Welsh designer Bethan Gray did something she hadn’t done in some time during the enforced break of 2020: she started painting. Choosing brushes from Chinese calligraphy, she began to create free-form lines in ultramarine ink on a canvas laid on the floor of her studio. It was a spontaneous act, but what emerged was an improvement on an earlier design she had considered for the marquetry of her Dhow cabinetry collection: a pattern inspired by the great sails of traditional Omani boats.
The conception of his new Inky Dhow design has been a catalyst for a myriad of new projects. London-based leather expert Bill Amberg saw the potential in Gray’s original artwork for his third collection of digitally printed leathers. Gray recreated his paintings on an individual scale to bring them to life on leather. “They were 1.5m by 3m – the biggest I’ve ever done – because I didn’t want to lose the quality of the brushstrokes or the way the dark ink fades to light on the skin.”
Next June, as part of Milan Design Week, Inky Dhow will also be the subject of an immersive installation at the Rossana Orlandi gallery, appearing not only on the leather upholstery of Gray’s new Ripple sofa and armchair, but also in marquetry on his Shamsian furniture (the sideboard is made up of over 500 separate pieces of veneer). There are flashes of flowing lines on the top of the Brass Luster table, in its silk and wool carpets for Milan specialist CC-Tapis and in the hand-blown Murano glass lighting in collaboration with Baroncelli .
The design caught the eye of Emily Johnson, co-founder of 1882 Ltd, who asked Gray to transfer her design onto seven terracotta vases in the form of the original Seven Sisters pottery kilns in Stoke-on-Trent , where the company is based. “I didn’t throw the pots away but went to Stoke to paint them. I really enjoyed being so hands-on,” Gray says.
The brushwork here recalls the expressive art of some of Gray’s heroes. “I’ve always been inspired by linear illustrative art. I love Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Matisse,” she says. “We have a few pieces in the house: a few Picasso and Cocteau plates and a lithograph by Matisse, as well as a Cocteau tapestry embroidered in felt. It’s inspiring that these artists didn’t limit themselves to canvas, they worked in different mediums and it’s good for me to do the same.
Beyond the canvas, figurative and illustrative art is increasingly establishing itself on furniture, furnishings, ceramics and wall coverings. “We’re definitely seeing a trend with people experimenting with their spaces by turning to illustrative patterns,” says Liberty Buying Manager Bryony Rae Sheridan, citing new designs in the Liberty fabric collection such as the Delaney Dragon Tana cotton. Lawn, decorative plates by Willemien Bardawil and the playful organic patterns of hand-painted ceramics by the Balu brand of Popolo and Anna Vail.
Last fall, online contemporary art gallery Partnership Editions launched its first “Home as Art” category: a curated collection of works in which “everything has a story to tell”. Consequently, the free line drawings of faces and flora by Frances Costelloe are transposed onto ceramics, the ethereal paintings of Julianna Byrne are found on the wall hangings and the illustrative art of Petra Börner figures on an ornate candelabra.
It’s a concept that echoes the Bloomsbury Group’s ambition to immerse everything in art, most famously executed in Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in Sussex. You can trace its influence, for example, to the work of British artist Annie Morris who, when renovating the French house she owns with her husband Idris Khan, drew her distinctive figures and flowers directly onto the walls. using a Sharpie. In 2021, Morris was commissioned to paint a mural for The Painter’s Room, a new bar at Claridge’s Hotel, where a stained glass window also reproduces one of her watercolor collages.
There are a number of artists who can be called upon to bring art into the home: Jan Erika from London creates hand-painted murals in bright, kaleidoscopic colors in homes and public spaces, as does Claire de Quénetain, who lives in Brussels but also works in the UK. “It’s much easier for me to work than it was three or four years ago when I started,” says the artist, who grew up in the Normandy countryside and whose freehand brushstrokes are inspire flowers, plants, trees and gardens. “People are more open to bringing these models into their homes now.”
De Quénetain’s business took off shortly after she graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2014 and posted a picture on Instagram of a mural she had painted in her home. “When something is popular on Instagram, things happen quickly,” she laughs. “But I just enjoyed the idea of bringing my own brand into my home. I have my own ornamental language of shapes and being close to nature – the real motivation for my work. In December 2021 she launched a collection of 15 wallpaper designs, adding to its existing fabrics.
Another sought-after artist is Tess Newall, based in East Sussex, who was recently commissioned by Soho House Design Group to paint a child’s bedroom for a client in the style of Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the bar’s mural the Carlyle Hotel in New York. Two years ago, she created a limited collection of hand-painted chairs inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and Charleston for the young British furniture company Ceraudo. Last February, the brand launched the new Orpha range, which co-founder Victoria Ceraudo describes as “phase two” of the Bloomsbury connection. This collection of capsule furniture – armchairs, armchair, dining chairs and ottoman – is decorated with a bold ink and brush print, a distinct departure from the brand’s traditional, geometric offerings. “We wanted to do something more contemporary and abstract that blurs the line between art and design,” says Ceraudo. “You have what is essentially a work of art translated into different formats – it’s something three-dimensional in your interior space rather than hanging on the wall.”
The print is inspired by the decoupage work of Henri Matisse and the Orphism movement, led by Robert and Sonia Delaunay in the early 1900s. “We went down a rabbit hole with Sonia Delaunay,” says Ceraudo. “He was a fascinating character with such a fluid movement between art and design. Robert was a purist, and to dedicate himself entirely to painting, Sonia tried her hand at many jobs: costume design, decorating inside – she even drew a print on a car. She was willing to be commercial and monetize different media so Robert didn’t have to. He got most of the recognition back then, but she was the force behind it all.
Few of us have the creative abilities of the Delaunays, and those who want to dive into the trend without employing an artist to paint their house might consider luxury hand-painted wallpaper. Just ask Goop actress and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow, whose dining room in her Montecito home was shown recently in Architectural Summaryis a whimsical vision of blue-grey skies and hand-painted trees – a daydream captured without a brush or an easel in sight.