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Interior Design

Clad tidings

Reclaimed timber, back-lit glass, painted canvas, engraved leather… Jenny Dalton explores the potential for decorative panelling to add character and texture to interior walls, delineate space – and even double as bespoke art pieces

January 03 2013
Jenny Dalton

A strange thing is happening in the world of wallpaper. The latest designs are hell-bent on resembling walls.

Dutch interior designer Piet Boon’s 2012 collection has been created to replicate varying patterns of concrete panels (£199 per roll). Nina Campbell’s new Woodsford papers (from £49) include a plain and a floral wood-effect number inspired by traditional Swedish panelling. Paris boutique Merci’s offerings resemble swaths of reclaimed Brooklyn tin tiles (£219); and hip, young design duo Young & Battaglia’s range of trompe-l’oeil papers includes a pattern known as White Panelling (from £70 per roll), created to suggest that classical Georgian architectural feature, plus White Planks, a print of white wooden wall panels complete with “nail holes” for extra authenticity (from £70 per roll). They are a fun homage to both modern and historic finishes and a symptom of the vogue that Trend Bible director Joanna Feeley calls “a depletion of superfluous print – busy patterned papers declining in favour of more subtle, textured surfaces”. But just in case you’re thinking this is a story about wallpaper, it isn’t. The latest decorative wall trend is bona fide wall panelling itself.

“Wallpaper is about set dressing, which is great if that is the effect you want, but I do think these may in a way belittle the real materials,” says Maria Speake, co-owner of Retrouvius, reclamation expert and creator of beautiful dégradé domestic interiors using reclaimed objects – including a London Barbican flat resplendent with parquet-flooring tiles on the walls. “Whatever the trend signifies,” she assesses, “it means we have to be cleverer with the real thing.”

Happily, cleverer cladding has been on the rise for a number of months. The Bouroullec brothers’ own take came as early as 2008, when they produced a soft, modular kind of interior architecture and wall covering known as Clouds, in collaboration with
Kvadrat textiles house. The fabric panels, which loop together, are on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this month as part of its Bivouac exhibition, and have been relaunched in new textile options (from £266 to £746).

Genevieve Bennett, creator of decorative leather wall panels, inspired by the likes of Grinling Gibbons (a 17th-century master wood sculptor), 18th-century silk patterns, paper sculpting and Elizabethan armour, also issued her first take on panelling in 2008. Her 2012 collection is a series of modular, engraved and debossed leather-tile pieces that cover the entire wall (£23 to £130 per sq ft), intended to create something “rich and decorative but in one material and colour, so they’re not overpowering”.

Meanwhile, US company B&N Industries has expanded its range of decorative veneered wood panels (from $825 per 8ft x 4ft panel) and reclaimed wood panels (from $970 per 8ft x 4ft panel). And Corian has been at pains to show that the moulded material can take on any form of wall covering. One of its latest incarnations is as a fabulously delicate, back-lit lace, created for a special project with Missoni Home, and featuring one of its signature motifs, but which could be digitally cut in any lace pattern (from about £485 per sq m).

More significantly, perhaps, when Hermès unveiled its second interiors collection earlier this year, it concentrated not on wallpapers and soft décor but on Module H – a series of wall-panelling options (price on request), using a metal cage frame onto which leather and textile upholstery panels are attached, created to “sculpt interior space and echoing the surfacing for apartments conceived in the 1920s and 1930s in collaboration with Jean-Michel Frank”. There are a few remarkable aspects to this launch. One is that Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès’ artistic director, chose Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to design the structures (which are intended to have serious credentials) and also that a new interiors range should embrace interior architecture (alongside a new decoration service) this early in its life.

But then, Hermès has pinpointed a gap in the market that Steve Charles, co-founder of new decorative wall and floor surfaces showroom, Decorum Est, is also attempting to service. After working in the industry for more than 30 years, he is seeing a great demand for wall surfaces at the upper end of the market.

“We had so many people saying they needed a one-stop shop for living-room and bathroom walls – as well as for everywhere else – it made sense,” he says. The store is a kind of jewellery box of intriguing floor and wall finishes, from gold églomisé mirrors (from £553 per sq m), to innovative, Italian engineered plaster panels covered in gesso, a traditional surface primer, that can add any curved, 3D shape to interior walls, via semi-precious stone, hand-finished leather or glass. All are bespoke and prices start at £681 per sq m.

Other interior designers, too, including Broseley – the family-owned business which concentrates on the building, development and refurbishment of residential property for private clients in central London – and Kate Hume – a British designer based in Amsterdam, and currently creating homes in Moscow and beyond – confirm a growing number of panelled projects. These include stone cladding in hallways and kitchens (Broseley kitchen cladding in Applestone Honed, £59.95 per sq m), and wood-panelled libraries, dining rooms and a dressing room (Hume, American walnut panelling in a Moscow private residence, price on request). “It’s great for bringing tactile and warm surfaces into spaces,” says Hume.

