In any home, you’re probably no more than two meters from a feather. Most hide in cushions, pillows and duvets, but there is also a resurgence of decorative feathers: both feather patterns in wallpaper and printed fabrics and real feathers, many of which come from a ostrich.
This magnificent flightless bird is native to the savannahs and forests of Africa. Their feathers have been used in fashion and home decor for centuries and are prized above the plumage of other birds for both their size and beautiful fluttering quality (the feathers of flying birds have barbs that cling to the to each other, but ostrich feathers are loose and flexible).
They were once more valuable by weight than gold or diamonds. In Feathers: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (2008), Sarah Abrevaya Stein discusses the extraordinary ostrich feather bubble.
Over a 20-year period ending in 1914, the value of ostrich feathers tripled. Demand was generated by the fashion industry – one was nothing without a panache or two – and supplied by Jewish immigrant farmers from the Western Cape in Africa.
These farmers, she writes, built themselves “feather mansions” with “panelled walls, tiled bathrooms, hand-painted friezes; the finest mahogany, walnut and oak furniture…concave gilt mirrors, silver and Sheffield trim, the finest Irish linen.
Then fashion changed and the bubble burst. Some blamed the auto industry (you can’t drive a car in an ostrich feather hat). Farmers were left without feathers to fly, and ostrich feathers were relegated to the feather duster.
This utility item has never gone out of style and is still used by premium car brands to clean their vehicles before painting them. Nothing, they say, can move dust like an ostrich feather duster. Some claim it has to do with the static charge of the feathers; others think it’s because of the structure of the beards. You can buy ostrich feather dusters at The Old Mill Stores, and elsewhere, for between $25 and $65 depending on size and handle length.
On the decorative side, ostrich feathers are making a magnificent comeback in interiors. The most flamboyant of these is the iconic ostrich feather lamp designed by A Modern Grand Tour.
The basic format is an ostrich leg-shaped base, made of cast resin with a metallic finish, topped with a drooping fin of hand-dyed ostrich feathers. The colors are glorious.
As a design, the lamp ticks many boxes: irony, elegance, glamor and the ability to adapt to a wide range of decorative styles. There’s also something a little fishy about them. I’ve seen them in villain houses in modern TV shows and they fit right in. The problem is the price, which varies from €2,253 for a mini (85 cm high) to €5,810 for a floor lamp 2 meters high. Also, there is no Irish supplier. These prices are from Sweetpea & Willow in the UK, who will deliver to Ireland.
The use of feathers has posed ethical issues ever since the snowy egret was hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1880s in America. The culprit was the millinery trade. Now nearly all the feathers used in decoration come from farmed birds, bringing a whole new set of problems, including horrifying reports of the live plumage of geese in Asia.
As with all of these things, it’s a matter of checking for certification and making a personal choice. Ostrich feathers are either taken from dead birds as a by-product of the meat industry or cut from live birds at certain times of the year. Most come from farms in Africa, which are subject to different regulations than European farms.
A Modern Grand Tour’s statement reads: “All of our feathers are sustainably sourced from suppliers who raise ostriches ethically. All feathers are supplied with a sustainability certificate. It’s hard to know what the ostriches think about it. The vegan movement eschews feathers, along with all animal products, and there is a strong argument that feathers look best on live birds.
The certification around goose feathers is easier to understand and the Eos range of lamps, made from natural goose feathers by the Danish company Umage, proudly display the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certification.
For those who choose to pluck their nests, that seems like a pretty solid certificate in terms of animal welfare. Goose feathers are aesthetically different from ostrich feathers, being smaller and more puffy, and Eos lamp designs are entirely Scandi minimal. The feathers are dyed, mostly in muted colors, and the frames are raw aluminum. Lights.ie prices range from €119.90 for a mini pendant to €529.90 for a large tripod floor lamp.
The latter is 154 cm tall and the fluffy feathers diffuse the light beautifully. If you need to clean it, use a hair dryer. Among the other feathered lamps, let’s mention the feathered brass bird’s leg table lamp (about €183 at Audenza which revisits the concept of a bird’s leg but with turkey feathers).
“Feathers are a great way to brighten up a room,” says interior designer Julianne Kelly. “Their texture provokes thoughts of softness and whimsy, creating texture without adding heaviness.
“We use it a lot on printed fabrics and wallpaper. It has been around for a while, but as a complement to butterfly and dragonfly designs. Now it’s all about the pen. Peacock tails are great for design intricacies and for adding color. We use it in printed fabrics on cushions, headboards and seats and love it for wallpaper in bedrooms and small bathrooms. It’s been around for so long that I can’t really call it a trend – it just keeps evolving in shape and style.
Romo’s collection of decorative Plumo prints combine birds with swirling flowers, while a range of wallpapers from Casamance (from €70 a roll at Julianne Kelly interiors) use the feather motif in sophisticated abstract designs . The best of them are almost hypnotic and would work well in a bedroom.
There is a clear association between feathers and sleep. Another take on the feather print comes from Claire Luxton, an artist who designed a tableware collection for Wedgwood. It’s a beautiful mix of flowers, plants, birds, animals and feathers.
The design was taken from ceramics by wallpaper brand Feathr and translated into a gigantic wallpaper mural (from €60 a metre). It probably doesn’t belong in a bedroom. You wouldn’t wink.
See sweetpeaandwillow.com, juliannekellyinteriors.ie, feathr.com, audenza.com, theoldmillstores.ie