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When is a wall not just a wall?

The ultimate blank canvas in interior design, the humble wall has found a new lease of life at Salone del Mobile and beyond – from wireless speaker systems to leather panelling and intricate mosaics

Walls – even if just four – are a fundamental of any dwelling. Our prehistoric forebears kicked off the idea of decorating the interior sides with paintings of hands, bison and horses; it was only a matter of millennia before walls acquired additional roles, from shelving to hanging hooks.

And so the evolution has continued. At Milan’s Salone del Mobile in April, a flurry of new designs honed in on the humble wall, lending secondary and even tertiary functions such as sound systems or sculptural lighting – as well as a contemporary edge. The trend reflects an enthusiasm for ever-greater creative freedom in the home, says Marie Kristine Schmidt, head of brand and design at Bang & Olufsen, the Danish electronics brand.

“There are not so many rules and restrictions anymore. People want the things they surround themselves with to reflect who they are, whether it’s how you look, what you carry or what you put on your walls.” Bang & Olufsen’s latest wireless speaker offers just that.

The BeoSound Shape is a wall-mounted system that plays through hexagonal tiles: speakers, amplifiers and acoustic dampers, from six to however many you wish to configure in your own pattern (from around €4,000 for a standard setup).

“The idea behind it came from a frustration around the fact that good sound requires great acoustics, but in many rooms they are very poor,” says Schmidt. Rather than having just one fixed sweet spot for sound, the damper tiles aim to improve the acoustics of an entire room by absorbing sound waves – including when the speakers are switched off.

The design was inspired by the way light is reflected on mountaintops and the effect on sound there. The tiles come in an earthy palette of blue, purple, green or burnt orange, or Kvadrat wool fabric coverings.

Flos, the lighting specialist, raised the functionality stakes once again in Milan. Gaku, a wall-mounted open box – a shelf in itself – houses a lamp in three different configurations: hung from the top; detachable, with its own charging dock; or as a magnetised spotlight that can swivel in any direction.

Next, stripping lighting down to the most linear form imaginable, WireRing is simply made from a belt of pink, grey or white electric cable that straps an LED circle to the wall, turning it into a sleek sculptural spectacle. Philippe Starck, however, put forward a more traditional, Snow White-inspired creation for Flos. La Plus Belle is an oval mirror surrounded by chrome, gold or copper – plus an LED trim.

Although minimalist, this trio of utilitarian designs capitalise on the idea behind making a home appear more welcoming by ridding it of harsh bare expanses of wall (especially bright white ones). They create a focal point without involving outsized furniture, elaborate upholstery or distracting chandeliers; an antidote to overwrought interior schemes.

Meanwhile, bed expert Flou launched a wall unit that transforms from a two-seat sofa into a double bed. “I’ve designed multifunctional furniture for more than 20 years. The aim is not only to let the pieces transform themselves, but also transform the space that they are in,” says designer Giulio Manzoni, “because space is the real treasure.”

This obvious capacity for walls – or lack thereof – to alter the amount of space in a given room was echoed by a new sliding version of Sherazade, a door designed by Piero Lissoni for Glas Italia. Its six millimetres of tempered, almost gauzy glass is sealed within a dark aluminium frame.

“The trend is now to leave more spaces open and interconnected,” says export area manager Flavio Parlato. “Sliding doors filter and transform the space, influencing the light and noise, like theatre wings on the stage of our living environment.”

In the realms of interior design, walls offer the largest blank canvas. While the vogue for wallpaper throughout the home has long since diminished (trompe l’oeil aside), appetite for artistic expression has found new ways to flourish.

In May, carpet specialist Sahrai opened its doors on Brook Street, bringing nearly 200 years of expertise from Tehran, Istanbul and Milan to Mayfair. Strolling past, you will spy mannequins artfully draped in Swarovski-studded carpets, and stepping inside the new showroom reveals a number of weaves that can be hung vertically in their own right.

“As has been the case for hundreds of years with tapestries, today rugs can be hung on walls as a secret weapon in the mission to create full and astonishing rooms,” says owner Ramine Sahrai. “They are not unlike artistic masterpieces, and can make a wonderful centerpiece that adds personality and colour to a room.”

The family-run company deals in both rare, centuries-old carpets as well as new wool and silk patterns designed in-house (from £4,800). There are few more striking ways to welcome guests than a three-by-two-metre leopard in silk and wool relief (£12,000).

A creative alternative to framed artworks is decorative tiling, in all manner of materials. “I think a feature wall still has its importance,” says Nadia Dalle Mese, founder of Studioart, the Italian leather interiors firm. This year Studioart has celebrated its tenth anniversary by reinterpreting its best seller, Leatherwall: a tiled covering that uses geometric combinations of squares, triangles, trapeziums, rhombuses and rectangles to create plush contemporary patterns (from €530 per sq m).

“Its versatility allows you to apply it in bedrooms, living rooms, hallways – we even have some collections that are waterproof,” says Dalle Mese. “You can use a feature wall with special patterns, shapes or colour combinations to add to an ordinary room, or if a full wall would be too much, you could use Leatherwall as an artwork.”

The pieces are designed and sewn to fit by a team of ten, and the leather is supplied by Studioart’s own tannery in Vicenza, the Italian leather-making region. The anniversary collection includes three new styles to suit minimalist, modern and Romantic tastes alike, with padded three-dimensionality and stitching for additional texture.

Elsewhere on the tiling front, there is little rest for the Campana Brothers. They have followed their candy cane lighting for Lasvit and hairy house in São Paulo – one of the duo’s first architectural projects, covered in palm fibre inspired by traditional Brazilian housing – with something a little more approachable for Bisazza, the glass mosaic firm.

“Our range of Cementiles encompasses ancient techniques with a modern twist,” says Donna Podger, Bisazza’s London showroom manager. The tiles are made from a mixture of fine cement, marble dust and natural pigments, then left out to dry for a week after being removed from their mould.

“A monochrome splash in a bathroom, a floral-inspired design for the kitchen, a geometric design to bring a hallway to life... the scope of use is vast,” Podger continues. “The designers we work with like to push boundaries on making the best impression with walls.”

Indeed, Paola Navone, Jaime Hayon and Tom Dixon have all lent a little of their own signature style to the Cementiles range in the past. This year, the Campana Brothers’ take was inspired by the spirals found in a slice of agate rock. In shades of a single colour – green, yellow, red or blue – repeated rings come together en masse to form a full-blown 1970s retro vision (from £154 per sq m).

On a more intricate scale, Sicis on Dover Street takes tiling to new heights with Italian-made mosaics. These minute squares are one of the oldest forms of interior decoration, particularly popular with the ancient Romans, Greeks and Byzantines.

Sicis refashions Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Gustav Klimt’s work in materials as varied as marble or 24-carat gold, semi-precious stones and mother of pearl; conjures cityscapes and lifesize images of Marilyn Monroe; and best of all, creates mesmerising abstract designs that sweep through entire rooms. When it comes to walls, the next few thousand years look set to be as full of creativity as the last.