September 26, 2022

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The wallpaper that is also a ‘reminder that my ancestors had my back’ | Seattle Times

11 min read

I never had the slightest interest in wallpaper. Then Harlem Toile came along.

The wallpaper, which was created by celebrated interior designer Sheila Bridges in 2006, features beautiful drawings of African Americans in the lush historical settings that rarely featured them: a couple in 18th-century dress dance under a structure that recalls the Arc de Triomphe to the tunes of a boombox that rests playfully on the grass; as women in ballgowns sit under a majestic tree, one combs another’s hair while yet another woman holds up a fairy-talelike mirror; a courting couple in fashion that now brings to mind the popular series “Bridgerton” feast on a picnic.

For a Black girl who grew up loving Jane Austen and Toni Morrison with equal aplomb, Harlem Toile was more than wallpaper. It was a tableau of possibility and belonging.

Traditional toile de Jouy (the term translates to “cloth from Jouy,” a suburb outside Paris where it was originally produced) has been popular since the 1700s. Beloved by Marie Antoinette and Joséphine Bonaparte, the fabric typically featured romantic pastoral scenes.

Storytelling on fabric was intrinsic to the charm of toile. For example, a pattern drawn by Jean-Baptiste Huet in 1783, called “Le Ballon de Gonesse,” depicts the first hot air balloon flights in France in panels that weave together enchantment, fantasy and scientific advancement, providing for those who were wealthy enough to purchase it a dreamscape that they could use to cover their walls, the canopies of their four-poster beds or whatever else their seamstresses could whip up with the bolts of toile.

Although toile de Jouy has seen hundreds of cheaper knockoffs in recent years, the original was always a luxury good. Harlem Toile de Jouy wallpaper, similarly, is not cheap. I had to save for the handcrafted version ($350 a roll) that was installed on my kitchen wall in fall 2021. But in summer 2020, when the world was still in the early days of the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and other Black people wore heavy on the nation, I struggled with finding any sense of safety, so I bought a 28-by-31-inch Harlem Toile wall decal for $85 to serve as my Zoom background as I worked remotely from my bedroom.

Every time I looked at the panel, it was a reminder that my ancestors had my back. We had survived the unsurvivable time and time again; cultivating hope wasn’t frivolous, it was essential. Like many fans of Harlem Toile, for me, the pattern is a conversation between the past, the present and a hopeful future, one where Radio Raheem’s boombox lives on forever, one where girls jump double Dutch and Black people ride horses and play hoops.

A deep history

To truly understand the power of Harlem Toile, said Martha S. Jones, a public historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University, you have to go back 200 years to Bridges’ hometown, Philadelphia, where in the 1820s there was a young white illustrator named Edward Clay. After studying in Paris and London, Clay was shocked to discover a thriving free Black culture when he returned. Well-dressed Black people strolled in the parks and frequented department stores. It was, Jones said, this kind of new sociability. Clay was unsettled by this and created panels of etchings in response. As Jones explained, “The result is a series titled ‘Life in Philadelphia,’ a very cruel, very ugly series of caricatures of Black middle-class figures in Philadelphia in this period. They are adopted, borrowed, circulated widely.”

What happened next is emblematic of how something as simple as wallpaper becomes more than decoration. A French painter, Jean Julien Deltil, borrowed from Clay’s “Life in Philadelphia” to create a series of images with titles like “Vues d’Amérique du Nord” and “Bay of New York” that featured Black middle-class Americans, but not in caricature. Deltil’s designs were made into wallpaper in 1834 by the French firm Zuber & Cie.

In the early 1960s, Jacqueline Kennedy bought that Zuber wallpaper and installed it in the diplomatic reception room in the White House. The wallpaper took on a whole new meaning when the Obamas entered the White House.

“Images of the president and first lady posing alongside the Zuber & Cie wallpaper’s assorted images of elegantly dressed Black Americans, circa 1834, indicate the Obamas’ cognizance of their own emblematic roles almost a century beyond those of the figures depicted in these White House decorations,” Richard Powell, a professor of art history at Duke University, wrote in the book “The Obama Portraits.”

Jones herself has a panel of the Zuber wallpaper installed in her home. As a historian, she said, the emotional tug of living with the figures of Black Americans that Deltil drew with grace and humanity are as important to her as family portraits and mementos.

