Monday, November 22, 2010

Modular Ornament, past and future...

 This gorgeous ceiling was created with en feuille printed papers, made by an unknown Parisian manufacturer around 1780. Une feuille de papier literally means a sheet, or piece of paper, and in this context means that the entire design was created by cutting the design from individual sheets of block-printed paper.

The dark and light grounds, the borders of flowers and fruits, the medallions and even the figure of Diana in her chariot were all cut out separately and pasted on the ceiling to create this wonderful image.

This method of creating custom, one-off installations was the best way at the time for clients and designers to bridge the gap between the bespoke mural and the printed image.

Print Rooms, as they became known, were a highly individual way of decorating walls in the eighteenth century. It seems to have been a trend limited in large part to Ireland and England. The charming and whimsical room at Castletown House in Ireland, above, is the work of the lady of the house; fifteen year old bride, Lady Louisa Connolly. That she took great pleasure in her design is evident in the balanced design of octagons, ovals, circles and squares, all embellished with garlands and bows for a fanciful effect.

These days, photocopies and clip art are substituted for the original mezzotints of old. 

But why stop at cutting up scraps of paper?

Along with my business partner Mark, we saw that there was room for much improvement and advancement of the technique. I firmly believe that the artisans of a few centuries ago would have absolutely loved the digital revolution. The means they used were simply a reflection of the limit of the technology they had available at the time, nothing more.

So we developed the idea of modular designs created entirely on computer, then printed out in large sheets as custom installations. Why bother painting 60 rosettes on a frieze around a room when you can paint a single one, scan it into the computer, then print out rolls and rolls of the stuff? I mean; they're all supposed to be identical anyway, right? 

I started developing my own library of hand-painted shapes. These were little individual sections of ornament, painted in black and white, that I then scanned into the computer and colored and jigsawed together at will on my screen. Anyone interested in those early experiments can check out this blog post on the topic.

Instead of the traditional 'cut-and-paste' technique of the Print Rooms, where the jigsawing of images was done by hand and on-site, we did all the jigsawing of our artwork directly on the computer screen. When we liked what we saw, we simply printed it out on rolls up to five feet wide, and pasted it onto the wall.

The experiment was working! 

We decided to take it all a step further; to create artwork entirely on the computer, without any other tool whatsoever. Scanning hundreds of sheets of veneer, we quickly amassed an incredible library of wood textures. Then, using computer software we drew out our designs in the same way any artisan would lay out a design for marquetry: in simple back-and-white line drawings. These drawings were then 'colored' on the computer using our wood texture library, and custom printed onto sheets of Class A fire-retardant wallcovering. 

In the image above, you can see the 'before and after' of the room.
When we got there, every surface was primed white. We started by hand-painting all the raised moldings in traditional faux-bois. This was because our printed sheets of paper would only adhere to flat surfaces. Then we simply pasted our custom printed papers into the panels, and along the stiles and rails to create this stunning look.

This image shows the incredible authenticity of the effect. This is not a photograph: It is a computer rendered design, imitating wood inlay. The wood textures, colors, even the blemishes and worm-holes, are all added in layers to create the effect of marquetry. This piece is then printed out onto any substrate (including plain maple veneer) and applied to your project. Make sense?

We feel as though we are just at the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more we can be doing to push Decorative Arts into the new century. I really hope this might serve as some small inspiration to those artists out there looking for new ways to rejuvenate a (let's face it) pretty antiquated field. 

It's natural, when new technology comes along, to use it to simply re-create the style that came before. But what would happen if we were not limited by staid historic mimicry? What would it even look like if we took this new technology, this digital evolution, and cranked up the ambition to 11? 


  1. You just blew my mind. I look forward to seeing more of your projects that are implemented in this way. It is an extremely interesting concept!

  2. Bravo!

    I think it's a great idea and only wish I was more proficient with the software.
    Make it work for you!


  3. Very interesting! What kind of paper do you use? How do you deal with the issue of lightfastness...i.e., color computer printouts seem to fade quickly on regular paper. Do you coat the wall with a U.V. varnish afterwards to seal and protect? If so, does it change the color on the paper? I've used shellac on fabric and paper that had various inks on it and the shellac definitely changed the colors (probably the inks were alcohol-based.) This is so fascinating to me. Perhaps not something I would ever attempt (I doubt my printer could handle this volume), but I love it when someone pushes the envelope and presents more possibilities.


  4. I sprayed UV varnish afterwards to seal it, although the inks are archival. The varnish made the image richer, the same way it would if it were paint or wood. Since the approved sample was varnished, I was not concerned about any changes in color. Honestly, who knows if the inks will last 100 years? But they are supposed to last 50, and that's already 47 longer than any of my clients will leave it without redecorating!

  5. Sorry to chime in ... I had to chuckle a little when I saw one of Renzo Mongiardino's faux bois guys, who hapened to be on site working in another room, two inches away from these walls with his nose right up in them.

    Suffice to say, Alan is right. We have an arsenal of almost wizard like creative power available to us in these tools and techniques. And it is a cultural foment, not just a professional one.

    It's easy to see these technologies being embraced elsewhere in the design profession by graphic designers, architectural renderers and various digitally aware manufacturers. Just go to a tradeshow like SGIA (Specialty Graphic Industry Associations) and you will be literally blown away by what these machines can do in the hands of and in the minds of intrepid users, let alone experienced artists and designers. It's a new era, folks. Clarion call to those with ears to hear and hearts brave enough to respond. Look around. Idigitallu created and applied to all sorts of surfaces, including and beyond what is traditionally thought of as the province of the decorative painter. Afterall, what we know of this profession, is by definition, the result of what was done with existing tools ans techniques available to those who practiced this "art."

    There is new capability available to all of us. What can you imagine, ... becasue you can probably pull it off! Learn the software, learn these new tools. Where are the new Tiffany's, Morris's and the community of like decorative talents?

    Just for a few more additional examples, look at a process like "Rapoxy" ( or something like "Tattoowall" ( THIS CAN BE DONE WITH ANY IMAGE to just about ANY SURFACE! Think about that. Open your mind, heart, imagination. It's time and the tools have arrived with enough maturity to be stimulating, viable and cost effective as well as enabling us to go beyond the scope of ambition with what we can imagine, attempt and pull off merely by the labor of our hands. Even combinations of traditional and digital, where appropriate, should be on our minds. OK< I'll get off the soap box now. My two cents.

  6. Apologies, my post (above) got a little garbled. The typos however, entirely mine! LOL.

  7. Astounding work!
    On a practical level, would you share the name of your supplier of Class A fire-retardant wallcovering?

  8. Alan & Mark, you are occupying a room I covet. I have some of the software tools in hand (Photoshop, Painter, Illustrator). I'm looking at your fabulous digital woodgrains - and I'm wondering where to start. Any suggestions?
    Your collective works are inspirational, indeed.

  9. John, I don't know how fluent you are in the programs you mentioned, but I hope to post a very simple tutorial with a screen capture of my particular working method when creating work in Photoshop.

    Be sure and subscribe to the blog by entering an email address. I promise there won't be any spam coming your way, just good quality reference and a little inspiration, perhaps.

    Elizabeth, I would be happy to give you a source for wallcovering. Just send me an email, and I'll get back to you.

  10. Great post on and old stand by and love your new interpretation!