Spruce Up Your Space With Designers' Fave Fabric and Wallpaper Patterns

We’re digging into the history behind the design world’s greatest patterns — and sharing the pros’ best advice on how you can deploy them to dazzling effect anywhere and everywhere.

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August 21, 2020

Photo By: Joe St. Pierre

Photo By: Alyssa Rosenheck

Photo By: Amy Bartlam

Photo By: Ann Lowengart

Photo By: Stephanie Diani

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Photo By: Society Social

©Society Social

Photo By: Courtesy of Lee Jofa

Photo By: Chinasa Cooper

Photo By: Jessica Alexander

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Photo By: Chris Edwards

Photo By: Chris Edwards

©Courtesy of Cole & Son

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Photo By: Courtesy of Cole & Son

Indoor Safari

Scalamandré Zebras was designed for Gino’s Restaurant in New York City in the 1940s,” explains Barbara Karpf, president and founder of DecoratorsBest. “It was relaunched and has been one of our most popular patterns for years. This unique wallpaper creates excitement in a space and is ideal for powder rooms and guest rooms.” The deep red background fit the pattern’s original home perfectly, as one New York Times writer described it: “the zebras romp in a shower of spidery arrows over a veldt the color of a strawberry, a raw beefsteak, a Bloody Mary — a deep blush.”

Thoughtful Transition

Oklahoma designer Bailey Austin channeled pattern creator Flora Scalamandré's fancy-footwork-in-a-small-footprint by reaching for its gold colorway, which adds both polish and pizzazz to a narrow hallway between this home’s kitchen and dining rooms. In a space like this one, a gallery wall would rub shoulders (quite literally) with an awful lot of traffic; two-dimensional embellishment, by contrast, provides visual impact without the possibility of physical impact.

Natural Adaptations

“I’ve used Scalamandré's zebras in a number of projects, each with a totally different design brief, and it always just works,” says Liz Caan of Liz Caan & Co., a Massachusetts-based interior design firm. “To pack the most punch without having to go all out with other objects and accessories, consider using the iconic print in a powder room. It’s the easiest way to make a statement without doing more than hanging wallpaper.”

See More Photos: Our 30 Favorite Powder Rooms

New Neutral

“No matter the colorway, treat it as a neutral when outfitting the rest of your powder room (or any room),” Caan continues. Fair warning: Once this pattern goes up in your home, you might encounter resistance if you try to switch it out. In the ‘70s, a kitchen fire at Gino’s destroyed most of its wallpaper — and patrons called the restaurant to voice their vehement disapproval over the prospect of it being replaced. As the story goes, when Scalamandré recreated the screens to be ready for reopening, a mistake snuck into the pattern: the smaller zebra was missing one of its stripes. “The zebra looks like its pajamas are falling down,” Edwin Ward Bitter, then a salesman for the design business, told the Times. “But they had to go ahead with it. There was a deadline.” (Never fear, the zebras available these days are fully striped.)

Background Characters

Scalamandré's zebras also pair beautifully with Art Deco furnishings and accessories — as in this New York City space, where they function as graphic accents for a white bookcase beside a 1926 Vogue cover illustration by André Édouard Marty. If you’re not ready to devote an entire room (or an entire wall) to the African savanna, a smaller treatment like this is a striking and unexpected way to audition the look.

See More Photos: 20 Art Deco Looks We Love

King of Prints

As far as Caan is concerned, it’s well-nigh impossible to go wrong with Brunschwig & Fils’ Les Touches, an impressionistic, abstracted animal print inspired by a post-World-War-II-era collection of photographs. With a hand-painted look that complements an almost infinite array of other patterns, the versatile pattern has charmed design lovers since its 1965 debut; it’s been available as a wallpaper, a print, embroidery and more. “I’d recommend using that paper with abandon — ceilings, backsplashes, on the walls behind exposed shelves. Really anywhere! It’s a subtle print with lots of visual interest so I love to use it in unexpected ways (like lining the shelves of your favorite vintage cabinet.”

