As Osborne & Lit­tle ap­proaches its 50th an­niver­sary, we sit down with CEO Sir Peter Osborne to dis­cuss the his­tory of this iconic Bri­tish brand

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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...

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