Representing the creative future

FURNITURECORE: Designers working between fashion and furniture design

Three multidisciplinary designers reflect on the blurred lines between fashion and furniture, and how their work blends the two together

Whatever the chosen medium, it’s common for designers to seek fresh ideas from another universe altogether. As we see season after season, fashion takes its aesthetics from a myriad of influences. It is with this logic that, naturally, some fashion designers find inspiration in unconventional places — say, the world of interior design. Perhaps the best-known practitioner of this hybrid form is Hussein Chalayan. His grand body of work—which famously includes wearable chair covers and coffee tables that turn into wooden skirts—has had a lasting influence in turning generations of makers on to the possibilities of what one could explore design-wise.

An issue many artists have to grapple with across disciplines is the attempt to produce new, innovative work despite the discomfort of deviating from more acceptable, traditional modes. For the three designers we spoke to—namely, Shanti Bell, Grace Ling, and Camella Ehlke—this is not the case. Each in their own way dare to challenge the constructs.


Central Saint Martins graduate Shanti Bell tests the limits of the materials she works with so as to give them new and unexpected meanings. Strength and vulnerability cohabit her garments, lined with curved wood panels.

As a fashion designer, what sparked your interest in furniture?

When I did my BA at Central Saint Martins, I wrote a whole dissertation on how a piece of furniture can be a form of memory. Looking at how furniture differs from home to home, I realised how it generally displaces an extension of the self. There is so much personality and meaning within every piece of furniture, and often there’s a reason behind why people own what they’ve got in their space. To me, there is a human connection between furniture and the body. I really do see furniture as an extension of the body as it’s something we engage with on a daily basis. Even without thinking, we sit on a chair countless times throughout the day, we lay on a bed, or lounge on the sofa. I find it to be quite a natural crossover.

How have you brought and applied these core elements of furniture to your garment designs?

I love how furniture acts as a means of support—there’s a practicality to it in that it holds us. I often take reference from chairs as I’m really drawn to the fact that they carry our weight. They carry us when we’re tired and I guess at our most vulnerable. Sitting kind of is a moment of respite and solace, and I feel like it’s something we often take for granted. Not only are they comforting, but they also provide support. And I think that clothes have the potential to offer this, too. I wanted the same structure to be reflected in my clothing.

“There is so much personality and meaning within every piece of furniture, and often there’s a reason behind why people own what they’ve got in their space.”

What steps did you take from there?

As I didn’t have much experience working with wood, which is the most widely used material for chairs, I took myself to a furniture workshop where I learned the fundamentals of woodworking. I kind of just threw myself into that world and within a month, I built five pieces of furniture, which was really fun and rewarding in that I got to learn the limitations and boundaries of the material. Then, I literally took a chair and stuck it on the body, but I found it to be quite a simplistic reading that wasn’t quite conveigning what it was that I was trying to express. So I began looking at chairs through an abstract lens and became more interested in their construction. Halfway through the final year of my BA, I developed this technique of bending wood and creating cuts of wood, and that, for me, was very enlightening and was kind of the moment where I knew how I’d go on integrating bits of furniture into the body. The human body is soft and curved, so when putting a hard plank of wood on it, well, there isn’t much synergy. But as soon as I started to curve the wood to the shape of the body, it was way more conducive.

What does this curving technique permit you to do and explore?

The possibilities are endless, really. Something I really like to do with a material is push its boundaries. By bending the wood, some of the curves I was aiming for ended up cracking under pressure. Wood is hard and not that malleable, but the way I work with it challenges what it can be and look like. When looking at my pieces, I think a lot of people don’t even realise that it’s wood underneath and can’t quite wrap their heads around what it is exactly. Yet this is what I like—to make people question, and think a bit deeper about materials.

To what do your shapes refer to, and what do they look like?

A lot of it began with my brother and I have conversations about life and things, and how growing up in a single-parent family he felt he had to take on the “man of the house” role. Immediately when he told me so, I felt it was important to share and further understand this experience as I learnt that he wasn’t alone with these feelings. Through my designs, I was trying to mirror vulnerability by bending and testing the limits of the stiff material that wood is, and show not only the beauty of being vulnerable, but also that there is strength in being so. A lot had to do with a sense of weight within the garments. I wanted the garments to look full and heavy, and for them to feel thoroughly light. I really wanted to create a visual interpretation of the pressure and personnel baggage we each carry around through 3D forms connected to the garments, and how relieving it is to be transparent about it.


