SCENES FROM DOMESTIC LIFE - LUCIA VAN DER POST

«THESE DAYS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SCREENS, ESPECIALLY EARLY JAPANESE ONES, ARE HIGHLY COLLECTABLE »

SCREENS

Screens, it seems, are making something of a come back. Way back in the mists of time, the Chinese and Japanese were enjoying their charms while our ancestors were still sharpening their flints. It wasn't until the merchant adventurers who'd headed East started bringing them back to Europe that they were eagerly seized upon by the hitherto screenless Europeans for the very good reason that they were not only often very beautiful but, as the Japanese word for them (byobu or "wind wall") reveals, they were wonderfully effective in heading off draughts. As central heating became more popular and draughts became largely a thing of the past, so screens fell out of favour. No wonder Mark Aldbrook, co-author of The Folding Screen, one of the definitive books on the subject, describes them as the "Cinderella of the antiques world".

Times Magazine 07.10.2006However, there are signs of a revival. At the Milan Furniture Fair this year, some of the most eminent designers turned their considerable talents to the matter of the folding screen. The Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola produced a stunning 10m long one for Bisazza, whose mosaics were used in a reproduction of a traditional blue and white Toile de Jouy pattern (www.bisazza.it). Zanotta's Fiore from Aram (020-7557 7557; www.aram.co.uk) is tall and wonderfully decorative with a bold flower-and-leaf pattern in laser-cut, steel filigree. Tom Dixon's extendable screen in translucent acrylic (in blue, grey or red) has long been a lynchpin in his collection (£260 from Selfridges and twentytwentyone). And glass wizard Danny Lane from time to time comes up with some stunning examples.

Earlier still, two of the 20th century's greatest designers, Alvar Aalto and Irish designer Eileen Gray, produced desirable screens which are still available today. Gray's consists of four gloss-lacquered perforated steel panels with solid lacquered beech frames (from Aram), while Alvar Aalto's natural lacquered pine screen (from www.bonlaxat.com) is a modern classic.

Screens can be used in many ways. While the Chinese traditionally used them more decoratively, in the Japanese home they functioned as partitions and were an integral part of the structure of the house. They have sometimes been used to hide unattractive vistas or untidy corners, but they can also be quickly and easily brought into play when a more intimate, smaller space needs to be carved out of a large area. They're cheaper than building a new wall and twice as pretty. Their flexibility is an inherent part of their charm but, at their best, they have the decorative impact of a painting. Or as Mark Aldbrook puts it, "they're where the fine and applied arts meet".

At the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair in Battersea Park this weekend, there's a special selling exhibition that shows screens of many different styles and eras, but also charts the history of the folding screen. These days the most beautiful screens, especially early Japanese ones, are highly collectable and the fair offers a good opportunity to buy something rather special. Prices vary, of course, from £8,500 for a Chinese screen that once belonged to the Duke of Portland, to a three-fold giltwood and fabric French screen with glass-inset panels priced at £935 from Paravent (07798 653208; www.paravent.co.uk). There are Islamic screens, Persian ones, French and Arts & Crafts examples. All in all, a great opportunity to catch up on these highly decorative, extremely functional pieces. ■