Award-winning wallpaper artist Deborah Bowness discusses her handcrafted designs

PUBLISHED: 00:04 27 March 2014

A touch of glass  wallpaper designer Deborah Bowness is a glass act

A touch of glass  wallpaper designer Deborah Bowness is a glass act


It was an intricately-patterned Chinese wallpaper at Temple Newsam House in Leeds that first lit the fuse of Deborah Bowness’ passion.

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She was a student at Leeds College of Art & Design at the time studying surface pattern and textile design but was finding working with fabric a frustrating process. Transferring her ideas to paper proved to be a pivotal breakthrough.

‘The Chinese wallpaper just blew me away,’ she explained. ‘It was decorated with collaged birds on foliage. It was so beautiful and really opened a whole new world of possibilities.’

It was a bit of a slow burn though. Deborah followed her degree with an MA in constructed textiles at the Royal College of Art, giving herself a further two years to explore her ideas.

‘I enjoyed what I was doing but it didn’t have a purpose,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t until the very last month of my course that everything finally slotted into place – the walls could be my canvas.’

She had a roll of wallpaper printed up and took the resulting design to her tutor. They were elated – Deborah had finally found the perfect outlet for her talent and, perhaps inadvertently, had stumbled into a market hungry for something new.

Wallpaper had fallen seriously out of favour, replaced with minimalism and paint effects, but as the new millennium dawned people were searching for new and interesting ways of adding depth and creativity to their homes.

Deborah’s playful, highly individualistic trompe l’oeil designs fit the bill perfectly. And, almost before she could catch her breath, the press was clamouring for interviews and samples.

‘They started referring to me as a wallpaper designer,’ she said. ‘It was a bit of a revelation to me – I had no idea that’s what I was.’

Her first body of work, Hooks & Frocks, featured monochrome hanging dresses brought to life with silkscreen colour and painted detail. Her wallpapers since have featured all manner of everyday items like books, suitcases, hanging baskets and kitchen ephemera, each specifically designed to quietly enhance a room without overpowering what’s already there.

Deborah’s designs are all hand-made by an expert crew of printers in a small factory in Riccall between York and Selby. The colours are all hand-mixed, the papers hand-cut, the screens hand-made and every single piece is hand-finished to ensure that no two batches are exactly the same.

‘Nobody makes wallpaper like we do so we had to set up our own factory,’ said Deborah, who was brought up in a village just outside York. ‘I’ve got my very own Clarice Cliff-style production line. When I was really young I loved her work and how it was produced. The idea of a production line of ladies all hand-painting pieces really appealed to me. It was mass-production with added individuality – exactly what I’m doing now.’

She works closely with her sister, Leigh, who handles the business side of things for optimal efficiency when Deborah is deep in design mode.

‘Before Leigh came onboard, people assumed there was a really long waiting list because I wouldn’t answer emails for six weeks,’ said Deborah. ‘That wasn’t the case at all; I was just too busy dreaming.’

Her dreaming has paid massive dividends so far. Her work has been recognised by the V&A, The Whitworth Art Gallery at Manchester University, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in the west wing of the Louvre.

She scooped the Best Wallpaper Collection title at last year’s Northern Design Awards and she’s won numerous prestigious commissions from the likes of Lacriox, Paul Smith, Selfridges, Polydor and Reebok.

Digital technology has opened up the wallpaper market to a whole new breed of young designers, enabling them to print off single rolls without the expense of a major print run. It’s fast becoming a saturated market, but Deborah doesn’t feel threatened in any way.

‘I strive to encourage customers to do things differently,’ she said. ‘My business is about showing them how to use their space as a canvas to express themselves.

‘There’s no automation in my process and my customers value the fact that their wallpaper has been created with love by real people. They can see it in the layers and the depth and the detail.

‘Every roll is different. I don’t even like to mix the same colour twice, which drives my sister nuts.’

Deborah’s latest design, Paper Swag, created to look like ruched, draped fabric, will be launched in New York next month.

‘I’m looking at it right now and I couldn’t be happier,’ she said. ‘As long as I’m excited about a design, I know my customers will be too.’ n

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