“The characters on my wallpaper are people I speak to every day,” she said. “I greet them. I live with them, and they stand in for the folks we might know of. And the many we don’t know enough about. And in that way, they’re also precious.”

Harlem Toile continues in the vein of Zuber, a powerful visual foil for the caricatures of Black people in the 1800s, Jones said.

“To look at Harlem Toile is to see Bridges, a daughter of Philadelphia, in a sense, setting the record straight.”

Design one for yourself’

In 2005, in her work as an interior designer, Bridges had used toile de Jouy many times in clients’ homes, but she could never find a design that resonated with her.

“They were beautiful, but I just didn’t want them on my walls, and so I decided, like most designers, why not just design one for yourself?”

The scenes in Harlem Toile draw both from Bridges’ life in the New York City neighborhood where she has lived for nearly 30 years and her childhood growing up in a middle-class African American community in Philadelphia.

“The basketball scene was actually inspired by a very famous moment between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt Chamberlain is from Philadelphia, and it’s just this famous block and skyhook. That drawing was based on a photograph from this book I had.”

For Bridges, the popularity of Harlem Toile has been a revelation because it was something she designed for herself, with no intention of selling. The idea of selling it occurred when it was being printed.

“The person who was printing said, ‘Hey, I’ve never seen anything like this. Would you consider making this available to the public?’”

Harlem Toile’s correction of negative historical depictions of Black people resonates with many people.

“Think about porcelain,” said Yao-Fen You, senior curator and head of decorative arts at the Cooper Hewitt, where Harlem Toile is in the permanent collection. “Think about Blackamoors. You find some of the most racist imagery in the decorative arts.

“It’s very easy to just be like, ‘Oh, it’s just wallpaper.’ But this kind of imagery just kind of creeps in everywhere. Think about Aunt Jemima imagery. We are so influenced by that. It just becomes subconscious.”

You recently added two additional wallpapers by Bridges to the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt; one depicts girls playing hopscotch, and the second takes on the Dutch holiday tradition of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

Meena Harris, founder and CEO of Phenomenal Media, has Harlem Toile wallpaper in two rooms of her home. For her, the luxury of putting up wallpaper is about the security and permanence of housing as opposed to the tenuous nature of housing that has been a throughline in the Black American experience.

“I also think that there’s a whole other conversation to be had around intergenerational wealth and owning and passing on homes,” said Harris, the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris. “That’s also something that we’ve been deprived of, right? It feels almost radical just to say even if this is temporary, this brings me joy. This is something I celebrate, and I’m putting it on the walls and all around me.”

One of the things Harlem Toile does in drawing on traditional 18th-century French design is reference the history of elite Black American communities that are currently featured in popular culture, from a reboot series like “Bel-Air” to shows like “The Gilded Age” and “Bridgerton.”

Growing up in Atlanta, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, the Tony-nominated actor who is married to Samuel L. Jackson, was inspired by the history of Black wealth that surrounded her.

“I saw fabulous homes with beautiful fabrics,” Jackson said. “That’s the narrative that I have always wanted to put forward, which brings us back to why I couldn’t put the original toile de Jouy in my house. So I love the fact that Sheila saw something else.” Jackson has Harlem Toile wallpaper in three rooms in her Los Angeles home and has used the fabric to upholster furniture as well.

Chris Gibbs, owner of the popular streetwear brand Union LA, first saw Harlem Toile at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles.

“It was stunning to me,” he said. “In particular, being of Afro Caribbean heritage, the juxtaposition of this African influence on what would typically have been this European kind of art form, or wallpaper, really just blew my mind. It stuck with me for a really long time.”

Gibbs was inspired to use Harlem Toile on sneakers and Sonos speakers, and some of the limited-edition items were out of stock in just a few hours, something that Gibbs is used to but that caught Bridges off guard. Laughing, he recalled that she would call him and say, “‘Man, like, I’m getting killed on Instagram because I made something, and it sold out too quickly. Like, I never thought I’d be saying that.’”

