Timing is everything. In 2002, just as fabric designer Richard Smith moved into an oppressively unadorned apartment in London's Pimlico area, near Victoria Station, his newest fabric collection debuted at Osborne & Little. Like any passionate artist, Richard couldn't quite let go.
Instead of waiting to measure the merits of his collection by consumer responses, he put his artistry to a much harder test: He declared his new 715-square-foot apartment a canvas and anointed himself art critic. If he could wake each morning and go to sleep every night with his own fabric designs on the walls, windows, and furniture—and still feel fine—he could pronounce his work good. And if his plain-vanilla apartment happened to morph into something more exciting in the process, well, that was icing.
"I wanted to experiment with the fabrics, and the flat was my lab," he says, sounding more the scientist than the artist. "Designing in a vacuum is one thing. It's quite another to actually see your designs on the walls, the windows, the furniture."
Specifically, he wanted to test the impact of one large-scale print ("Jacobello") from the collection. "I hoped to show that you can use a large-scale print with colors in it as a backdrop without the fabric becoming completely overpowering," explains Richard, who for nine years designed wallpapers and fabrics for Nina Campbell and whose other collections have sold at upscale houses like Schumacher and Brunschwig & Fils.
Richard bought six inexpensive chairs, then covered them in a favorite fabric from his collection, using a staple gun and scrap material left over at the mill while the fabric was still being painted ("a process that takes forever"). He gave the chair legs a faux tortoiseshell finish.
Solid oak folding doors used to separate the kitchen from the living area assume the look of an old hand-tooled Spanish leather screen. Richard stenciled a pattern from an 18th-century English silk onto the doors, then added nailhead trim.
His experiment was a success. Far from overpowering, the large-repeat linen fabric blankets the living room walls from ceiling to floor for a "very calming environment. The fabric walls totally envelop you, and that's comforting," he says.
"The olive green sofa was given to me by my grandparents and travels with me from flat to flat," says Richard. To change its look, he dressed the sofa with a throw he made from a fabric in one of his collections. Tucked in, the throw suggests upholstery.
Another of his fabrics adds instant elegance to six inexpensive dining chairs. "I cheat," Richard admits proudly. "I did a really bad upholstery treatment myself, with a staple gun." He took more care with the chair legs. Their lackluster wood now sports a faux-tortoiseshell finish that he applied himself.
"I wanted to put the large-scale fabric in perspective," says the fabric's designer—and what better place than the walls of his own living room? The Tuscan-inspired linen mutes the squalls and screeches of noisy London traffic. Rich used an appliequé adapted from a Turkish pattern on the table skirt.
"I started experimenting with paint effects when I was working with Nina," he recalls. "I got books from the library and taught myself various faux finishes."
Those finishes imbue the apartment with a fine handcraftsmanship that, in places, emits a cathedralesque shimmer. The fireplace surround, which he calls "my very bad attempt at eglomise" (reverse-painted glass), is one glowing example, using silver leaf and oil paints. The same technique, with the addition of copper leaf, turns the bedroom's double doors into high-sheen art.
More of Richard's handiwork—and cheating—hangs on the bedroom walls: What appear to be antique prints are actually photocopies of engravings by 18th-century Italian artist Giambattista Piranesi, reproduced on heavy parchment paper. Richard put a faux-marble finish on the frames to give them their distinctive look.
Among the most interesting finishes is that on the doors that hide the kitchen from the apartment's living room. Richard stenciled a pattern from an 18th-century English silk fabric onto the heavy, solid oak folding doors, then trimmed the doors with brass studs "to give the idea of a Spanish leather screen." But a little cheating was in order. "The nailheads actually come in strips, with only about three real nails per yard-the rest are fake. It would've taken forever to hammer that many nails."
As to the public's response to the now three-year-old fabric collection, history speaks for itself. A year after the collection was launched, Richard was asked by a much-impressed Lee Jofa to design a collection for the fabric house. "Fairlight," as he calls his newest fabric collection, debuts at Lee Jofa this fall. If he decides to test those fabrics in "real space," it will have to be at his country home on the English Channel. No matter how much it cheats, the London apartment is finished-for good.
Designer Richard Smith
Photography: Andrea Von Einsiedel