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Birds and mammals – from owls to horses to whales – may be well-represented in home decor these days, but one interior designer suggests people may be ‘ready to move on from the pretty appeal of birds and want the edginess of insects.’
Birds and mammals – from owls to horses to whales – may be well-represented in home decor these days, but one interior designer suggests people may be ‘ready to move on from the pretty appeal of birds and want the edginess of insects.’

Owl today, what tomorrow? In search of the next It animal in design Add to ...

In the 1990s, when animals made it into the design pages, it was often because an animal-rights activist had chained himself to a post to protest a bearskin rug or mink throw. I imagine the animals were grateful for the intervention.

What would they make of today’s pages? Although the mink throws are mostly gone, they’ve been replaced with no less bemusing portrayals: the ceramic owl lamp, the sheep stool, the ubiquitous fox cushions.

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Last month, two bloggers debated whether the fox – now most visible on the sale racks at Target – would survive 2014. Would it persevere like the ever-popular deer antlers, or fizzle out like the Paul Frank monkey? That evening, as I watched a fox bound across the darkened street to the neighbour’s garbage bins, I thought: It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

Of course, this trend has been going strong since the days of stately homes and hunting trophies. The difference today is that our feelings of supremacy have descended into anxiety (over the economy, the environment, safety) and most of us have replaced our boar heads with faux analogues.

They’ve become the decor equivalent of comfort food, says Shannon Kelly, founder of the trend research and marketing consultancy In Your Head. “While daring animal prints represent nature, fun, bold animal graphics celebrate a contemporary alternative rooted in nurture.”

Candidates for Animal of the Year are coming fast and furious. With owls, flamingos and swallows having run their course, designers are throwing breeds at the wallpaper to see what sticks. Nancy Robinson, senior editor at Home Fashion Forecast, says she predicts people will ditch their faux trophy mounts for a fresher take.

“I did see swan and pig trophy mounts recently,” she says. “It’s all very tongue in cheek – just a bit of fun after years of zebra and leopard prints ad nauseam.” Freshness, you see, is relative.

Like the It bag or the It girl, the It beast is a byproduct of the fashion runway. The popularity of poodle skirts in the 1950s moved swiftly into poodle needlepoints, telephones and collectibles; so, it stands to reason that in 2014 you can expect Jean Paul Gaultier’s butterflies to have wings.

Last year, when Louis Vuitton decorated its Christmas windows with model geese, positioning them climbing out of handbags and pulling sleighs full of presents, trend forecasters wondered whether it was a sign from new creative director Nicolas Ghesquière that goose was the new black.

Then again, the Oakville, Ont., interior designer Yanic Simard says that, after finally waving off birds of all feathers, he has seen the future and it’s creepy and crawly.

“It may be that people are ready to move on from the pretty appeal of birds and want the edginess of insects.”

Now that we’re celebrating the incoming Year of the Horse, designers are responding with all manner of homewares: Italian manufacturer Seletti with a stallion mug, Thomas Paul with a horse-print pillow and Jonathan Adler, who has earned several fortunes from animal graphics, with a prancing-horse statuette. The French fashion house Hermès has come out with a “Samarcande” horse paperweight – possibly to preface Saut Hermès, the horse show it’s organizing at Paris’s Grand Palais in March.

Yet, marketing consltants such as Kelly are leaning toward something more youthful: “Heritage being what it is in Europe, it seems like the right moment for designers to reconsider the pony.”

Because some animals have got it and others clearly don’t (“Farm animals are a little too close for comfort when you’re dining on one,” Kelly says), it helps to know what it takes for an it to become an “It.” Kelly has identified wild, woodsy animals atop the design food chain. “The most popular animals are magical and perhaps even naive,” she says. “As an alternative to the woodland creatures I’m also quite fond of the bear.”

And here I believed I’d acted alone when I wallpapered my bedroom recently in a forest print and accessorized with a fluffy, faux polar-bear mount. Nope, says Robinson. Just a fad. “It dovetails with the country-lodge style that is now happening in both home and fashion,” she says. “Indicators of this trend in both [fashion and design] industries would be the prevalence of plaids, buffalo checks, birch wood, iron fixtures, that sort of thing.”

Robyn Waffle and Yvan Semenowycz have modelled their Toronto design studio Totem around the emotional connections people develop with animals. Aside from Canadian icons like the lynx, grizzly and blue heron, their rugs take inspiration from “spirit animals,” the beasts whose traits we believe we embody.

Semenowycz’s spirit animal, the wolf, forms the backbone of the Crease Patterns collection. “Any creature people can find an emotional kinship with is ‘it’ for us,” Waffle says. “Often when you find one special enough to represent in your work, others will gravitate to it as well.”

That feeling of kinship can come from anywhere. When I asked her about the fad for owls, long-lived by fashion standards but short-lived by nature’s, the design blogger Anna Nahman referenced Harry Potter, “where owls play one of the chief roles in the magical world.”

Largely, though, animal imagery is still the territory of the catwalks. As Nahman notes, Burberry Prorsum featured the owl in its 2012-13 collections. We’ve seen foxes and deer on sweatshirts for years now – not to mention the Christmas sweater, which seemed remarkably resilient in December.

Kenzo brought back the tiger a few seasons ago, and then – bam – I spotted one on a duvet. As with bold florals, animal graphics make easy work of freshening up a wardrobe or a room. And retailers have evolved to adapt.

“Merchandisers love a cohesive visual presentation,” says Kelly, “so it’s logical that in stores with more than clothes, like Anthropologie, Zara and Urban Outfitters, they explore a thematic approach.”

Perhaps Simard is right and our tastes have become, per Tyra Banks, fierce.

During the haute-couture shows in Paris last month, Valentino sent a lion-print gown down the catwalk. Diane von Furstenberg put safari animals on T-shirts. Zebras were all over Suno’s 2014 spring/summer collection. And one of 2013’s most resonant images was Givenchy’s Rottweiler shirt. Brace yourselves.

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