BRAND TO KNOW OSBORNE & LITTLE
As Osborne & Little approaches its 50th anniversary, we sit down with CEO Sir Peter Osborne to discuss the history of this iconic British brand
Try as he might to describe it as ‘a little wallpaper and fabric company’, Sir Peter Osborne’s eponymous brand is anything but. Revolutionising the decorating scene when it first launched in 1968, Osborne & Little now produces hundreds of thousands of metres of fabric and wallpaper per year.
After a year-long banking career, a then 25-year-old Osborne (right) teamed up with graphic designer and brother-in-law Antony Little (who retired in 2005), having noticed a distinct lack of colourful, patterned wallpaper on the market. ‘The world was crying out for something exciting,’ says Osborne. ‘There was no designer wallpaper back then – just a lot of awful, porridge-coloured stuff. The boldest thing you could get was a William Morris print.’
They opened a small space in London’s Brompton Cross in 1968 and moved to the brand’s current plot on King’s Road in 1972 – where they got down to the business of hand-printing wallpapers. The first collection, ‘Handprints’, consisted of big, geometric patterns in a bold 1970s palette, and set customers back £6 a roll. It turned out to be a seminal launch, winning a Council of Industrial Design Award – being presented with the accolade by the Duke of Edinburgh ( below right) is one of Osborne’s proudest moments.
Now aged 74 and still producing around 20 collections a year (the company introduced fabrics in 1976), Osborne directs an in-house design team of ten from the brand’s riverside headquarters in Putney, which doubles as an ever-changing gallery of pattern. ‘Our meetings get very lively and things are always changing,’ he says. ‘I’m in the studio for a third of my time.’ The rest is spent travelling to the six Osborne & Little stores in the US, as well as seeking out new talent. ‘I go to shows such as New Designers in Islington and the Royal College of Art’s end-of-year exhibition,’ says Osborne. ‘It’s a nice idea to work with up-and-coming designers, and it’s stimulating for the studio to bring new people in.’
The brand’s first collaboration was with fashion designer Dame Zandra Rhodes. ‘She did these zany prints, which were quite difficult to translate onto fabrics and wallpapers, but it was fun to do,’ remembers Osborne. Next followed an ongoing partnership with Nina Campbell, starting in 1989 – and later, another long-term collaboration with Matthew Williamson. ➤
‘There was no designer wallpaper back then – just a lot of porridge-coloured stuff’
Patterns, clockwise from top left ‘Rain Forest’ wallpaper by Kit Miles, £180 per roll; ‘Painted Lady’ heritage print wallpaper; ‘Duchess Garden’ fabric by Matthew Williamson, £70 per metre; ‘Marguerite’ fabric by Nina Campbell, £60 per metre, all...