Designing Niels

It is with great care that any new piece is brought into the Rowen & Wren assortment, but this is especially so with our British upholstery collection – an assembly of pieces most edited in number and most considered in shape, size and fabric sort. 

For Spring/Summer 2021, we are then most excited to reveal Niels – our very first line of loose linen upholstery. Available in both Leaden Grey or neutral and natural Flax, we have designed a refined yet most relaxed armchair, footstool and sofa with covers in the finest Belgian linen and a comfort level tried and tested more times than we can recount. 

Here, we share notes from a conversation with its designer, Alex, so that you may get to learn more about what went into its fastidious making…

Where did the idea for the Niels collection come from?

“You could say that it’s been a concept in the collective creative team’s mind for a few seasons now. Our upholstery is all comfortable and all very refined, but we felt something more relaxed was missing from collection.

“We have seen numerous variations of loose linen designs and have seen aspects we like in each, but it was more a case of being inspired by a feeling with Niels. We hoped to create something that felt innately calm with a flowing silhouette that was almost fluid to mirror the nature of the loose covers it would have. It was about creating something very peaceful.”

Had you visions of where it would be used? Was it very much a sitting room piece?

“It’s always a hard balance to strike when creating upholstery. You want it to be large enough to comfortably kick back, but we also like to be considerate to smaller homes, which is why the sofa is a large two-seater or petite three-seater depending on how you view it – it’s far gentler than a ‘hardcore’ living room sofa.. This means it isn’t outside the realms of possibility that any of the Niels pieces might be used in a bedroom – they’re subtle enough to not compete with the bed, and the footstool is an alternative to your classic elongated end-of-bed ottoman. So, in essence, I saw and hoped it would be used across a span of homes from modern townhouses to low-ceilinged cottages and from sitting rooms to bedrooms.”

What are your favourite aspects of its design?

“This might not be what first strikes you with Niels, but I love it for its functionality first and foremost. Before Niels, our assortment included only fixed cover designs, and so it’s lovely to be able to offer something that you can whip the covers off of should you need to, and even have a second set for a welcome change in your home. Its versatility of use as above, its small footprint and the robustness of linen all play to its functionality too – this isn’t a fabric you should fearfully put your feet up on; it embraces that. 

“I also love the softer features that come together in a presentation of gentleness. The swoop of the arc in the arm and the relaxed spirit of the natural linen covers are in perfect harmony.”

What was the most challenging part of the design process?

“There were two – the curvature of the arm to get it just so, and defining the cushion fillings. We were searching for a level of comfort that you sink into without it being marshmallow soft and losing its shape. Niels is undoubtedly a relaxed piece but it still has poise and so we didn’t want a bulky base cushion that requires plumping after each use. It should be easy to live with as much as a joy to sit on. Many, many iterations of different fillings and indeed filling ratios later, I can say we are more than satisfied with our chosen combination of a high feather to down ratio wrap around a soft foam core.”

How long did it take to design the collection?

“In total, just over a year. It was a relatively smooth process save for sampling and comfort testing during lockdowns one, two and three!”

Why was it that you chose a new maker for the Niels’ frame?

“We have long worked with two British framemakers and upholsterers who craft all of our frames by hand using seasonal, sustainable hardwoods. But we felt their expertise lay more with traditional shapes such as our Chesterfield collection and wingback Bromley armchair. There’s more European influence in Niels’ silhouette. Ironically, it can sometimes be more difficult to create something beautifully simple. We found then a new maker, also in the UK, to closely collaborate with on the design, having been to the workshop and met with them multiple times before going into production. They have a wonderful understanding of Niels’ design language.”

And why Belgian linen above all others?

“European linen is generally regarded as being the finest linen in the land. It’s all to do with climate and soil type to identify where the strongest flax crops can be grown and harvested to turn into linen yarn. We’ve worked with lithuanian linen many times on our napkins and tablecloths which is of beautiful quality, but Belgian linen is essentially a level up from this, and for Niels, we wanted it to be the best it possibly could be being an investment piece of furniture. We’ve chosen an entirely pure linen cloth that is full of natural knots and slubs that celebrate its origins and lend it a certain level of rusticity. But it’s also incredibly soft so that it feels sublime but is also impressively strong to weather many years of love and use.”

Finally, if you had to choose one Niels piece, which would it be and why?

“Maybe this is a bit obvious, but I’d have to pick the Niels armchair in Flax. It’s such a neat piece and hugs you in. When I first sat in it, I remember saying ‘ahh’ out loud as I sat down; it’s so satisfying in terms of comfort. Both colours are so easy to blend into any palette, but the Flax is my personal favourite.”

Shop the Niels collection here