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kottke.org posts about Sheila Bridges

Sheila Bridges’ Harlem Toile

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2022

Toile de Jouy is a fabric, typically featuring “romantic pastoral scenes”, that was popular in France in the 18th century — the wealthy covered their walls in it. Interior designer Sheila Bridges developed her own patterns for her Harlem Toile, inspired by her Harlem and Philadelphia neighborhoods and the African American experience more generally.

As an African American living in Harlem, I have always been intrigued and inspired by the historical narrative of the decorative arts, especially traditional French toile with its pastoral motifs from the late 1700s. I’m entertained by the stories these patterns tell and the questions they sometimes raise. But after searching for many years for the perfect toile for my own home, I decided that it quite simply didn’t exist. I created Harlem Toile de Jouy initially as a wallcovering then expanded the collection to include fabrics, bedding, plates, glassware, umbrellas and clothing. This design (which lampoons some of the stereotypes deeply woven into the African American experience), has been featured in The Studio Museum In Harlem, the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, and the Musée De La Toile De Jouy in Jouy-en Josas, France. I am honored to have my Harlem Toile De Jouy wallpaper included in The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s permanent wallpaper collection.

a variety of scenes featuring Black people on Sheila Bridges' Harlem Toile

Sheila Bridges' Harlem Toile pattern on a tea cup

Sheila Bridges' Harlem Toile pattern on a pillow

Veronica Chambers wrote a great piece about Harlem Toile for the NY Times: The Wallpaper That Is Also a ‘Reminder That My Ancestors Had My Back’.

The wallpaper, which was created by the 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; women in ball gowns sit under a majestic tree, one combs the other’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.

I’m not doing justice to all of what is being expressed in Bridges’ work and how it’s resonating with Chambers & other members of the Black community, so you should just read the piece. (thx, caroline)