Reflections on Mirrors


When the first ape-like human leaned over and looked at his image in the still dark water for the first time, it must have occurred to him that he needed a haircut. Since then, many people have looked at themselves reflected off many shiny surfaces, from polished stone – an example exists from Turkey around 6,000 BC, but you can buy a polished obsidian mirror online for about 20 euros – to bronze and other shiny metals and finally to the treated glass we use today.

Article by Vivion O’Kelly

In fact, classical imagery is replete with mirror-holding maidens in various stages of undress, and many of the mirrors they hold up, such as that seen in a fresco dating from the 1st century and now in a Naples museum, are remarkably similar to those we use today. By the 11th century, glass mirrors were made by the Moors in Spain, and right up until the Industrial Revolution, ownership of a mirror was for the privileged few. In the 17th century, a French countess traded a large wheat farm for a small glass Venetian mirror and considered it a bargain. As still happens, industrial espionage led to quicker and cheaper manufacturing processes throughout Europe, although the toxic fumes that resulted from the heating of mercury caused many workers to die painful deaths.

fresco showing a woman looking in a mirror,
Part of a fresco showing a woman looking in a mirror, 1st century AD, from the Villa of Arianna at Stabiae (Italy)

An object of beauty, an object of emptiness, an invisible power used in magic, a symbol of vanity, a painter’s prop, a priceless antique or just a reflective surface to look at yourself in. However mirrors might have been viewed in the past and are still viewed, they have become an essential decorative item in any home.  And as in all decorative items in the home, care must be taken in making one’s choice based on solid design principles.

A mirror must first be recognised for what it is: a space surrounded by a frame that can be everything or nothing. Put it in an empty room facing a bare wall and it reflects a bare wall. Put it in a beautifully decorated room and it reflects a beautiful interior. So let’s take it as an ambiguous object that can elevate the overall design of a room, and let’s focus on its purely decorative value.

That means choosing mirrors big enough to make a difference, putting them in the right places and ensuring that the design (essentially, size and frame) is right for the space in question, keeping in mind that in some rare cases, a room might be designed around a mirror. Too big is overwhelming and too small becomes insignificant; too simple may be boring and too ornate may be pretentious; too ethnic may be uncomfortably close to political statement and too whimsical may be just too silly. It’s all a question of style.

Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France
It’s all a question of style indeed… The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France

Mirrors have an obvious utility value in bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways, and so are therefore less subject to the principles of design as decorative pieces. Basically, the safe option is to use what fits in with the rest of the furniture, while remaining open to the alternative possibilities available, such as an elaborately framed antique in a contemporary bathroom or hallway that becomes a focal point, or a less than full-length mirror in a bedroom, given that standing back in front of a properly tilted half-body mirror gives you a full-length body view.

A simple rule-of-thumb in a sitting room is to ensure that your mirror is about two thirds the size of the furniture or mantlepiece it’s hanging over, just as a decorative painting. A popular option is over the mantlepiece, because that allows for a bold statement to be made. How bold is largely a question of personal taste, but remember that this mirror is decorative, and should be seen as such. Choose a shape and style in keeping with the fireplace, unless you want the mirror to attract all the attention.

CAADRE mirror by Philippe Starck
CAADRE mirror by Philippe Starck presiding over the living room in Villa Serenity

We can see some wonderful examples of the use of mirrors in interior design in any of the BRIGHT homes designed by UDesign. A very bold statement indeed can always be made with CAADRE mirror designed by the great industrial architect and designer Philippe Starck for FIAM Italia. In the case of the beautiful Villa Serenity, the first thing one notices is the size of the mirror, which dominates the room. Next one sees that the polished metal frame is as reflective as the mirror itself, making for a total design unit, and then we can see part of the garden and terrace reflected in the mirror: almost a painting whose image changes according to viewer perspective.

Tracer Loop Lamp by Luke Kelly and the Philippe Starck mirror
Vista Lago Residences, Tracer Loop Lamp by Luke Kelly and the Philippe Starck mirror create a perfect ensemble

Our second example is of another Philippe Starck design in a Vista Lago villa, sitting majestically over the modern fireplace. A more traditional frame would probably have upset the clean pattern of lines and shapes presented by the whole side of this room, and with the classical Greek statue on the left and the miniature tree on the right, any additional decorative element would be too much.

perfectly balanced Vista Lago bedroom suite
Bedroom mirror placement is always tricky, but not in this perfectly balanced Vista Lago bedroom suite, though

And finally, an astonishing example of Starck mirrors paired in a Vista Lago bedroom, creating an illusion of outer space flowing in while creating a hypnotic symmetry for the entire space.

pair of smoked Glenn mirrors
A beautiful pair of smoked Glenn mirrors highlight the views and lights in this Tangier apartment

But mirrors don’t always have to astonish – sometimes they play an honorary secondary role. Take the pair of Glenn mirrors by Cattelan Italia, for instance, used in the decoration of a luxury UDesign apartment in Tangier. These mirrors also have polished metal frames but are darker in tone and have slightly rounded corners, picking up the magnificent view of the city and port outside through a wall of glass at the end of the room.

classical stand-alone mirror
This classical stand-alone mirror reflects the views of the Manhattan skyline

At last, a round custom-made UDesign floor mirror was used in the interior design of this Manhattan suite. The style is traditional with a touch of modernity, just right for a high-ceilinged bedroom that also has a classical feel to it, in spite of the minimalist architecture. This is a good example of creative design with respect to the choice of mirror, in that only when one notices the round tables and round light over the seating area does one fully understand why the round mirror works so well. All mirrors, as we can see here, have a place in a home, and putting the right mirror in the right place is part of what interior design is all about.