Designing more affordable items has given Bridges as much pride as creating the wallpaper (basic colors are $300 a roll). I bought the speakers while I saved for the wallpaper. Bridges also sells a Harlem Toile umbrella for $30 and melamine plates, which are $54 for a set of six.

“I don’t have kids to pass it down to, but for me, this is part of my legacy — this design and making these beautiful, meaningful things, accessible to many more people than normally could access me through interior design services,” she said.

Last year, a pair of Moroccan babouche slippers made with the Harlem Toile fabric were featured in “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As an extension of the exhibit, Lisa Silverman Meyers, the global head of retail at the Met, commissioned a number of items that feature Harlem Toile patterns — scarves, bags, pillows — to sell in the museum store. She said the Harlem Toile products are among the most viral: “She put a tweet out of her wearing the scarf. And I think we sold out of the scarves that week.”

The Harlem Toile scarf was the fastest selling in its category at the Met last year, and the Bridges collaboration was the second fastest selling at the Met in 2021. (A collaboration with Off White and the late Virgil Abloh was the first.)

The Wedgwood collaboration

Bridges recently launched a collection with Wedgwood, the 263-year-old British pottery company known for its fine porcelain. Bridges had long been familiar with the company because her mother collected Wedgwood Jasperware: “We had a cabinet on the sun porch of our house in Philadelphia. All the shelves were filled with Wedgwood.”

One of Bridges’ most cherished items is a Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion that her mother gave her; she turned it into a necklace that she still wears all the time. The ceramic medallion was created in 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood, who designed a cameo of a Black man kneeling, his hands clasped in a prayerful, pleading pose. The text around the figure reads, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Wedgwood belonged to the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and created the medallion as a seal for the organization, Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic at The New York Times, recently wrote.

“I love the fact that he didn’t have to do this, but it was important to him,” Bridges said. “He used his artistry, his knowledge and ultimately his privilege in a way that was meaningful.”

Because of Josiah Wedgwood and because of her mother, Bridges said, “Wedgwood was the collaboration that I wanted more than any other collaboration.” The Harlem Toile Wedgwood collection features a bevy of details that you don’t normally see in fine porcelain collections. There’s a basketball on the inside of the teacup, for instance. And it’s likely that this is the first time a boombox has been rendered on bone china.

For Bridges, the collaboration with Wedgwood is a big win in a career dedicated to both beauty and inclusion.

“Only 2% of interior designers in the U.S. are Black,” she noted. “It’s a $17.5 billion industry. Imagine what it was like almost 30 years ago when I started.”

It cannot be underestimated how revolutionary it is to integrate design traditions the way that Bridges has, Jones said.

“Part of survival, part of how we thrive and make politics, is that possibility of self-fashioning, of beauty, of pleasure, of nylons or the click of your heels,” she said. “People really miss that or think it’s antithetical to some authentic version of Black womanhood. I’ve got portraits of Ida Wells and Mary Church Terrell. These are women who take extraordinary care for many reasons, but partly because it pleases them. This is part of how they’re making their world, in a terrible world. I don’t think we should allow folks to discount that.”

I recently purchased a few items from the Harlem Toile Wedgwood collection available at Bloomingdale’s — a teapot, a serving platter and a serving bowl — as a gift to myself but also as a heritage gift to my daughter.

Growing up as a Black Latina in a family in which poverty and enslavement played a large part in our not-so-distant past, I sometimes find it hard to give my daughter, my nieces and nephew a fuller sense of our family’s history. When I was a teenager and Seventeen magazine still came in the mail, I used to marvel at the ads for hope chests. I had no idea what I could put in such a giant chest when my family owned so little. I have one black-and-white photo of my great-grandmother in Panama, a passport-size photo of her in an elegant cloche hat, and little that goes further back.

Harlem Toile, in all its wit and finery, helps to fill in the visual gaps. The images are extraordinary in their everydayness, in part because we have not yet lived long enough where such images outnumber the hundreds of years of caricature and stereotype. I talk a lot with my friends about what it means to be a good ancestor. For us, it’s about how we live now — what we model in doing — and what we are intentionally striving to pass on. For me, Harlem Toile is an elegant, vibrant part of that effort — a way of giving my daughter and the generations that will follow a treasure trove of images that reflect our people as we have always aspired to be: joyful, creative, in community and free.

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