Central Saint Martins and Parsons School of Design alumni Grace Ling’s work is marked by a look that is both streamlined and sensual. The New York City-based Singaporean fashion designer draws inspiration from myriad influences from fine art to geometry and interior design.

How did your fashion designer’s journey begin?

I did fine art before I got into fashion, blending performance art and sculptures and basically making wearable sculptures. Early on I noticed how most of the pieces I was making had a relation to the human body, and I felt fashion was the appropriate medium to articulate that aspect but also much more. At that time, I already had a foot in the fashion industry as I was modelling on the side. I could see for myself how fashion interplays between business and art as opposed to fine arts which tend to be very conceptual. I felt like it was a medium more accessible to a wider audience.

Tell us more about what informs your work.

Though I make fashion, I’m interested in a lot of different art forms. There’s always an underlying connection to something else through the garments I make, whether that be the surrealist movement, the spaces we live in, or furniture. That’s made my work evolve a lot over time. I want my designs to be multidisciplinary with references that I draw upon, like, and curate. I constantly return to surrealist art. Every collection, I’ll dive deeper into it and learn a new thing. It’s just something I resonate deeply with. I like the irrationalism of it, and the philosophy behind it moves me a lot. There are a lot of sculptures and juxtapositions of objects in this particular movement, and I think I bring that curative aspect into my designs as well as in the spaces I occupy on a day-to-day basis, like my showroom and living room.

“Displayed furniture that had the same fabric I was using for the garments I designed so that, once sat on the sofa, the model would merge and sort of “chameleonise” themselves with it.”

How do you apply those references to your garments?

The first collection I put out was presented through a fashion film in which I made clothes that functioned as an extension of the living space they were set in. One piece, the Circle jacket, was a wall piece-slash-garment. Instead of being put on a conventional hanger, it was framed on the wall in a perfect circle and could be peeled off to be worn. Elsewhere, I displayed furniture that had the same fabric I was using for the garments I designed so that, once sat on the sofa, the model would merge and sort of “chameleonise” themselves with it. Synchronising spaces in such a way is an ongoing, underlying theme in my work.

How do you ensure that all these different inspirations coexist in sync in your pieces?

Well, that’s the thing. I’m moved by so many things that aren’t necessarily related to one another and as chaotic as it may sound, I think this is why I relate so much to surrealism—it often puts things with non-tied meanings side by side so as to foster new ones. This inspires me to revisit what I’m into to see how it can be reinterpreted through a different lens. For example, the human body informs my designs differently, depending on the medium. With regards to clothing, I’ve become known for accentuating the garments I make—such as our now-signature bralette—with silver metallic trim that ends up highlighting the body parts I find beautiful, whether that be the sternum or the spine. For a more literal take on the human body, there are the human mesh bag and the butt bag, which I both see as stand-alone sculpture-like pieces that can, besides their inherent purpose of carrying stuff, serve as ornaments in someone’s interior design.

How did you come up with the brand’s popular bralette-and-blazer look?

It was introduced as part of the Square collection. I came up with this look as a reaction to what I was feeling during the pandemic’s peak, when there was a lot of chaos out there. In such a context, I found that making designs with clean lines and pure geometric forms was both very meditative and calming. I wanted to incorporate simple shapes into a garment, hence why the blazer’s got very angular lapels, and why the bralette and skirt are linked with a square plate that’s sculpted in a form that embraces the lower back curve. I’d say I’m anti-maximalist in my approach; I don’t like when a design has too much going on. Yet I like things to be simple, I wouldn’t say I’m minimalist either. If anything, I’m more of an essentialist. With the square plates, I was inspired by Malevich’s Suprematism and his foundational black square. I like Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases, too. They’re simple in form, but there’s something poignant and chic about them.

Tell us more about your process…

Really, it’s like a curation. It’s kind of hard to put in words, but sometimes certain things put together just feel wrong. I guess it’s about finding the right composition and listening to your gut instinct. It’s a little like rearranging your space by moving the furniture around because it didn’t feel right the way it was. That same logic can be applied to garment making. It’s like, how many samples will it take to get the right design? When something’s not right, it usually can get fixed.

How do you make the abstract wearable?

Thinking about it, the first thing that pops into my mind is Brancusi’s work. One of his most famous sculptures, Fish, is some sort of a blob-shaped piece sculpted out of grey marble that resembles, as its name suggests, an abstract version of a fish. Everything is stripped down to its simplest form, with a streamlined, aerodynamic structure. It almost looks like it’s moving. This is something I reference in my work, with the biomorphic spine, for example, or with the vertebral metal trim which essentially is a conceptual representation of the bone structure. It might not be immediately obvious at first glance, but there usually is an underlying theme behind the designs I create.


