Four houses, some of them centuries old, are putting pattern and print to the fore, shaping how we're decorating our homes today.
From very old to fairly new, we profile four houses that are putting a heritage stamp on contemporary interior design.
There's a sense in the air that interior design is changing. Trends in interiors, by way of their medium's very solidity, tend to change substantially slower than those in fashion. While both clothing and interiors share textiles in common, interior textiles enjoy a far slower rate of change.
By exploring its historical roots, fashion has influenced a sea of change in the interior textile industry. Where once people wanted paucity now they want history – or at least something with the veneer of history. Thus decorators and homeowners have embraced printed and patterned fabrics and papers, covering walls, furniture and floors in an audacious mix of ordered color and repeat pattern.
Giving over the interior of one's home to riotous prints and striking shapes requires a lot of self confidence, especially for those convinced that taupe is terrific and a whiter shade of pale pitch-perfect. For some this is nothing new. For others, primarily a small group of companies who have made this their specialty, a passion for patterns of outlandish beauty has been perfected and preserved over the course of many generations. Here, in a special report, we profile four houses that are re-shaping how we decorate today.
Upon stepping across the threshold of its impressive Paris showroom overlooking Place des Victoires, the immensity of Prelle's history and storied influence hits like a thunderbolt. Walls hanging with yards of the densest figured velvets, brocades, lampas and damasks testify to a depth of savoir-faire and aesthetics dating from another era – 1752 to be exact, when Prelle, one of only three traditional silk weavers was founded in Lyon, once the silk capital of the world.
Over the years, Prelle bought up competing houses, in the process acquiring techniques and archives that are unparalleled in France. In spite of its archival weight, family-owned Prelle is very much a "living enterprise," as Maryse Dusoulier, Paris commercial manager, points out, highlighting a new generation of weavers skilled in the handwork that is the firm's spiritual backbone. While the company no longer maintains a design studio it can adapt old designs and produce contemporary pieces, as long as the designers follow the unavoidable rules that silk weaving sets down.
Extensive production for the chief opera houses in Paris and Monte Carlo is only a tiny slice of the historical work that Prelle carries out; the Vanderbilt Foundation in the US is a major client, and the firm restored large sections of Versailles, including Marie Antoinette's former bedroom in the 1960s (Prelle recreated that very bedroom for the filming of Sofia Coppola's biopic of the French Queen). Working with private decorators and public organizations, Prelle is also heavily involved in the couture sphere: Christian Lacroix is a regular, and much-loved, client.
Every six months, Dusoulier organizes a themed exhibition at the Paris showroom. Previously it was Russian Constructivism; currently, and unsurprisingly, it's Marie-Antoinette. She walks around the high-ceilinged, chandelier-bedecked room pointing out a 1786 Versailles broché panel here, a victory-commemorating weave commissioned by Catherine the Great there, as if it was the most normal thing on Earth.
In spite of its apparent legacy and the level of work it produces, de Gournay is not an old house – it was founded a mere 24 years ago. But the work it produces – exquisite hand-painted wallpapers and china – appears in some of the chicest homes and has been used to refurbish buildings of historic worth.
The London-based company saw the light of day when Claud Gurney, who can date his family's origins back to the 1066 Norman invasion of England, was looking for hand-painted wallpaper for his house. The only remaining provider at the time of such a service quoted a price he found so outrageous, "I realized it was cheaper to make it myself, so I set up a factory in China to do that." A successful financial career in the City made him antsy for a more creative career. His early outsourcing to China – where an age-old talent in hand-painting had been translated into "producing tacky little pictures for tourists" under Communism – was part of the modernization of an approach to heritage home decoration that saw the utilization of a research database Gurney suggests might be the biggest of its kind in the world. "If someone wants oak trees we can pull together maybe 5,000 designs from the 18th century," he says proudly.
