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interior design
The Beauty of Life

In my designing, I use little-known sources and a love of historic patterns to glorify the ordinary; my mission is to enhance my clients’ joy in their everyday surroundings | BY TERRY SULLIVAN

Long ago—back in 1880—William Morris, poet and reformer, delivered that message in a lecture, “The Beauty of Life.” His mission, he told his audience at the Birmingham (England) Society of Arts, was “to revive a sense of beauty in home life, to restore the dignity of art to the ordinary household decoration.”

And, as a master craftsman, he did just that, co-founding, in 1861, the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company (later Morris & Co.) for the production of high-quality furnishings. Morris had a genius for pattern design, whether his material was wallpaper, fabric, furniture, stained glass, tapestry, carpet, or tiles; he created objects of such enduring beauty that they have remained in continuous production for more than 130 years.

Morris’s philosophy (that everyone deserves to live in a beautiful house) fueled his art (the creation of beautiful decorative art for that house). The heart of his work was always good design, with an emphasis on simplicity. In changing the way we look at our homes, Morris changed the way we look at the world.

As an interior designer, my mission, too, is to create beautiful everyday surroundings. I find it delightful that, working in the 21st century, I can adorn homes with the designs of a Victorian-era Englishman whose work sparked the Arts and Crafts movement. (Morris’s successful mission was to re-establish the value of hand-crafted work in the industrial 19th century—to raise taste levels so that the public once again desired ordinary objects that were handsome and well-made.)

Most of the patterns have not been printed for many, many years. Morris’s revolutionary designs were based on his study of native plants and of textile themes dating back to medieval times: trees, flowers, birds, fruits, and animals. He had an abiding interest in making use of the past as inspiration for the present. Most of us have seen Morris’s designs, with their intricate intertwining and layering of organic forms, gracing the walls of historic manor homes and in movies or television shows set in the early part of the 20th century.

Depending on the pattern, a Morris design will enhance a room in almost any home, whether it’s a townhouse in the city or a house on the beach, but the designs are always picture perfect in any room of a country house. The Chrysanthemum pattern, in varying shades of soft green, yellow, beige, and crème, was perfect in the stairhall of a country house I recently designed. Trellis, Morris’s first wallpaper design, probably inspired by the rose trellis at “Red House,” his home in Kent, is one of my favorites; I used it in one of the bedrooms. I could not resist using Myrtle and Sunflower to enliven the upstairs of a Shingle Style beach house, since the flowers grow wild nearby, and Honeysuckle looks scrumptious in light pink, pale greens, beige and crème in a child’s room.

Most designers and their clients are unaware that these patters are still available for printing. Arthur Sanderson & Sons Ltd, founded in 1865 in London, acquired Morris & Co. in 1923, complete with the original woodblock inventory. A few machine-produced Morris designs are available, but I rarely use them. I custom-order from Sanderson’s New York showroom.

To make the wallpaper patterns look new and fresh, I have them re-colored, using delicious hues from a Benjamin Moore color wheel, with its thousands of paint colors to choose from: Key lime, sweet pea, lemon drops, delicate rose, pale almond, Devon cream, Yorkshire tan...

Producing hand-blocked wallpapers, a process that has not changed since the 17th century, is slow and laborious and can be accomplished only by very skilled craftsmen. But what an exquisite result! The shading has a complexity and subtlety impossible to achieve through mass production; indeed, the process—imprinting the design on the highest-quality paper using 15 or 20 blocks, each adding a separate shade—produces an embossed pattern.

The craftsmen’s first task is the mixing and approval of each color to be used. Each color in the design requires a separate, hand-carved, heavy (40-pound) wooden block on which the design is drawn and carved. Then it is pressed onto the paper by hand. After one color is applied, the paper must dry overnight before subsequent blocks, each with its own design and color, can be applied.

Arthur Sanderson & Sons sells to the trade only. However, I have wallpaper rolls of many Morris hand-blocked designs and a sourcebook of original patterns to choose from for custom-ordering. Patterns are available through my firm and on view at KL Designs, in New Canaan, Connecticut (203.966.7095). I can suggest color selections that work with any decorative scheme and arrange for them to be hand-blocked in England for those who order a minimum of six European-size rolls.

Another designer I look to for inspiration is Albert Hadley, “the dean of American design.” During my time working at his firm, Parish-Hadley & Associates, he and his partner, Sister Parish, designed silk-screened wallpaper and fabrics for individual clients. I was pleased, recently, to be given access by Mr. Hadley to several of these original patterns. I had them printed as wallpaper and fabric in new colors—pink, red, lime green, turquoise, brown, and white. Some of the favorites I used are Astor Stripe and The Tree of Life, which were used in Mrs. Vincent Astor’s residences. Two other classics Albert Parish designed are Sue Ellen and Josephine, which adorned the walls of the office. I had Sue Ellen printed on Irish linen in red and white, for curtains, to coordinate with the red and white Sue Ellen pattern of the wallpaper in the beach house.

In my work I use a great deal of linen, a natural fiber that’s perfect for curtains, bedspreads, and upholstery. It takes color beautifully, has a distinctive appearance, and offers a combination of comfort, drape, and durability that makes it unique. I particularly like to work with Irish linen, which I buy directly from Ireland, where linen has been spun and woven for centuries. The expertise of the weavers and the firm’s fine, high-quality yarns and modern looms produce fabric that is unusually soft and fine, with a wonderful natural luster, and the cloth is strong enough to last a lifetime.

Sometimes, as I design, I reach even farther back into history—to the Renaissance. I love browsing Old Master drawing sales at New York auction galleries. They are often estimated at very reasonable prices and it’s always interesting to learn a drawing’s provenance.

There is a warmth and serenity to a room adorned with these beautiful drawings, with their translucent brown wash technique, or red chalk on creamy white paper, or pen and brown ink on gray-blue paper. The Annunciation, Madonna and Child, The Assumption, The Betrothal … these scenes prompt one to contemplation—and I believe that rooms should tell stories. I have the drawings finished with beautiful mats of hand-painted pale washes of color surrounded by ink lines, a hallmark of European mat decoration. When the drawings are matted and completed with hand-carved, water-gilded frames, I sometimes just prop them on a chair, bedside table, or fireplace mantel: Displayed that way, they are striking.

“This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair,” wrote Pope Paul VI in a Message to Artists in 1965. “Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration.” TME

Terry Sullivan Interiors has offered residential interior design and architectural services for more than 15 years. Her projects have included a New York City apartment, a country house in Connecticut, and beach houses in Rhode Island, South Carolina, and New York. She has been named one of America’s top decorators by House Beautiful and Elle Decor magazines. 212.521.4070; www.terrysullivaninteriors.com

Hilton Vanderhorn
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