At 19 years young in the late 90s, New Yorker Camella Ehlke launched the streetwear label 555 Soul—later to be renamed Triple Five Soul—through which she made garments hand- and machine-sewn from deadstock fabric. With time, her creative process has become multidisciplinary and led her to repurpose clothes into chair covers.

How did you begin your journey as a designer?

I always had a passion for sewing, and the way I look at it is that I “paint” with fabric. I’ve always been drawn to sewing machines, textile factories, and all things tailoring. When I was an art student, I would make sculptures with sewn items. However, I dropped out after a year to follow my dream of founding my own company. In 1989 I found a place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that I turned into a storefront apartment in which I set up my shop and streetwear brand 555 Soul.

Were you already repurposing when you first started out?

I mostly purchased fabrics from resale jobbers and one particular fabric shop near Stanton and Ludlow streets which was selling me an assortment of deadstock fabrics from designers. I would lay out the fabrics I had chosen and start sewing them up together. This was the start of my customisation approach, I’d say. I remember making fleece hoodie sweatshirts, pullover shirts, and also hats constructed out of ties, which became a big fad in the downtown music scene.

“Virgil Abloh reached out to me during the pandemic asking me what I was up to and whether I would be interested to work on something together.”

How did you start exploring customising furniture with garments, and how did it evolve?

The first project I did exploring this was called Homeware, a capsule collection in which I basically repurposed deadstock fabric and garments such as hoodie sweatshirts from my inventory to make chair covers. The hoodies could be removed and worn the way they’re meant to. Customising furniture is something I’ve been thinking about and dabbling with since the late 90s, and early 2000s, and it took off again during the pandemic. Just like everyone I was sitting around at home, looking at the furniture surrounding me. I’ve always had this idea in the back of my mind where I thought it would be cool to uplift the iconic Eames plywood chair. I wanted to refresh it and give it a new look without reinventing or insulting the integrity of its design. At that very time, I had started conversations with Virgil Abloh to run a collaborative project.

How did you and Virgil Abloh link up, exactly?

As he knew my past and recognised my contribution as one of the early streetwear makers who actually sewed garments themselves, Virgil reached out to me during the pandemic asking me what I was up to and whether I would be interested to work on something together. He was curious to find out if I was still sewing and customising things the way I always have. And as much as we talked about many ideas revolving around the intersection of fashion, furniture, and sculpture, he really wanted me to have a blank canvas in this project, and for me to do my thing. Essentially, he wanted me to get back on the sewing machine. And, given my approach, it was obvious to him that I would work with leftover fabrics and deadstock.

What did you come up with for this project?

After Virgil’s passing, I wanted to stick to what we talked about and honour his vision and particular talent to bring creatives together as opposed to turning the whole thing into some sort of a homage all about him. The capsule collection was called “Hey What’s Up?”, and within it, there were five different takes on fashion furniture with different themes and contributors. There were, as we initially intended, three classic Eames chairs turned into soft-cushioned versions fully covered with chequered and flower-patterned fabrics from Off-White™. These chairs were part of the “Ladies of Leisure” theme and reflected Virgil’s high-low approach to womenswear with beautiful silks and intricate ruffles and pleats throughout. In another strand of the collection, I made a nod to the hoodie sweatshirts-covered chair I first did in the early 2000s, repurposing these new versions with garments from Off-White™ and pieces from other various streetwear brands, namely Noah, Awake NY, and Total Luxury Spa. Each chair cover reflected aesthetic elements specific to the designer who contributed, whether it’s Brendon Babenzien’s anchor tattoo which was translated into massive rope-like trim, or Angelo Baque’s love for New York City’s street art and graffiti history that I recreated by sewing hoodies in the shape of a bubble font and by slashing the fabric into drips. Elsewhere, I also covered heart-shaped iron chairs found in a vintage shop with athletic shoe laces.

What is your approach when it comes to customising furniture?

Whenever I do sculptured or textile stuff, I try to give a unique personality to the objects I make so that they kind of come to life. I’m almost collaborating with the furniture. I kind of look at it as a body, a structure I end up dressing. With my art, I really like the hand-producing aspect of sewing by hand or with a sewing machine. I prefer it way more than a paintbrush, or a pen and paper. It’s my medium.