A Species for All Seasons

Just how much design love are we talking about? It’s one of the only patterns that’s been a constant customer favorite in Society Social’s lineup since the furniture company’s founding in 2011, founder and creative director Roxy Te Owens says. “Its pattern is ambiguous and graphic enough that you won't get sick of it — is it an animal print? Is it a tipsy polka dot? As this pattern is truly timeless, it will be at home no matter what space you use it in! Whether you're fully wallpapering a powder room in Les Touches or incorporating the print in an accent pillow, headboard or stool, we like to pair this smaller scale dot with a larger pattern to maintain visual balance.”

Wild Blue Yonder

“As Les Touches is a brand and customer favorite of ours, when designing our flagship store in 2019, we knew we wanted to make a statement with this punchy print,” Owens explains. They worked with Brunchswig & Fils' design team to create an exclusive colorway, Signature Les Touches French Blue [a neutral with grey undertones that’s paler than the blue pictured here]. Spot the spots on towering custom drapes complete with scalloped cornices, as well as on a rainbow wall of chairs. Brunschwig & Fils’ parent company, Kravet, in turn, doubled its colorway offerings last year, and now offers a whopping 18 takes on Les Touches.

Sketches of the City

West Coast powerhouse Kelly Wearstler has partnered with Lee Jofa, an English textile house established in the early 19th century, since fall of 2008. Wearstler was inspired to create Graffito after seeing a drawing by Milanese architect and designer Gio Ponti at a museum; the hand-painted pattern, produced for a fifth time with Lee Jofa this year, was and is an instantly-recognizable standout. “She’s an artist in her own right whose signature style will undoubtedly remain a constant in interior design,” Caan says.

“My favorite patterns are graphic, or those that have subtle nuances and organic anomalies,” Wearstler told Elle Decor. But I’m also a fan of repetition and symmetry in scale. I can’t choose just one! It’s the application that makes a pattern truly sing in a space.” Graffito is full of graphic movement, and Karpf notes that it sets the tone for a contemporary look. “This exciting abstract enlivens a small space and can also add drama on one wall as a focal point,” she says. “Graffito wallpaper is so well designed with balance and energy radiating from it. Like an abstract painting, it never loses its uniqueness.”

All Sizes Fit One

Caan suggests tapping into Wearstler’s celebrated maximalism when deploying this print. “Graffito would look incredible covering the walls and the ceiling of an office or small guest room,” she says. That said, even a diminutive bit of it has an outsized effect on a room’s energy level; consider how these armchairs and ottoman add exuberance to this Hudson Valley space (and hold their own against a much-larger fireplace surround designed to look like the breezy coastal sidewalks in Rio de Janeiro).

The Little Nook That Could

No, seriously: even itty-bitty pops of Graffito like the custom bench cushion at right in this modern farmhouse’s reading area are little treasures (and more budget-friendly ones, at that). Designer Jessica Alexander reached for the fabric to give this once-forgotten corner a design moment of its own and echo terra cotta tones in other parts of the home.

Tart and Sweet

Josef Frank, an architect, designer and painter who cofounded the Vienna School of Architecture and was one of the city’s most influential proponents of early modernism, hand-drew Schumacher's Citrus Garden in 1947; so much for the idea of toning it down as one ages (he was 62 at the time). Frank chafed at fellow modernists’ commitment to pragmatism; he, by contrast, maintained that “standardized interiors would make people all too uniform.” Prints of the natural world he loved gave rooms a sense of freedom and stimulated the imagination.

“Whimsical by nature, this pattern satisfies the desire for a more eclectic take on traditional,” Owens says. “Citrus Garden has maintained popularity over time as it's an ode to the classic chintz made modern with a twist — multi-colored florals meet cheery citrus prints. It makes for a beautiful statement when upholstered on dining chairs and will be sure to brighten up a kitchen when used on Roman shades.” (More on that in a moment.) “As there are many colors to pull from in the print, it also makes for a great decorative pillow to tie a space together.”