Jeremy Young, director of award-winning architects Featherstone Young, is a strong advocate of wall panelling in modern, open-plan homes where plaster walls can seem cold and spare. The firm, which engages in domestic architectural projects from £200,000 to £5m, favours textural timber wall panelling in particular, “for when we want to create a snug atmosphere in a room. It’s also great for delineating a space, especially when that might be open plan,” Young says. “It can be an affordable solution if it’s just painted softwood tongue and groove, or very luxurious if exposed harder woods such as oak or iroko are used.” The company has recently built a house in Wales, with seamless strips of lush cedar vertical wooden panelling running through the living/dining area used to dramatic effect. Young admits it’s not something clients think of, “but then when they visit a house where we’ve used it a lot, they realise how beautiful it is, and often with something like cedar, how nice it smells, too”.

For Speake, the senses are heightened by the use of textural wall panels. “You would never achieve the sound or tactile qualities that you get with panelled walls any other way. Or the practicality. We recently used a lovely old Victorian wood in [broadcaster] George Lamb’s guesthouse, which we left in quite a raw state so it was all about the roughness. We’ve also used concrete shuttering boards in a home, as well as cladding with some beautifully panelled mahogany doors we reclaimed from the Natural History Museum. We find that clients tell us there’s a robustness about wall panelling, especially timber, that is reassuring. It makes people feel comfortable, and there’s an element of nostalgia about it – whether that’s from visiting National Trust properties at weekends or memories of childhood visits to a grandparent’s home – that allows us to be more spatially adventurous. If we open up a whole area, it’s still comfortable and better insulated. There’s also a flexibility and permanence to a panelled wall – if you get sick of it you just paint over it.”

Luigi Esposito, of Oro Bianco, takes a similarly anti-trend approach to the business of walls. The creative director, who frequently specifies surfaces from Steve Charles’ Decorum Est, says it is his job to ensure that there is never a dull, bare wall in any of the homes he creates in central London. He only occasionally uses wallpapers, always bespoke, but more often opts for the most original, permanent wallcoverings; from hand-painted canvas or layered, hand-painted, back-lit églomisé glass, interspersed with vellum – as used in the hallway of a family home in Old Park Lane – to enlarged photographic panels like those of a Mexican building taken by photographer Philip Tsiaras, which are framed in bronze in the sitting room of a new Hampstead home. This London house also features sprayed bronze-cast concrete “fish scale” cladding in its entrance hall, designed to resemble the texture of shagreen (from £250 per sq m).

“We’re dealing with such high costs, the last thing a client wants is for something to feel dated within a year or two,” he says. “What we’re trying to create are the antiques of the future, so that someone can take the panels with them when they move, and that they’ll last for many years. It’s our challenge to source and find rare materials that haven’t been overexposed, or that have never even been tried before.”   

Indeed, so detailed are many of the surfaces that they double as bespoke art pieces. Speake admits that an added benefit of a decorative wall is not having to think about artwork in addition. “People see a plain plaster surface and they feel compelled to put a picture up, but often they’re confused about what to choose, or they’ve inherited art that just doesn’t work. Walls covered with solid materials take the indecision away.”

Antoni Associates, an interior design and architecture studio based in South Africa, has taken a similar approach to a new family home in the winelands of Pearl Valley just outside Cape Town. The owners knew they didn’t want to have to deal with artworks, but they still wanted interest and texture. The design solution includes a large fireplace in the main living area clad in raw concrete, packed logs and rough oak wall panelling. The dining room fireplace is covered with textured, spray-painted Valchromat wood-fibre panels ($200 per sq m).

It’s about “the layering of the vertical surfaces. It adds a sensuality to the house,” says partner Mark Rielly, who elsewhere has used textiles to panel a bedroom wall from floor to ceiling, and who favours natural materials where possible because “design is currently nature-driven and designers are using the natural world as creative inspiration”.

It’s a point reiterated by Feeley, whose work is bringing her increasingly into contact with designers using traditional materials in modern ways. “There’s something about the warmth and character that wood, for instance, can bring to the home. It demands closer inspection and encourages touch. We have been reporting a trend towards highly tactile objects, furniture, flooring and wallcovering, which could be seen as a backlash against the comparatively soulless screen-based digital world we increasingly connect with for work and recreation.”

Speake echoes this sentiment. She knows if her clients want to run their hands over the finished wall, she’s done her job properly. “I think with buildings you have to be aware of what you touch, and what is going to be touched on a daily basis. These things really reveal your life. This may be the leather arms of a chair that show where they’ve been worn over the years and have changed colour, or it may be in walls wrapped in hand-stitched panels of suede. The clients we did the parquet tiling for say they just find themselves standing and admiring it, and even stroking it daily,” she says. “They don’t have a cat, they have a panelled wall instead.”

See also

Wallcoverings