Paradise Lost? contemporary toile de Jouy

Contemporary Interpretations of Toile de Jouy

The printed fabric that has come to be known at toile de Jouy can be traced to the German national Cristoph Philipp Oberkampf who, in 1760, opened a print-works factory near Versailles in Jouy, France. The undertaking became a commercial success story until the economic downturn of the early half of the 17th century brought about the closure of the factory in 1843. While the name toile de Jouy has acquired a certain familiarity among textile enthusiasts the designs for these fabrics, as Dr. Jennifer Harris explains, “were by no means confined to the monochrome copperplate prints for which the factory became so famous.” Nor, as it turns out, does the name apply specifically to fabric produced in the town of Jouy. Instead the name has become a bit of a catch-all phrase for printed monochrome textiles which often contain scenes of bucolic bliss. The fabric is experiencing quite a resurgence today, but not – as one might assume – as a carefully preserved collector’s item. Instead, a number of designers and artists have taken the toile de Jouy to task, updating its previous role a record keeper of popular culture with increasingly contemporary concerns.

Perhaps the best known updated version in the UK at the moment is Timorous Beasties “Glasgow Toile”, short listed for the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year Award in 2005. Based in Glasgow, Timorous Beasties monochrome version of the city’s landscape is complete with junkies, Burberry fashion and Norman Foster’s Clyde Auditorium. The deep red colour is remarkably similar to examples of the historical fabric, such as the one in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum and, at first glance, the two could be mistaken for each other. But a slip of the eye is precisely what Timorous Beasties want to occur. Closer inspection reveals that bucolic bliss has changed into urban addiction and excess.

The French company Pierre Frey’s “Hong Kong Toile” is a print that does not attempt, as Timorous Beasties do, to masquerade as a historical doppelganger. Rather than revisit the lines and colours of earlier copperplate printing, “Hong Kong Toile” depicts the graphic qualities of what could be a pen and ink line drawing on paper. The work is still packed with details of landscapes far and near, but is rendered with a cartoon-like line. Pavements are packed with pedestrians and a giant Buddha watching over the whole scene reminds one of postcard snap shots from the great sights around the world.

“Toile de Hackney” by Carole Collet, Head of the Textile Futures MA course at Central Saint Martins, offers us perhaps the most technologically advanced update around. The work is engineered to shift colour using thermochromic pigments and conductive textiles and is programmed to change colour every 60 seconds. Adverts for thong knickers and graffiti appear and disappear like neon signage. The landscape is a mundane urban setting complete with piles of rubbish, but unlike “Glasgow Toile” Collet updates the aesthetic of the toile de Jouy along with the content.

American artist Kent Henricksen takes existing prints and embellishes them with embroidery. At times these stitches duplicate the printed image beneath, but elsewhere he adds characters or objects: gnomes appear in wells and float idly down streams and women’s heads are concealed by executioners hoods tied with pretty ribbons. The work is both humorous and subversive – red panties dangle at maidens’ ankles, but cloaked figures holding women hostage are also added. Perhaps most disturbing are works such as “Playing Under the Tree” where children are tied to swings and trees, some happily smiling, others with heads concealed or “Sign of the Covenant” where women’s legs are tied to the ground like tethered animals. It is hard not to admit that the sinister, cloaked figures do tend to look male, although what Henricksen’s insinuation of the previously bucolic landscape may be is not entirely clear. All is certainly not well.

Nor is all well in the work of Lea Lagasse, an MA student in Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins who has altered a toile print purchased in a Paris market in both subtle and overt ways. Stylized flames now lick at the scene of pastoral bliss, but Lagasse has also altered the printed expressions on the figure’s faces. Inspired and titled after the childhood rhyme “matches, matches never touch, they will hurt you very much” figures now grimace and shout in response to the newly introduced dangers of the land.

The American company Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts have also turned their hand to a few revamped prints, but in their case the additions are far less ominous in tone. In fact designs such as “Jungle Toile” and “Toile and Tats” look more like a child has taken their crayon box to a black and white colouring book to the prints: hats, confetti, red lips on men and women and nipples and necklaces on monkeys are all added to the original. “Frankentoile” pieces together various colour ways of the same print to create a fabric with an intact repeat but in squares of out-of-sinc colour that look a bit like a mad project to cover up stains, or the odd cigarette burn. The line was in fact borne out of a desire to make use of the remnants left over from other projects.

The trend to embellish toiles de Jouy may have something to do with the qualities of monochrome copperplate printing. Today’s artists and designers just seem to itch with the desire to disrupt the flat print with colours and textures that turn peaceful landscapes into hectic dystopia. Perhaps most importantly, the historical role of the toile de Jouy as record keeper of popular culture is something which some these updated versions have brought back to the print once again. Here the toile de Jouy acts as a surface on which contemporary events – as well as contemporary nightmares – are depicted for future generations.

Embroidery magazine (Sept./Oct. 2005: 36-37)

image: Timorous Beasties “Glasgow Toile”