Primary Lesson

This nearly neutral kitchen demonstrates how effectively Citrus Garden functions as an accent piece; Frank’s use of just a whisper of cherry red in the pattern offers an opportunity to develop that tone in accessories like these crisp pendant lanterns. Charlotte-based designer Charlotte Lucas emphasized the relationship between the pendants and the windows’ Roman shades by adding matching trim that echoes the lanterns’ silhouettes.

Stop and Smell the Groves

“The richness of decoration cannot be fathomed so quickly, in contrast to the monochromatic surface which doesn’t invite any further interest and therefore one is immediately finished with it,” Frank said. Citrus Grove both enhances other patterns — don’t be afraid to double down with another bold look, as in this eye-popping playroom — and encourages a bit of daydreaming. “There are so many small flowers and butterflies within the pattern that each time you look at it, you can discover something new,” Karpf says. “Use it in small doses on pillows or go all out in an indoor-outdoor room to add charm in your home.”

Long-Term Growth

Given how many trendy contemporary rooms feature Cole & Son's Woods, it would be understandable to assume that its debut was a recent one. In fact, the opposite is true: Michael Clark designed the iconic, boldly sketched repeating trees as a screen print back in 1959, and it’s been in wildly popular — and in continuous production — ever since. Cole & Son, in turn, was founded by the son of a Cambridgeshire merchant in 1875, and over the years, the printers’ patterns have made their way into Buckingham Palace, the UK’s Houses of Parliament, and the White House. (Pretty distinguished company for an Instagram star, no?) “This iconic wallpaper pattern is timeless,” Karpf says. “Today, its unique forest repeat is available in many colors. Whether Woods covers one wall or the entire room, it makes a statement and provides a feeling of serenity to any setting.”

After Dark

Just how many colors are we talking about? Karpf’s team at DecoratorsBest carries 11, as well as variations where both matte and gilded pears and stars intermingle with the trees. Riffs on the original pattern are quite literally limitless, as Cole & Son has a bespoke services team that will develop custom colors upon request. The moody, nocturnal version pictured here lays a dramatic foundation for a monochromatic powder room.

Virtual Canopy

The barely-there version of Woods in this bedroom reflects both Scandinavian designers’ love affair with pale organic materials and what those designers might actually see as they gaze out their studios’ windows. Flanked by a pair of Nuevo Living’s shapely Karl pendant lamps, the accent wall also serves as a floor-to-ceiling second headboard — a nifty trick in rooms where every square foot of floor space is working overtime.

Figurative Forest

The blush tone on the feature wall in this transitional living room, in turn, balances the rosy stone surrounding the fireplace and provides gentle contrast with the celadon-painted walls. At a distance, the vertical birch trees’ large diagonal branches almost function as a geometric rather than an organic pattern; using Woods like this is a subtle way to give a polished space a natural undertone.

Avian Art

Hummingbirds is another of Cole & Son’s greatest hits; this fanciful flock initially took to the skies with duck egg, soft blue and cream backgrounds in the early 20th century. Dramatic jewel tones joined the family more recently, and the printing house has also produced opulent fabric flutterers in embroidered silk. “This romantic floral design features pretty hummingbirds perched gracefully and in flight. The delicate pattern is filled with colorful birds amidst delicate flowers,” Karpf says. “Ideal for a bedroom, foyer or powder room, Hummingbirds is a picturesque pattern that will add elegance to a home.” In muted pastels and a cream habitat, the print is a classic choice for traditional spaces.

Feathering the Nest

In this serene bedroom, warm plumage swoops in to accentuate the studded headboard and the frame and tray on the nightstand — and Hummingbirds is every bit as charming today as it was a century ago. “So much of what makes these prints so iconic is largely in part due to their creators (each was designed by an incredible artist or designer whose singular eye and aesthetic has withstood the test of time),” Caan observes. “Though different in many ways, the common thread among each print is that they’re all graphic, bold, happy and a bit whimsical.”

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