Dainty damask gets a theatrical update
The return of the silk-woven print can bridge the gap between period and modern tastes, says Emily Brooks
From the tablecloths of neighbourhood Italian restaurants to the sumptuous curtains hanging in English country houses, one pattern dominates: damask. In the major wallpaper and fabric brands’ last round of new launches, there was a swell of damask designs. While it might be thought of as a traditional option, the most interesting collections have a twist – whether that means fashion-led colours or a rebellious reimagining of the pattern itself.
Damask refers to a weaving technique, as well as the vertical pattern of scrolling, stylised flowers, leaves and feathers with which it is synonymous. Originally woven in silk, this opulent fabric lined the walls of the finest houses and palaces, with production spreading across Europe from Italy. By the 18th century, England had its own silk-weaving industry to serve the well-heeled.
“Wealthy Georgian home owners embraced a range of styles to purport an image of prosperity, worldly travels and one-upmanship.
“Damask fabrics would have been used to upholster furniture, hung as drapery and made into decorative wall panels in larger rooms,” says Andy Greenall, head of design at paint and wallpaper company Little Greene.
“What made damasks more popular in the Victorian era was the evolution of wallpaper printing presses, which meant these large designs could be copied and printed relatively easily on paper, and hung on the walls of an equally aspirational – but perhaps less wealthy – homeowner.”
Little Greene has included two damask wallpapers in its new London Papers IV collection, inspired by fragments from English Heritage’s archives. Palace Road is a design based on a late-19th-century silk wallcovering found in a south-west London house. Little has been done to change the scale or redraw the design, so it’s an authentic slice of history, and the silk-like background texture nods to the wallcovering’s origins as a fabric rather than a paper.
Damask can help bridge the gap between period architecture and more modern tastes, says Greenall. “Using an authentic historical wallpaper design can enhance the quality of a modern refurbishment, bringing subtle character to an interior where the real danger is losing all of it.
“Damask patterns are an easy way to let the design acknowledge an historical reference, and the colour provides a contemporary backdrop to furniture and accessories.”
Greenall puts the pattern’s popularity down to the fact it’s not so bold that it can’t harmonise easily with everything else.
“It gives an ‘all-over’ feel, because there isn’t a strong focal point in the design,” he says. “It can be a very effective way of making a simple but strong colour statement.”
Cole & Son also looked to the 18th and 19th centuries for its Mariinsky Damask wallpapers. Named after St Petersburg’s imperial theatre, the collection celebrates the opulent, theatrical side of damask – including, in the case of its Petrouchka design, the return of flocked wallcoverings.
“Although damask is a traditional motif, we like to have fun and recreate these grand old papers using either a more modern or a more surprising technology,” says Cole & Son’s creative director, Shauna Dennison.
“I think we’ve been quite brave in reintroducing the flock print. It is an old technique, originally devised to mimic velvet, and has very traditional connotations.
“However, with the use of colour we have tried to make it more interesting, with pearly grey on black, for example, or rich marine blue.”
There are also more delicate tonal designs that give a much more subtle impression, with a background of pearly lustre adding depth.
Fabric makers enjoy a subtle play with tradition. Beaumont & Fletcher, known for its classic English style, sells a silk and cotton damask, Leonora, where the pattern is highly three-dimensional, almost puffed out, and Wicklow, where the outline of the pattern has a soft, blurred appearance.
Rather than go for deep, jewel colours, there’s a soft palette of rust reds and neutrals – perfect for if you’re trying to create a quiet, livedin look.
Sumptuous, high-quality damask fabrics are still made in this country, by Suffolk weavers Gainsborough, for example.
According to the firm’s design manager Dominique Caplan, the fabric “has been heavily sought after by our clients throughout the years, and continues to be”.
Gainsborough recently launched a collection with designer Karen Beauchamp, who has updated archive fabrics with modern colourways, such as the lime green silk Sorrento fabric, or the pale pink of Cathay, a chinoiserie design dating from 1918.
For something truly different, which goes further than a subtle twist on a classic, look to Glasgow wallpaper and fabric company Timorous Beasties.
Taking advantage of the fact that damask is so ubiquitous that it is ripe for subversion, many of its designs have a sinister undertone, replacing benign florals with inky Rorschach blots and overlaid skulls.
Perhaps it proves that damask really is the pattern for everyone – whether you like your interiors deeply traditional or dark and dangerous.
Bold: Petrouchka wallpaper by Cole & Son, above, is £140 per roll; Leonora fabric by Beaumont & Fletcher, below, is £160 per metre; Palace Road wallpaper by Little Greene, left, is £71 per roll