture: The Future Perfect

“Now there’s a slow move toward defining spaces by their functionality, while still maintaining that open feeling. I do think that 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’s not surprising that they also appeal to the smallspace dweller; they’ve long been a practical fix for those who live in studio apartments. Depending on the material, screens can provide another benefit.

Those made of lacquer or tea paper can magnify or soften natural and artificial light. So much of how we experience or fall in love with a room has to do with the way light is reflected – having things with dimension, like the folds of a screen, gives the eye a reason to stop and linger, much more so than a flat wall. The effect is truly magical. 

The Washington Post

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