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Designers find fresh inspiration from the past

There’s a saying that goes: ‘if you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know where you are?’ The less philosophically minded may prefer simply: what goes around comes around. Whatever your bent, either sentiment applies to a current trend in interiors for dipping into the archives, dusting off a classic idea and giving it a new lease of life.

The UK has a rich design heritage with many of its interiors firms racking up more than two centuries of history. Wedgwood will celebrate 250 years in business in 2009. It straddles both tradition and innovation, apparent in the state-of-the-art £10.5 million Wedgwood Museum that opened in October 2008 to house more than 60% of the company’s massive archive.

For those who can’t make it to the museum at Barlaston, the recent ‘Golden Bird’ tableware collection from Wedgwood offers a glimpse into the company’s past. The range is designed to be reflective of the decorative patterns from the 18th century archive. The pattern, featuring a naturalistic golden bird, is also reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts movement spearheaded by the artist, writer and activist William Morris. In the early 1900s, this aesthetic movement gained ground as people searched for a more authentic alternative to the ‘soulless’ mass production of the industrial revolution. The ‘Golden Bird’ set ranges from plates, to coffee pots and salt and pepper shakers – prices start at £19 for a plain, 15cm plate and can be found in department stores.

Elsewhere, the English wallpaper company Cole & Son can also boast more than two hundred years in business. It was established in 1873 and, as well as becoming a leader in the technique of hand blocking, was the first company to produce wallcoverings to imitate silk and to revive the process of Flocking – Cole & Son is now the only company in the world to make flock wallpaper in the original way.

The company continued to innovate throughout the years and scored a coup in the 1950s by securing the services of an emerging group of artists, including Mary Oliver and John Drummond, to create designs for wallpaper that would reflect the creative vibe kicked off by the 1951 Festival of Britain. Coles recently reissued eight of these designs under the banner of Neoclassix. The patterns are certainly bold: ‘Dionysus & Ariadne’ is a mural designed by Drummond comprising six panels depicting this legendary love affair from Greek mythology. The images are 150cm high and create a total width of 312 cm, and cost £138.72 (plus VAT) for the six. ‘Olive Branch’, another paper in the range, is a more traditional repeat pattern featuring a flock of doves. Prices start at £125.10 (plus VAT) per roll.

Other companies take tradition and turn it on its head. Design company Timorous Beasties caused a stir when it launched in the 90s with an innovative new take on traditional 1800s Toile du Jouy wallpaper. Its London and Glasgow Toile depicted edgy, contemporary urban scenes described by some as ‘William Morris on acid’. It has updated the Toile since, with a new design due for launch in early 2009, plus a modern take on Damask wallpaper, ‘Devil Damask’. Playing on the idea that the eye contrives faces in the patterns, the paper is a traditional Damask designed with a gargoyle’s face – gives a whole new meaning to ‘the devil’s in the detail’. Prices start at £97.87 per 10m roll for London Toile and £217.27 per 10m roll of Devil Damask, both available from the showroom in London.

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