Toile Tells a Story

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Dan Funderburgh

Artist and graphic designer

Designs: Vigilant Floral, City Park, Flower Pedal, Dia de Dumbo, Chinatown Toile (on page 42)

$150-$200 per roll, one-roll minimum

Manufacturer: Flavor Paper

Available through: Urbanspace Interiors, 801 W. Fifth St., Austin; 512-476-0014;

Sheila Bridges

Interior designer, owner of Sheila Bridges Design

Design: Harlem Toile

$150 per roll, four-roll minimum

Available through: Sheila Bridges Design,

Mike Diamond

Singer for the Beastie Boys

Design: Brooklyn Toile

$150 per roll (on paper), one-roll minimum, $9 per square foot (on vinyl)

Manufacturer: Flavor Paper

Available through: Urbanspace Interiors, 801 W. Fifth St., Austin; 512-476-0014;

Jessica Smith

Textile designer and professor of textile design

Designs: Trash Day, South Beach Toile, Spying in China, Cars Go Beep

$21-$360 per roll, three-roll minimum

Manufacturer: Studio Printworks,

Available through: E.C. Dicken, Dallas Design Center, 1025 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 260, Dallas; 214-742-4801

Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons

Artists and owners of Timorous Beasties, a British wallpaper design firm.

Designs: Glasgow, London, Edinburgh, New York City

$12-$360 per roll, one-roll minimum

Manufacturer: Timorous Beasties,

Available through: Urbanspace Interiors, 801 W. Fifth St., Austin; 512-476-0014;

Paul Loebach

Artist and product designer.

Design: Yee-Ha!

$210 per roll, three-roll minimum.

Manufacturer: Studio Printworks,

Available through: E.C. Dicken, Dallas Design Center, 1025 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 260, Dallas; 214-742-4801

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Halley's Comet cycles through a human's life span approximately twice, about the same number of times wallpaper will be fashionable. Now is one of those times for wallpaper's return.

The advantages of computer-aided design have contributed to wallpaper's new popularity, as artists without any training in printing and manufacturing are able to turn their hands to its creation. One of their favorite vehicles is Toile de Jouy ( twall duh zhu-A), meaning cloth from Jouy-en-Josas, a town in north-central France).

This old family of design prints was first popularized more than 250 years ago, and has remained one of the staples in wallpaper sample books. Typical toile prints feature small vignettes printed in black, red, green or blue scattered across an ivory-colored ground. The single-color prints were inexpensive to produce, and the scenes reflected interests of the time. The patterns created a bland sort of background that was easy to overlook and didn't compete with upholstery or drapery fabrics. On close examination, though, it could reveal humorous exchanges, suggestions of salacious behavior, myths or historical events. Pre-television, it provided something to look at before bedtime.

Often toiles would depict current interests. A desire to look at more pastoral settings was popular during the Industrial Revolution, then in the Regency period of the 19th century, there was a fascination with all things Asian, and toiles of the time reflected Japanese gardens or Chinese architecture.

Contemporary toiles tend to feature urban settings -- inner-urban in the case of Timorous Beasties, the British design team of Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons, who have designed toiles depicting scenes from their favorite cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and New York. Each print features some well-known architectural landmarks and little vignettes of misbehavior. They are wonderfully gritty. Many of the vignettes are also used as single silhouettes on fabrics so that if you love their New York Toile with the Flatiron and Empire State buildings surrounded by overflowing trash cans, dog walkers, skateboarders and cop cars, you can get a matching pillow featuring policemen in riot gear arresting protesters in front of Federal Hall.

These city prints have proven quite popular for commercial projects, such as bars and restaurants, in the cities that are depicted in the toiles. There have also been orders from residential clients; it seems absence from the city you miss can be assuaged by little reminders of home.

The yearning for a toile that speaks for you was also felt by well known Manhattan-based designer Sheila Bridges, who has hosted her own television show and designed former President Bill Clinton's office. She was looking for a toile with personal resonance.

"After searching for many years for the perfect toile for my own home, I decided that it quite simply didn't exist. I created Harlem Toile de Jouy initially as a wallcovering and later as a fabric to thread my own satirical story that lampoons some of the stereotypes deeply woven into the African-American experience," she writes on her website.

At first glance, her toile pattern looks fairly typical. There are pastoral settings and architectural monuments, but the frolicking folks are having a fried chicken picnic, jumping double Dutch jump rope, dancing with abandon and styling hair.

The same desire for a toile that carried his particular memories inspired Mike D of the Beastie Boys to design one. He collaborated with artists to create Brooklyn Toile with images of the Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster, the Brooklyn Bridge, Hasidic Jews, Notorious B.I.G., pigeons, hot-air balloons, subway trains and fishing.

Sometimes it's not a place but an event that will instigate a toile. Textile designer Jessica Smith, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, was interested in conversational patterns like toile when a news event inspired her to design her first toile, Spying on China. She combined the international incident of an American spy plane going down off the coast of China with Asian landscape elements common to traditional toile and created a hybrid -- bucolic settings with surveillance planes overhead.

"Drawing from newspaper articles, it merges stories of barbarian violence, feudal negotiations and the Western world's questionable surveillance of a culture we strive to understand ... By merging the aesthetic beauty with the politically ugly, Spying on China places these contradictions at the heart of the pattern," she says on her website.

Smith moved from political to pedestrian for her next toile designs, such as Trash Day, and Cars Go Beep , where the suburbs and plethora of automobiles are vehicles for toile exploitation. She has also incorporated more traditional themes into toiles with contemporary elements in The Toilet of Venus and South Beach Toile.

There isn't a Texas toile. No one has designed that yet; the closest you can find is a damask print by Paul Loebach that has oil wells, rearing horses, cowboys and football helmets. Yee-Ha! encompasses so much Texana that there probably isn't much need for a toile pattern.

Dan Funderburgh, a Brooklyn-based graphic designer and fine artist, also designs toiles, and his are the most adept fusion of the old and new. He keeps old wallpaper sample books in his studio for reference so that, when he begins designs for something like his Vigilant Floral, the flowers look like they come straight from the 1940s wallpaper book, yet embedded in each bouquet is a security camera. His City Park is as much about the fire hydrant as it is the foliage; and Flower Pedal has florals, but they surround the handles of a bicycle handlebar.

This fascination with toiles has some artists taking the historical paper product and translating it into new mediums. Artist Beth Katleman makes what looks like a traditional blue ground toile with white figures, but it is three dimensional. All the white scenes and figures are cast ceramic, some of them quite kitschy. They float on top of the blue paper, casting shadows and giving the wall wonderful depth. The price tag on Folly was anything but cute; one of her installations sold for $200,000. Her 3-D toile can be seen at

Another artist who has used toile to such good effect that he has shown them in galleries is Richard Saja. He embroiders on top of toile print fabrics, enhancing the design with an ornamental richness. You can see his work at

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