De Gournay recently finished restoration work on Marble Hill House, Twickenham, as well as having worked on numerous restoration projects in Ireland, and is currently working with decorator Michael Smith on restoring and copying a set of panels that originated in a US governor's mansion.
"I'm not sure if that trend hasn't already passed," Gurney opines, referring to the chintzification of interior design. "People seem to be going back to more contemporary interiors," he says, pointing out that while clients now tend to order single-figure panels instead of whole rooms of hand-painted patterns, de Gournay also produces a lot of simple metallic backgrounds.
With its origins in the late 18th century, Braquenié is as unique for its delightful patterns as it is for its position as one of the only producers of hand-printed luxury textiles left in Europe. Fine toile de Jouy and delicate colorful florals, with the slightly off-center printing that is the mark of the hand-produced print, form the backbone of this French house's output.
"For us, Braquenié was a dream, one of the most beautiful collections of 18th century prints in the world," said Patrick Frey, CEO of Pierre Frey, the textile group that acquired Braquenié in 1992. Those prints come with a special heritage — they were chosen from Manufacture Oberkampf, an Alsace manufacturer that was brought by Marie-Antoinette to work in a small village between Paris and Versailles called Jouy-en-Jose, giving rise to the signature print style known the world over as toile de Jouy. The ill-fated queen, who lived a silk-and-embroidery life in the palace, preferred the cotton and linen pastoral Jouy prints when playing rustic in the Trianon. Unsurprisingly, Braquenié provided a large amount of fabric for the film Marie-Antoinette, personally chosen by director Sofia Coppola.
The company that gave rise to Braquenié was, in fact, initially a carpet maker, with clients ranging from Queen Victoria and the Russian tsars to France's Emperor Napoleon III. Braquenié as it exists today really started life in 1823 when it bought the Jouy archives with the aim of giving it as exalted a position in fabric as it already had in carpet design and weaving.
Much of the printing process remains the same as it did in the 18th century when the house was known as Maison Dupage before 1842 when Alexandre Braquenié took charge at the company's central Paris rue Vivienne location. Color tests are done on paper before being printed on fabric, if deemed worthy, although the move from woodblock to semi-automated screen-printing has speeded up production, relatively speaking.
Frey himself regularly attends auctions to add to the enviable archives, as the house doesn't produce new designs – although it regularly collaborates on restoring or recreating fabrics for refurbishing chateaux and old houses. Braquenié clients "must have a certain western culture," Frey notes. Asia and the Middle-East don't appreciate the style, with Britain, the US, France, Spain, Italy and Scandinavia forming the bulk of the clientele of a house that is "very French."
Synonymous with lavishly furnished palazzos and Baroque art, it's unsurprising that Venice is also the home of Rubelli, Italy's superior reference in interior textiles. So it makes sense that the company's headquarters should be in a Renaissance palazzo fronting one of the city's canals.
That Renaissance home also houses a 5,000-piece archive (which can be visited by appointment) of textile records dating from the 15th century, but amid all this history Rubelli itself dates from the comparably recent year 1858, and is in its fifth generation of family ownership.
The Doge's Palace and La Fenice in Venice, La Scala in Milan and the Albertina Museum in Vienna – all at the apex of their respective fields – have each chosen Rubelli for their (often extensive) restoration projects. But Rubelli is more than a niche manufacturer. It has spun its technological expertise and quality across the globe, operating dozens of showrooms across Europe, Asia and the US, becoming a touchstone for interior designers and enthusiastic private decorators alike.
Rubelli has dipped into the archives and reworked a damaged, early 18th-century sample that has since become an award-winning damask thanks to modern techniques. Added to the 28 electronic looms at its Como production facility in 2004, were three ancient looms of the type used in the 18th century to meet the increasing demand for handmade velvet. At the time, only two elderly Venetians still knew how to use them properly. Now a pair of young women has been trained in this labor-intensive and difficult craft. It means only two new craftspeople, but surrounded by state-of-the-art machines, it translates into a luxurious textile craft enjoying a new lease of life.