WHEN it comes to interior design, there are few things as essential and easy to personalise as what you put on your walls. Enter the world of bespoke wallpaper, which is an ancient tradition. Records indicate that paper was first used as a wall decoration in 200 BC by the Chinese, who affixed rice paper to walls. By the 16th century, the Chinese had imported wallpaper to Europe, where it become highly popular and much in demand as a wall covering. In fact the wallpaper-making trade became so well-established in France that in 1599 a guild of painters and paperhangers, called the “dominotiers” (also referred to as the PDC) was set up.
Heritage brand Cole & Son is one of the oldest wallpaper companies in the UK. Founded in 1875 by John Perry, who was the son of a merchant from Cambridgeshire, Cole & Son has enjoyed a long and storied reputation with its specialty wallpapers donning the walls of almost every major castle and historic house in England, including Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.
In the 19th century, the Cole & Son headquarters were originally located in Islington, north London, an area which was well known for printing companies at the time. Cole & Son became famous for its stripes and other signature patterns, and later for re-introducing the pan coating process as well as the process of flocking, which imitated cut velvet.
In 1941, Cole & Son was purchased by AP Cole, proprietor of the company Cole & Son (Wallpapers) Ltd, with showrooms and offices at Mortimer Street in central London. AP Cole also took over the designs of another company, JC Crace & Son, which provided wall coverings for many stately homes, palaces, castles, and theatres, including the Palace of Westminster, and in turn, gave the company the rights to the most significant collection of wooden printing blocks in Britain.
Nowadays, Cole & Son possess an extensive archive of over 1,800 block print designs, 350 screen-print designs, and a vast collection of original drawings and wallpapers. The company has worked closely with a number of fashion designers and other creative professionals on design collaborations and continues to supply wall coverings for historic homes and important landmarks through the UK.
We recently sat down with Shauna Dennison, creative director for Cole & Son, to learn more about the company, the art of wall coverings, and to learn more about the heritage of this significant, but easily overlooked, industry.
Wallpaper-making is a highly specialist profession. Why did you decide to enter this field?
I actually did a degree in textile design, as at that time wallpaper wasn’t very fashionable and it was all about printed fabrics. As wallpapers gradually became fashionable again, and printed fabrics less so, it was an easy transition to make. It is still about surface pattern – just applying to paper rather than cloth.
You studied at the RCA (Royal College of Art) in London. How has your training and studies influenced your career and vision at Cole and Son?
My time at the RCA allowed me to determine exactly what area of surface pattern I wanted to move into – fashion or interiors. It was there that I worked with some interesting and creative people and organisations within the interiors world (Liberty, Timney Fowler) and this cemented my career direction. As for my “vision” this is something which has evolved over the years, from when I was a child, really. I had a creative upbringing, so looking at design from many different angles has helped make me the designer I am today.
What inspires your designs when you create different collections?
That’s a very difficult one to answer. As a designer it is vitally important to keep your ear very close to the ground and simply being very aware of the world around you is very important. Design on a wider level is about how you live your life and global western trends like the rise of the coffee shop for example, reflect a lifestyle habit which, as a designer, is important to recognise. As far as wallpaper designs go, anything can spark an idea – travel photography, exhibitions, books read, films and of course the rise in digital media, pinterest, blogging etc gives us a wider access to what else is happening in the world.
What have been some of the highlights of your career with Cole and Son so far?
As a lifelong fan of Fornasetti it was a privilege to work with them on the Fornasetti II collection. I also feel lucky to have been at Cole and Son while it was still a working factory and witness some of the old production methods, such as hand flocking and panning. Sadly this aspect of the business is no longer with us on site, although we continue to use artisanal manufacturers around the UK to produce some of our oldest patterns.
What part do you think wall-covering plays in the aesthetics of someone’s home?
I think the part it plays is growing rapidly. When I was a child, wallpaper generally was seen as a background effect, usually used to co-ordinate with curtains and upholstery. Nowadays it stands up in its own right, and has pretty much overtaken printed fabrics in the home, as the ‘statement’ piece.
How do you balance your own point of view as a designer with the heritage of the Cole and Son?
Quite easily really. As I mentioned, I was lucky enough to join Cole and Son while it still manufactured its own product and for me, design and manufacturing go absolutely hand in hand.
That, along with the huge collection of archive documents made it a very interesting place to come and work. Everything in this world comes from somewhere and something, and the most modern designs today wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t had their own predecessors. I respect and recognize the importance of having a very visible heritage as it gives our product a kind of authenticity. And not least, it is an incredible resource to use. Quite often some of our more contemporary papers started out as very old historical designs. It’s all about how you “see” them and how you can visualise what they can become.
Cole and Son has created ranges with Vivienne Westwood and Fornasetti. Can you tell us something about what it is like collaborating with equally design-focussed brands?
It is always very exciting to work with designers who are experts in their field and can bring something new to the table. It is very much a symbiotic relationship which encourages both parties to think outside of their own particular “box”.
Are there any more collaborations planned for the future?
We are always looking for interesting partners as it keeps us fresh as a design company. However there must always be a balance between collaborations and developing your own brand style. There will undoubtedly be collaborations in the future … watch this space!
Cole and Son has a very loyal customer base, do you believe your market is insulated somewhat against the challenges presented by the digital age?
We do have a very loyal customer base, but that is expanding very rapidly to include a huge variety of customers. Yes, we have a traditionalist market which is incredibly important to us but we also have a growing younger and trendier market, who also look to us to deliver something they can aspire to. Digital technology is a tool – whether it be media or production capabilities – it is the message or design we are putting out which is the most important thing for us and our customers.
What do you see the future holding for the high-end wallpaper-making companies?
I would like to think that they will continue to hold their place in the design world. Heritage is becoming an ever more valuable commodity in the eyes of the consumer, but alongside this, you have to keep moving forward as a business and as designers. So long as we can continue to be innovative, imaginative and forward thinking, we hope that people will always want to buy our product.
We notice that Cole and Son has limited social media, is there a particular reason for this?
Cole & Son arrived rather late at the social media party, only launching fairly recently. Social media is an area that is growing organically, with customers seeking Cole & Son out across various platforms. It is important to us that any coverage or views shared are entirely authentic – we don’t court or sponsor social media or blog coverage. The sharing of lifestyle and interior images benefit the business hugely, with inspiring images posted on Pinterest or Facebook often sparking an increase in sample requests and sales of featured items. Being able to view our designs in real situations and seeing the creative and diverse way in which a wall-covering can be used in different environments is also an inspiration to us as a business.
What is Cole and Son’s approach to digital and e-commerce?
Cole & Son have a website and an iPad app. These are a showcase of our product, allowing customers to view by style, colour or collection. There are ongoing improvements to both but we feel that this online showroom is key to inspiring customers, as well as servicing our trade partners. We place importance on showing our designs in an interior setting, displaying wallpaper in context, rather than just presenting a pattern.
We offer a sampling service, where customers can buy samples online to view in their own environment. Roll sales however are only available via our network of retailers. This means customers have access to expert advice and assistance in choosing a design, discussing expert hanging, and giving them the opportunity to touch and feel the product. Wallpaper is a tactile product and needs to be seen and touched to be fully appreciated, so as much as digital can be a support, there is still the desire to handle the product.
by Jessica Quillin