Well-dressed Rooms

Decorating Book Spotlights A Longtime Trendsetter In Fabric Design.

Focus On Home Decor

September 11, 2005|By Claire Whitcomb | Claire Whitcomb,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

If you want curtains for the Oval Office or wallpaper for the White House's Blue Room, call the venerable fabric house, Brunschwig & Fils.

But if you want wonderful tales about decorating, sit down with Murray Bartlett Douglas, Brunschwig's tastemaker for the last 50 years and co-author, with Chippy Irvine, of the new decorating book Brunschwig & Fils Up Close: From Grand Rooms to Your Rooms (Bulfinch, $50).

"I remember when my Aunt Zelina took me to see a French woman who'd done her drawing room up entirely in black-and-white chintz," Douglas recalls. "In those days, chintz in a paneled 18th-century salon was a tremendous no-no. You decorated with damasks and embroidery and tapestry, not cotton."

But the use of a simple two-color fabric created "a clean, lovely look," Douglas says. In short order, her Aunt Zelina introduced the rule-breaking French chintz to the American market.

Of course, Aunt Zelina just happened to be married to Roger Brunschwig, owner of a famous French fabric house and the son of its founder, Achille Brunschwig. Mrs. B, as Douglas calls her aunt, was an accomplished decorator who orchestrated Brunschwig & Fils' growth from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Like her aunt, Douglas has a fabulous eye and a deep love of textile history. In Brunschwig & Fils Up Close, she delves happily into the stories behind toile and chinoiserie and the persistent influence of India's Tree of Life pattern. And she shows how some of her favorite Brunschwig patterns - there are 20,000 to choose from - are being used in museums and homes around the world.

Close readers of Douglas and Irvine's 1995 book Brunschwig & Fils Style will find one delicious surprise in this new volume. The Lafayette bedroom at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate is not what it was.

Ten years ago, Douglas reproduced a period toile for the bed-hanging and curtains. Then, in 2003, a letter surfaced in which Lafayette described his room as having "indienne" fabrics, a reference to Indian-inspired cotton prints with intricate pen work. Douglas turned to a French fabric archive for an appropriate print to reproduce. No sooner were the curtains hung on Lafayette's bed than she found another sample of the same print.

"I realized mine was faded!" she says.

In the 18th century, yellow was a particularly fugitive color. Which meant that green was also vulnerable to fading, because the only way to create green was to overprint yellow on blue. She'd given Mount Vernon a fabric that had a pattern of exotic blue and red flowers. It was pretty, "but without the green, not as lively," Douglas says. On her recommendation, the curators voted to redo the room with the new print she had uncovered.

In addition to being steeped in history, Douglas has her finger to the wind about decorating trends.

"We're at the tail end of the beige-and-white era," she says, not without regret. "People are welcoming brighter and sharper colors." She's also anticipating a return to floral prints.

"I even see chintz creeping back," Douglas says.

For some years now the trend has been to choose solid colors for sofas and upholstery, and relegate prints or plaids to pillows.

"I think things are turning the other way," Douglas says. "People are selecting prints for their curtains and upholstery and using solid colors as an accent."

Though the slipcover craze of the 1980s and '90s has waned, Douglas is personally an enthusiast.

"When I was growing up, my mother always had summer and winter slipcovers," she says. In her own country home, she's religious about changing her decor with the seasons. In her dining room, for example, she trades her summer blue-and-white chair covers for her winter set, salmon-colored damask-like weave.

"I even change the curtains," Douglas says. Her white summer sheers, edged with blue trim, are replaced by a cream, green and red stripe that looks cozy in the winter.

That sort of personal style is, as it has always been, the secret to decorating success.

"Today people are trusting their own judgments, and they aren't afraid of mixing things up a bit," Douglas says. "Decorating is less solemn and more fun."

Prints and patterns

The fall offerings from Brunschwig & Fils include its Paule Marrot Editions, a revival of floral and botanical prints in bright colors designed by Marrot (1902-1987), an influential figure in French textile design.

In addition, KirkBrummel, a division of Brunschwig & Fils, offers Just Now, a line of fabrics with a wide variety of "Neo-geometric" patterns, including circles, dots, bands and pinstripes.

The nearest Brunschwig & Fils showroom is at 300 D St. N.W. in Washington. Call 202-554-1004, or visit the Web site, www.brunschwig.com.

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