By now, you’ll have noticed this season’s intense doily trend. Perhaps you’ve even hauled out the Alençon lace tablecloth Granny left you in her will and had it measured up for a pencil skirt and little jacket. Everybody’s loving fashion’s antimacassar moment – especially the lingerie brands whose slips and camisoles have become indispensable to public decency.

The great lace conspiracy that so many designers have woven around us this winter – Giorgio Armani, Alexander McQueen, Derek Lam, Proenza Schouler, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Givenchy and, most of all, Prada – is deliciously contradictory: It’s old yet new, salacious yet square. It’s the peekaboo prudishness of lace – especially at Prada – that makes it a sartorial statement.

While lace is the comeback story of the season in fashion, it has been a slowly burgeoning motif in the industrial-design world of home furnishings. Designers like Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders and Tord Boontje have been flirting with cut-outs and crochet for the past few years, interpreting lace in materials suited more for automobile trim than for satin undies. A Starck bestseller, for example, was last year’s Miss Lacy, a stainless-steel chair with cut-out flower patterns. Dutch designer Wanders showed the epoxy Crochet Chair and Crochet Light Table in 2006. Boontje, who has designed for Habitat and Target, dreamed up a die-cut Tyvek lamp called Midsummer in 2004 and Until Dawn, a Tyvek lace curtain.

“Lace appeared as part of household items, like bedcovers and curtains, as early as the Renaissance, and since the Industrial Revolution it has become available to a larger percentage of the population,” say curators Hilary Jay and Carla Bednar. “Today, lace is in free fall, finding its way into every conceivable form, from side tables and chairs to lighting and buildings.” Jay and Bednar are part of a trio of curators at work on Lace in Translation, an exhibition produced by The Design Center at Philadelphia University that opens next year. The exhibition will showcase artworks and installations inspired by The Design Center’s lace archives but transposed into distinctly unexpected media, like old, rusted wheelbarrows and chain-link fences. We are far from the racy world of Prada and Victoria’s Secret here.

Cal Lane, another artist in the show, is a Canadian based in New York who has been making lace-inspired work out of garden shovels, oil drums and beat-up cars for the past 10 years. A hairdresser-cum-welder-cum-sculptor, Lane clearly has a taste for improbable mixes. “I was cleaning up the metal shop one day and, as a joke, put real lace doilies on top of the equipment after I cleaned it,” she explains. “Visually, I liked the contrast of materials: the clean, delicate white lace draped over dirty, cold steel machines.” Lane started out making industrial doilies, using a gas flame to cut delicate patterns out of inch-thick steel plates; then she copied her parents’ lace tablecloth onto a wheelbarrow, cutting out the pattern with a plasma cutter. “I went to the lace museum in Belgium and saw how it is made,” she explains. “I was attracted to the focus and repetitive motion of the work – much like welding and cutting. I began to learn the patterns and techniques of lacemaking through welding.”Dutch artist Joep Verhoeven, whose work will also be featured in the Lace in Translation exhibition, takes a different hands-on approach: He bends three-millimetre steel wire into decorative patterns. Before making his lyrically woven fences, Verhoeven made a pilgrimage to Brussels to join a lace club. “It seemed that the only people who knew how to make lace were old ladies, but I couldn’t ask them to bend three-millimetre steel wire into nice patterns so I had to learn how to do it myself,” he explains. “These ladies taught me the secrets of the craft. For them, lace is like chess: You play by certain rules and you have to think ahead and plan your next move.”

Chain-link fences were something Verhoeven had been thinking about a lot. It’s one example of the thousands of generic yet perfectly designed objects we use every day without even noticing. One day, Verhoeven passed a makeshift repaired fence that had some foreign wire twisted into it that looked as if a “drunken spider had worked on it,” which got him thinking, “What if the wire was more directed or composed into a pattern so that it combined industrial [technique] with crafted decorations?”As Verhoeven noted, it also helped that “the background of Chantilly lace looks a lot like chain-link fence – you only have to blow up the original a few hundred times to be the perfect prototype for Lace Fence.”

Lace is so fantastically archaic that it brings rich conceptual currency to fashion, art and industrial design. Lace is frivolous, not functional – from a time when the intricate close work of your tablecloth and the fineness of your flounces were shorthand for social status. Add to that lace’s handicraft heritage and the confined sexuality of barely glimpsed flesh and it’s no wonder that lace is a fiery – hot trend – again.