Historically inspired wallpapers with modern verve

Allyson McDermott creates eye-catching designs using traditional techniques

Colour and pattern have been making a striking return to interiors of late, with glamorous handcrafted papers leading the trend. A name to know in this field is Allyson McDermott, a former head of Sotheby’s conservation studio and an adviser to the National Trust whose skill in restoring and recreating period wallpapers makes her the go-to creative for anyone in search of alluring bespoke designs. She has worked on the preservation of wallpapers in historic buildings such as Brighton’s Royal Pavilion and the Palace of Westminster, but also creates sumptuous wall coverings for private homes – either period or more contemporary in style.

McDermott works from one of the last remaining block-printing studios in Europe. Tucked away in a medieval manor in Gloucestershire, it houses an important archive of original designs from the 17th to the 20th centuries, any of which can be recreated to order. It’s here that traditional labour-intensive techniques, such as stencilling, flocking, embossing and gilding using gold and silver leaf, as well as hand block-printing, are employed to produce wallpapers in virtually any style. “It took 18 months to work out how they made wallpaper in the 18th century,” she says. “We use the same materials, tools and methods – skills that would otherwise have been lost – to give these handmade papers their wonderful textural quality.”    

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Some clients bring along a tiny fragment of period wallpaper. “Restoration often starts with a shred of original paper,” says McDermott, who acts as detective, scientist and artist, piecing together tiny clues in order to recreate a complete design. The dining room of a Dorset house, for example, was given a dramatic damask wallpaper with a mustard flock featuring a richly shimmering turquoise (second picture; similar projects £360 per sq m), while for a bedroom in a Scottish castle she reworked an 18th-century archival design, giving a chinoiserie pattern a tea-coloured background (similar projects £250 per sq m). “It’s not bright and shiny like new wallpaper; it looks soft and slightly distressed with the authentic patina of age,” she says.

More contemporary designs often use archive fragments for inspiration too. “Whether recreating a period interior using traditional techniques and materials or using research to inform a more modern style, understanding the original reasons for the design of a space can really bring it alive,” says McDermott. Either way, once a client has chosen the design, finish and colour, initial samples are prepared before the wallpaper is hand-produced. The whole process takes between six and eight weeks with specialist installation available if required.

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“I feel passionate about the beauty and quality of these wallpapers, which is why I’ve now brought out my first collection, making them more widely available,” says McDermott. The just-launched Portfolio range (from £210 per sq m) is drawn from her own archive and includes flocked damasks such as Pomegranate (from £400 per sq m, first picture), in colours from Prussian blue to silver grey, and chinoiserie designs (Chinese Garden, from £240 per sq m, third picture). Each design is made to commission and can be custom-coloured to order, with a lead time of 10 to 12 weeks.

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