London’s best-kept decorating secret is Marthe Armitage, the octogenarian wallpaper designer whose nature-inspired patterns are sought after by the English style cognoscenti.
Marthe Armitage, in front of her “Jungle Birds,” in her daughter’s house; “Tree Garden”; “Solomon Seal”; “Gardeners.”
Printing on the lithographic press she’s used since the 1960s. Credit Nick Ballon
In an unassuming light-filled studio overlooking the River Thames in Chiswick, West London, Marthe Armitage is pointing to spice tins filled with inks. “On the middle shelf,” she says, “are all the original pigments — white, black, yellow ocher, pale yellow, a bluish red and vermilion. All the colors are mixed from these six. On the bottom shelf are the pigments we’ve made up. I prefer muted colors,” she says firmly. “But not namby-pamby.”
Armitage, 84, is the Mary Wesley — the English writer who didn’t publish her first novel until the age of 70 — of wallpaper design. Having begun her working life in the 1950s while her children were at primary school — “I had an hour or two before the chores,” she remembers — it was not until she was in her mid-70s that she began to gain any recognition, and even now, remains an insider’s secret. Devotees of her linocut prints of whimsical botanicals include tastemakers like Ilse Crawford, Tilda Swinton and Stella Tennant.
A story in The World of Interiors in 2005 was the turning point in her career. The decorator Miles Redd has been a fan since that time. “I remember thinking she was like a modern-day Mrs. Delany, the 18th-century decoupage artist who began in her 70s,” he says. “We called up and asked for samples, and soon enough an envelope arrived with small snippets of paper. You could see immediately that they were special. The sense of hand is quite evident and gives an immediate warmth.”
Armitage designs the custom papers and draws them herself — they aren’t taken from old documents, as so many designers’ prints are. Soft-spoken with a straightforward manner, Armitage feels that her papers “should be a background, not hit you in the eye,” which is interesting, considering their dense patterns and striking design. “Plants lend themselves to being used in repeat patterns,” she says. Just as nature forms the scenery outdoors, so these papers, which predominantly depict foliage, cobwebs and birds, lend themselves to rooms with layers of objects and textiles. Patterns vary from simple one-color designs like “Solomon Seal,” which has beautiful leaves arranged into stripes, to more complex compositions like “Cobweb,” which has three colors and is a dense joy of hedgerow life.
“It is so interesting, the difference between a repeat pattern and painting,” Armitage says. “A painting is a window. With wallpaper, your pattern starts out simply as an oblong, but then you repeat it.” Her face lights up. “And you can cover the whole world with it. It is set free.