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Historically toiles (scenic patterns printed on light cotton) have featured romanticized pastoral scenes: gamboling sheep, rolling hills, cavorting shepherdesses. These toile wallpapers riff on themes that reflect a more modern experience: think strip malls, trash day collection, and even the odd crime and misdemeanor, and offer a hip spin on urban life.

Undoubtedly one of the most famous of the urban toiles (an inductee into the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum) is NYC designer Sheila Bridges' Harlem Toile, which lampoons cultural African American stereotypes. Viewed from afar, the look of this toile is traditional, but the social context is much more complex. "Eighteenth-century French toile depicted pastoral scenes with classical ruins, ladies in frilly dresses on swings," Bridges says. "I wanted to make my own pastoral countryside, and the countryside of America is the suburbs."

Timorous Beasties is known for their lush, striking and edgy wallpaper designs, and this London Toile is rife with contemporary social ills that plague urban centres: homelessness, solicitation, public intoxication and a gunpoint mugging.

A rusted Mercedes and creaking metal gate is part of the cityscape of Darling, on the coast of South Africa, which inspired the pattern for The Wren Design.

Jessica Smith's toile fabric on the left is an homage to the time-honoured ritual of trash day pick-up, while a Gaugin-esque sun worshipper lolls under the palms at one of South Beach's boutique hotel pools.

This Spying on China toile pattern, also by Jessica Smith, has political overtones, showing the after-effects of a 2001 collision between an American spy plane and a jet off the coast of Hainan Island.

Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys worked with Revolver New York to create his Brooklyn Toile that extolls life in the King's borough, sprinkled with images of the Coney Island roller coaster, Hasidic Jews, Notorious B.I.G. and elevated subway tracks.

The banalities we pass every day are present and accounted for in Groovy Q's Dirty Linen collection. Strip malls, shopping carts and gas pumps are elevated to new, poetic heights, even though the toile itself is discontinued.

See our photo gallery of Wallpapered Rooms for more inspiration.

Photo credits:
1a. Sheila Bridges' Harlem Toile, Style Noir blog
1b. Sheila Bridges' Harlem Toile, Blu Label Bungalow blog
2. London Toile, Timorous Beasties
3. Darling Toile du Jouy, The Wren Design
4a. Jessica Smith's Trash Day Toile, Furniture Seen blog
4b. Jessica Smith's South Beach Toile, The Well-Appointed Catwalk blog
5. Jessica Smith's Spying on China, Design Salad blog
6. Mike Diamond's Brooklyn Toile, Revolver New York
7. Groovy Q, If It's Hip, It's Here blog

Author: 

Wendy Jacob

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