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On The Wall

As a young woman living in India, British artist Marthe Armitage was fascinated by the craftsmen she saw in local bazaar stalls, printing bedspreads with carved wooden blocks. When her architect husband’s work designing a hospital in Ludhiana was completed, their growing family moved to a house in West London that was, as Armitage recalls, “looking a bit shabby.” With her children at school and some time on her hands, she decided to try printing her own wallpaper to “liven the place up.”

Remembering the Indian textile printers—but wanting to work with a material easier to handle than blocks made of wood—Armitage turned to linocut printing, incising designs onto blocks of linoleum and printing them on inexpensive paper. She replaced the Indian craftsmen’s watery dye baths with thicker oil-based pigments and learned by trial and error that, rather than stamping patterns with blocks held face-down, she would have to press the paper onto face-up designs.

After creating several batches of wallpaper by hand this way, Armitage decided to invest in an offset printer. With the help of a friend in the magazine business, she found a used machine from the turn of the twentieth century. “But it was a bit of a problem,” she says, “because it weighed nearly a ton. It had been left for me on the pavement, and my studio was all the way upstairs.” With the help of her mechanical-engineer brother, Armitage took the machine apart and reassembled it upstairs in the studio, where it remains in operation today.

Friends who saw Armitage’s papers on the walls of her home started clamoring for similar designs for their own houses, and the artist soon found herself printing a small product line for sale. Her earliest designs, many of which are still in production today, were based on foliage. “Plants are really ideal for wallpaper,” she says, “because the plants grow upwards, in the direction of the paper, and they go into repeat beautifully.” 

As Armitage’s confidence grew, so did her product line. “I did one design of Italian gardens with statuary and a staircase that goes all the way up,” she recalls, “and I did an Elizabethan one with a manor house and all the characters that lived in the manor house. I really do enjoy making an imaginary world!”

For almost thirty years, Armitage says, she sold “just a trickle” of her wallpapers. But then, around the year 2000, British wallpaper and fabric retailer Hamilton Weston featured some of her designs in a window display. An editor from The World of Interiors fell in love with them and produced a magazine feature that led to belated—but well-deserved—commercial success.

“We immediately got quite a few orders,” Armitage says, “and then the printing became arduous, so my daughter, Jo Broadhurst, who’s an architect, came over to help. For a while we printed together. But now,” says the ninety-one-year-old designer, “I can no longer print up to the standards needed, so Jo does it—and sometimes my grandson helps out, as well.”

In addition to wallpapers, Marthe Armitage Prints Limited now screen-prints its designs on fabric suitable for drapes and upholstery. And because the company makes all products to order, clients can have any paper or fabric design in any hue imaginable. “We have the client send samples of fabrics they want us to match, or a precise color,” says Armitage, “and then we mix the shades individually, by eye.”

But while the colors are exact, the printing isn’t. And that, Armitage says, is a great part of their appeal. “People rather like the handmade aspect,” she says, “but we do make customers sign an agreement saying they understand there will be variations.”

For those who want a more precise execution—or who require large quantities of paper, or want greater width than is possible on the antique press—Broadhurst has been working with experts in computer-supported design and production, and the company’s growing digital line is gaining in popularity.

Whether they are printed by hand or by machine, Marthe Armitage’s designs all begin in exactly the same place they did over fifty years ago: her imagination. “I get an idea,” she says, “and I do a small sketch. Then I make a grid and enlarge the original—again, by hand—to a big drawing. When I’ve filled the space and got it as well as I can, then I trace it onto the lino. Once I cut the pattern, I have made the decision that, yes, this pattern is worth pursuing; I can cut it out and forget about any doubts from those early sketches. It’s a very calm and happy time.”

 

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY JON CEFAI AND JONATHAN TAYLOR

WRITTEN BY SUSAN KLEINMAN

 

This story appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of MILIEU.