Thursday 17 October 2019

Mismatch of the day

Designer Carolyn Donnelly talks about the art of layering patterns for maximum effect

Tropical vintage linen from Mind The Gap
Tropical vintage linen from Mind The Gap
Nomad vintage linen from Mind The Gap
Madame Visage wallpaper from Lime Lace
Vinyl matt from Israeli company Beija Flor
Karala table cloth from Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic range
Carolyn Donnelly
Contrasting patterns from Audenza

There are people who can put patterns together and people who can't. It's a bit like being able to sing in tune. "I can do both!" says Carolyn Donnelly, designer. I'm well impressed. Because I can't do either. As we talk, I realise that she doesn't even have to think about whether one pattern will sit well with another. She just knows by instinct. It's a special talent indeed.

There's a great deal of pattern in Carolyn Donnelly's Eclectic range for Dunnes Stores: printed, embroidered, and woven; on ceramics, fabric, paper, melamine and glass. "We generate all our own print and you won't find it elsewhere. It's what gives us our handwriting."

The patterns are designed to work well together, although they don't match. In fact, she's vehemently opposed to the notion of kitting out the house from the same brand. "The essence of what I do is that it's not about things matching. I've always been against the idea of going out and buying co-ordinating items. For my own house, I don't go out specifically to buy a vase, but if I see something that I love, I will bring it home and I know that it's going to fit in."

That's all very well if you're Carolyn Donnelly. The rest of us might be well advised to buy a couple of items from her collection, secure in the knowledge that they're not going to clash. "They do layer up together," she admits. "I'm not going to design something that's not going to sit with the rest."

Nomad vintage linen from Mind The Gap
Nomad vintage linen from Mind The Gap

It's eight years since the launch of the Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic range and the tendency has been to produce new designs in relatively small batches. "A lot of the things come in and then they're gone. You'd always get something new. But it should all work together seamlessly, no matter what year it was designed. We don't want to be throwing anything out." Many of her customers buy a few pieces every year and build up a collection.

Putting animal prints with repeat florals is a daring move. The standard approach is to keep them separate, or to use animal motifs against a naturalistic background of foliage. But Donnelly isn't particularly bothered about this convention. The Kerala table cloth (€30), for example, is basically off-white, printed with a wide border of stylised floral patterns, with a peaceful looking elephant at each corner. There's a runner (€15) in the same range with a procession of elephants down the middle, a wide blue border, and more stylised florals in between. The patterns are similar, but not the same, and they shouldn't work together, but they do.

Likewise, she has no truck with the received wisdom that flowers and stripes must be kept apart. Her Paradise table cloth (€30) has broad blue and white stripes, of the sort found in seaside awnings, and a border of extravagant floral print against a sprigged background, with a double strip of florals on either side. In short, there's a lot going on. What's astonishing about this pattern is that the cumulative effect is soothing. Part of this is because the floral motifs are sufficiently removed from naturalistic flowers that they read as a pattern rather than a picture. The scale isn't large, the repeat is obvious, and repetitiousness is restful to the eye. Patterns make us feel safe, as though we know what the future holds.

In the SS2019 photo shoot, which Donnelly styled herself, the Paradise table cloth is used on a dining table, placed over her Sahara Rug (€40 to €80, depending on size). The flat weave rug is based on Moroccan tiling with geometric motifs in strong reds and blues, punctuated with black, white and beige. It's a punchy pattern in colours that you wouldn't want to mess with. The question is, why does it work with the summery table cloth?

"It's the shades," she says. "It's all about the shades. I do love colour, but not garish colour, and the colours that I have are very carefully chosen. Those kind of details are so important and they can be hell to get right. I'm a little bit fanatical about the exact shade that things need to be. A rug could be sent back four times if the duck-egg blue was too bright. That's not me. I want a dirty blue." Looking closely, you can see that the colours in the collection are consistent with each other. They have a common aesthetic that draws the patterns together.

Another company that combines patterns in an interesting way, the Transylvanian wallpaper company Mind The Gap, has recently launched a collection of printed linen in patterns that, while they don't match their wallpaper, have a similar appeal. The fabric costs €109 per length (140cm x 100cm) and a cushion (50cm x 50cm) also costs €109. The Irish stockist for Mind The Gap wallpaper is April And The Bear, but the company will also take international orders.

Carolyn Donnelly
Carolyn Donnelly

And, if you like the patterns of Moroccan tiling, but don't want to commit to laying a floor, the Israeli company Beija Flor has remarkable vinyl mats, digitally printed with tile patterns. The cost is €69 to €369, depending on size and you can order directly from Israel (free delivery for orders over €450) or from Cuckooland in the UK. The patterns don't match - Moroccan tiling doesn't - but they mismatch in a way that's easy on the eye.

In one sense, we've been mismatching patterns successfully for generations. The traditional Irish country house typically has a Persian carpet, damask curtains, and print upholstered sofas. There's probably wallpaper in the mix too. But because the décor has been accumulated slowly and allowed to settle in, it's assumed its own character over time. The farmhouse dresser has the same effect.

It's a bit more difficult to create this kind of look intentionally. Some people have a coherent aesthetic that's intrinsic to who they are. They'll be able to pull this off without much effort. Items from here, there, and yonder will miraculously become friends. Patterns will work together, colours will harmonise, and the whole ensemble will seem to sing in tune. If that's not you, a few well-chosen items from the same range will make it look like you know what you're doing.


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