Designer Spotlight-Jonathan French: On How his Mom, Designer Anna French, Inspired his Journey as an Artist
Jonathan French shows his luxury wallpaper designs at a show in Moscow.
Jonathan French grew up surrounded by design, as the son of designer Anna French, whose iconic brand of fabrics and wallpapers, an industry staple, is now owned by Thibaut Fabrics. Like many children, it took some time for Jonathan to fully appreciate the magnitude of what his mother did. “As a young man I really wanted to make serious artwork … and doing kind of cutting-edge contemporary painting,” he said. “I didn't take what my mother did very seriously.”
Then came a dinner with a former girlfriend’s mother, who worked with disadvantaged children. “This mother said that what my mother does is incredibly important, to make people's lives better,” he said, explaining that the more people do creative things, the better and more beautiful, the world becomes.
His mother ended up donating fabrics and wallpaper to a facility that benefited children. “It was good to realize [that] what she was doing was really, pretty great … So I moved more and more into working with her on all sorts of designs,” said Jonathan.
Birds of Paradise from the Sanctuary Collection.
The Birth of a New Brand
Anna French sold her company to Thibaut in 2007, and Jonathan worked on a number of projects before creating his own wallpaper company in 2013. Jonathan, who studied fine art painting at the Chelsea School of Art in London, spent several decades working alongside his mother and learned to love the beauty of well-crafted fabrics and wallcoverings.
“People might think the design was finished, but she would always question it a bit,” said French. “She was a perfectionist, in her design and in life. I feel like I inherited from her a very good sense of design, of making things right. It's very easy to settle for something … You can always do more.”
Culebretta Lighthouse Sea Foam wallpaper.
Finding Design Inspiration in Everyday Life
Jonathan moved with his three sons from London to Providence, Rhode Island, in 2005—and his company’s name, Mayflower Wallpaper, is inspired by this journey, the same the Pilgrims made. His company logo, a compass rose, with the United States in the west and the United Kingdom in the east, represents the merging of his two worlds.
The inspiration for Jonathan’s designs [see on Instagram] comes from all sorts of sources—from his interest in art and music to his travels to the beauty he sees in New England. His family life also contributes to his creativity. He met his wife, Stephanie Beebe, formerly of Brooklyn, N.Y., when she used his Airbnb Tiverton home for a holiday. They now live in the 3.5-acre estate together with their three-year-old daughter, Sophia, and run Mayflower Wallpaper, which are sold by some 700 retailers nationwide, together.
Black marble wallpaper.
Travel Helps Creativity ... And Wallpaper Design
“I love nature and walking clears the mind and makes you think of designs,” said French, who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, and taken expeditions in the jungle and Panama.
Some of his designs also come from his travels. The idea for the Stark Collection’s Paria Canyon wallpaper, for instance, formulated from a rugged area he visited in Utah with amazing desert formations. “The designs are generally named after interesting natural places in the world, like Pamukkale which was a place in Turkey with very interesting landforms.”
Reflective Pool Midnight wallpaper.
Finding Sanctuary: In Design and in Life
His newest collection is Sanctuary. “The collections often sort of reflect what's going on in my life,” French said. “In the last three years, I've met a lovely lady that I'm now married to, and we've had a baby together, and we're living here in this beautiful place. It's like I found sanctuary.”
These wallpapers feature a mix of designs, including silver birch forests, lotus flowers, reflective pools, birds of paradise and cranes.
Wallpapers from the Transition Collection.
Other designs reference films, such as the Stark Collection’s Interstellar that plays with high-contrast abstract patterns inspired by the space flick helmed by Christopher Nolan that featured actor Matthew McConaughey.
The Solaris Collection, a blend of geometrics and florals in varying colors and tones, also pays homage to cinema and the work of Russian director and writer Andrei Tarkovsky. “Solaris  was the Russian equivalent of 2001 Space Odyssey , which was made by Stanley Kubrick,” said Jonathan, who pointed out that the American film director made movies about every four years, similar to Tarkovsky. “They kind of mirrored each other during the Cold War, which was interesting,” he said.
Petra from the Stark Collection.
The Astounding Turns of Creating Designs
Often, Jonathan work surprises him, even when it follows his interests. He likes exploring new things and often gets lost in the process of creating and that can lead to some unexpected places. “If you don't totally know what you're doing you can produce something new that hasn't been done,” he explained. “You’re more apt to do something special if you kind of almost go in blindly.”
Japanese Tree from Transitions from Cool to Warm Collection.
Art at Home Inspires Family Life and Work
The family homestead is a museum of Jonathan's work—and his art is displayed on the walls. He uses mostly photographs, capturing anything that inspires him, to develop ideas for his wallpaper. Some images come from simple items found in his home. For example, he made his desk from a piece of reclaimed wood and later created a wall covering, called Shiplap, based on it.
Understanding why a design looks good or if it needs more work is based on his decades of experience in the field … and a gut sense of what is pleasing. “Often it's on the edge of ugliness that something is really beautiful,” he said. “You can paint a beautiful flower and then mess it up with black all over it and then wash the paint off and the flower coming out of the dark gray looks much nicer than it did before. Like it's gone through something.”
Jonathan French, his wife Stephanie and designer Sasha Bikoff at the Architectural Digest Design Show in N.Y.
All photos supplied by Jonathan French. Featured photo: Jonathan showing his wallpapers at a show in Moscow, This design is Sharks based on his silver belt buckle.
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