Botanical prints are the hardy perennial of pattern design, regularly reinvented but rarely out of style. Their current moment in the spotlight is probably due to our collective guilt about damaging the planet. Reduced biodiversity in the real world? I know - let's cover our walls and furnishings in botanicals… It's really not that logical.
On a more positive note, the current trend for plant-based prints is probably also linked to a growing body of knowledge about the physical and mental health benefits of being around plants. Either way, our sensibilities about the plant world are changing and it's reflected in the patterns we use in the home.
Botanicals, by the way, don't preclude flora and fauna - even your 1980s Laura Ashley rosebud print is a botanical of sorts - but contemporary tastes incline towards vegetation. In print design, as in salads, leafy greens are the name of the game.
"My current favourite botanical design is Oiseau de Bengale Marais by Christian Lacroix," says Julianne Kelly of Julianne Kelly Interiors (formerly Kevin Kelly Interiors). "I love the fantastical imagining of flora, fauna, print and palm, treated with extraordinary detail." This is a fabric, digitally printed on to a fine cotton ground and would work for curtains, blinds and cushions (but possibly not all at once).
It comes from the Christian Lacroix Maison L'Odyssée collection of fabrics (from €125 per metre) and wallpapers (from €252). Birds and flowers, gigantic in scale, burst across the walls like a fever dream. Something similar, but smaller, is going on in the fabric. Both are slightly disturbing, but saved from outright insanity by the subtlety of the colours and the intelligence of the composition.
"The great thing about botanical prints is you can mix them altogether; a reupholstered wing chair in a large botanical print can look delicious beside a smaller scaled floral print curtain," Kelly says, throwing caution to the winds.
She also loves the magical Tiger Grove by Matthew Williamson, which comes from his Daydreams wallpaper collection for Osborne & Little. It's a childlike (but not childish) jungle of layered foliage and inky tinted floral blooms with tigers, parrots and monkeys. As a wall-covering (from €290), it is designed as three panels each 300cm in length and 70cm wide. It is utterly captivating, but you wouldn't need a great deal else going on in the room.
She also recommends Colefax & Fowler (fabrics from €150 per metre), whose prints are less dramatic but possibly easier to live with. "Their soft tones work beautifully in the Irish climate. Think a mix of ferns, foliage and grasses, and fabrics that feature peonies, hydrangeas and honeysuckles in full bloom."
Adventurous hybrid prints are nothing new. David Skinner, a wallpaper specialist based in Leixlip and Leitrim, has a wide collection of wallpapers reproduced from fragments found in Irish country houses. One of the most exciting of these is Belvedere, printed in Ireland in the 18th century and found in Belvedere, Co Westmeath.
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"The pattern is an extraordinary mixture of recognisable native plants combined in a bizarre way with architectural elements," says Skinner. "It's an Irish hodgepodge of all the design trends of the period."
In the 18th century, just as now, the vogue for botanical print patterns in dress, interiors fabrics and wallpaper reflected a more academic interest in botany and its most famous designer was Irish.
William Kilburn (1745-1818) was born in Dublin and apprenticed to the owner of a linen and cotton printing factory in Lucan, where he devised patterns for chintz. He moved to London where he met the botanist William Curtis and worked on illustrations for his books. Eventually, he purchased a calico-printing factory in Surrey and used his botanical knowledge to become, as Skinner describes, "the most fantastically talented artist doing botanical prints on calico".
The following century, in the aftermath of the design reform triggered by the Great Exhibition in London, designers like William Morris produced abstracted plant forms, which were also based on plant study.
"Students were taught how to study plant forms and abstract them into two-dimensional forms," Skinner explains. "It's really difficult to turn a good botanical drawing into a repeat pattern."
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Until the very recent advent of digital print, the available technologies necessitated a fairly tight repeat. Now, Skinner Wallpaper offers both hand-printed and digitally printed wallpapers, the latter being a great deal more cost-effective. Screen printed papers from Skinner Wallpaper start at €120 per 10m roll; Belvedere is €150 per roll, so long as you buy 10 rolls of it.
The use of digital printing does not mean that older skills are discarded, especially when patterns are initially drawn by hand, then cut into lino and hand printed. The British-based designer Marthe Armitage is known for hand-printed wallpapers and screen-printed fabrics from handmade linocuts, but is now also making digitally printed wallpaper.
"Since the 1950s, she's been making the most beautiful botanical wallpapers based on prints from her own garden," Skinner says. "She belongs utterly to that tradition."
Similarly, Fiona Howard, a designer best known for the gutsy retro Dandelion Clocks pattern for Sanderson, has also produced her own wallpaper designs (around €77 for 10m roll). Her Rockpools pattern, which comes in several gentle colourways, is a satisfying blend of traditional patterning and mild oddness. Seaweed, of course, is a perfectly legitimate botanical. It's just not what you expect to find on your walls.
"All my wallpapers are printed on FSC papers in the UK using environmentally friendly inks, and for every roll of wallpaper sold, we plant a tree in conjunction with One Tree Planted," she says.
It's nice to see a bit of joined-up thinking in botanical pattern design.
See juliannekellyinteriors.ie, skinnerwallpaper.com, fionahoward.com, and marthearmitage.co.uk.