The living rooms of Irish childhoods were dominated by a hulking cathode-ray tube television, shoved into the corner by the fireplace. It sat on a piece of furniture that fitted neither the device nor the room, but that usually included storage.
The contents of this changed as the decades rolled by. In the 1980s, it held a VCR, then a DVD player, a gaming console and a breeding colony of remotes. Wires spilled out from it. The whole ensemble was deeply unsightly.
Some people hid it under a blanket when not in use, but that was also an expression of cultural discomfort with television. We thought that it was radioactive (it was, but only a bit) and that watching it would give us square eyes (it didn’t). Then they told us that watching too much television would make us fat. We didn’t believe that one either. Now we’re living with the consequences.
In design terms, neither television nor its attendant furniture had much to offer. Both were ugly and jarred with the décor. Worse than that, the television was hard to ignore. Switched on, it was a window into other worlds. Switched off, it became a black hole, sucking the life out of the room.
We pushed it back into the corner, shut it behind cupboard doors and generally tried to give it as little space in the room as we possibly could. None of that worked! A television is an extrovert object. Ignore it and it becomes more dominant than ever. The solution is to stop fighting. A television, by its nature, wants to be a focal point. Let it have what it wants. Given suitable and sufficient space, it will settle down nicely.
All hail the TV wall, the newest and most beautiful way of accommodating the goggle box. “It’s like hanging a painting on the wall and building a framework of functional and decorative furniture around it,” says Lorraine Stevens of Lomi. A television unit is a graceful ensemble, accommodating shelves for the display of books or pieces of art, and storage that hides the less attractive aspects of technology.
“There’s a lot less equipment than there used to be,” Stevens says. “It’s becoming less about hiding wires and boxes, and more about accommodating a gigantic screen.” Sometimes the units incorporate lighting that illuminates the objects below, making them look like a gallery display, and drawing the eye away from the television itself. This device, slim as a paperback, is positioned as a part of the orchestrated whole and does not dominate the room, any more than the oven dominates the kitchen. It’s there, and you can see it, but it isn’t always the main event.
Up there, surrounded by beautiful things, the television no longer seems to take over the room. Millennials, I think, will get it in one. Gen Xers will take a bit more persuading. The televisions that we grew up with were intimidating monsters. Since then, a couple of things have changed. The first is that television design has improved a lot. The telly is no longer an eyesore. The second is that, with the advent and ubiquity of smart devices, the television is rarely now the only screen in the room. This has diluted its power to distract.
Lomi is the Irish stockist for the Day system by Italian brand Jesse, which offers television units in every finish and configuration imaginable. Well-conceived, they make the television and its entourage look as striking as a gallery wall. But don’t buy the television before you start planning the furniture to surround it.
“Often we find that by the time people come to us, they’ve already purchased a television that’s too large for the room,” says Stevens. “We do our best for them, but it’s not ideal.” Her customers can spend anything from €5,000 to €10,000 on a television wall, tending to average around €6,000. “For that, you’d get a nice wall with a large display unit,” she says.
“It decorates the room, but the units are very shallow in depth, so it doesn’t take up a lot of space into the room. Often people go for wood cladding, so that even the functional elements of the devices are part of the wall. Everything is hidden.”
She has also noticed a growing demand for electric fires incorporated in the television unit. “It’s like putting in another television.” Electric fires, she says, are now as visually effective as gas fires, and don’t tend to overheat. When they’re not in use, they present as another blank screen.
Like kitchens, TV units have a wide range of price points. At entry level, Ikea’s Bestå system is solid and dependable. It’s not necessarily stylish, but it can be customised to make it be so. The system is modular and the parts are sold separately, but expect to pay around €250 for the TV bench alone; €430 for the bench with co-ordinating wall-hung shelves and display cases; and €865 for a full surround frame of cupboards and shelving.
The units are designed to accommodate wires and the remote control works through the glass doors. Ikea offers an online planning tool, but a complex purchase like this probably requires a few store visits.
The Manhattan collection by Calligaris (from €2,933), available in Ireland from Kube, is similarly modular, with a range of base units and wall units, available in many different finishes. The trick here is to get help with the design. Not everyone has the skill to plan a vertical layout and the different elements need to work together. They also need to suit the room.
At the luxe end of the spectrum, the Globo TV composition (€11,200) from Roche Bobois is so diverting that you hardly notice there’s a telly in there. The panelling has horizontal slits and lacquered glass shelves that can be moved around, and the storage volumes are fronted in blue or bronze mirrored glass.
The whole thing floats a few inches from the floor, which is very nice aesthetically, but might also become a dust trap. If you can afford it, you can probably also afford a robot vacuum cleaner. Note the vocabulary here. It’s only a matter of time before the industry settles on a more elegant term than ‘TV unit’ to describe these beautiful ensembles.
Roche Bobois, translating from French, describes them as “mural compositions” or “programmes” devised from modular elements combining “storage units, shelves, and boxes in many dimensions and a wide variety of materials and finishes”.
But modularity is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it allows you to create a design that nobody else will have. But the level of choice is potentially panic-inducing and following the layout in a brochure may well result in something that doesn’t fit the room. If you’re the kind of person that can only make up Lego from the instructions, get someone else to do it. And not just on a screen. Most of the high-end shops offer an interior design service, and that should include designing a shrine for the telly.
In many ways, the rise of the TV unit echoes the development of the fitted kitchen. Once, the kitchen housed a disparate medley of furniture and devices: cupboards, dressers, sinks and cookers. Sometimes they shared an aesthetic. More often, they just jumbled along together. Over time, the kitchen evolved to become a single, highly co-ordinated, purchase. The TV unit is going in the same direction. It just needs a better name.
See lomi.ie, roche-bobois.com, kubeinteriors.com and ikea.com.