Statement-making wallpaper comes and goes in fashion – and it’s definitely having an “in” moment right now. But there’s no benchmark for boldness quite like decorating company Osborne & Little’s early collections, first launched in 1968. One design, Speed & Fury, features pink and orange tigers, leaping through mint-green hoops, on a gold-foil background; another, Jonas Cord, is like a simplified tapestry or carpet design, but in a vibrant red, purple and blue, that creates a strobing effect on the eyes.
With their freedom from convention and pop-art aesthetic, they perfectly encapsulate the era: it’s easy to see how they would have provided a backdrop for the other equally exuberant designs of the late Sixties, from bubble chairs to violent-coloured shaggy carpets. “I’m not saying you could sell it nowadays; it was definitely of its time,” says Sir Peter Osborne, the co-founder, who is also the father of former chancellor George Osborne. Now celebrating 50 years in business, he still helms the company (co-founder Antony Little, Osborne’s brother-in-law and the creator of those first designs, retired in 2002).
Leaping tigers and psychedelic carpets are all the more surprising when you consider what else was on the market in 1968. Osborne calls it “porridge” – textured papers in oatmeal-sludge colours. “There was a gaping hole for somebody to supply some exciting, quirky wallpaper. At the time, the alternatives were Lincrusta, William Morris… all very nice, but it needed something younger and zippier. That’s when we plunged in and did all this really exciting stuff.”
Not every design from 1968 is quite so way-out: the very first one to roll off the production line is still available to buy today, in fact. Wilde Carnation is a version of a classic Ottoman design, a repeated pattern of stylised palmettes, but its oversized motif and brain-shuddering colours such as sage green on tomato red made it quite different to its heritage inspiration. In the present day it comes in a more soothing neutral, as well as a zingy grey and lime green version, and has become as much of a well-loved design classic as a William Morris.
“That really was our studio style – strong, and characterised by hard edges,” says Osborne of the early designs, and of Wilde Carnation in particular. It’s also a good example of Antony Little’s ability to reference the design movements of the past and bring them up to date. Before setting up Osborne & Little, he had been working as a graphic designer and was also responsible for the fluid, art-nouveau-inspired logo of Biba.
"All my friends were becoming stockbrokers and bankers, and I did the obligatory year in the City and absolutely hated it. I wanted to do something more exciting and entrepreneurial."
“We were both 25, both at a bit of a loose end,” says Osborne, about why the pair decided to team up. “Actually, I was at rather more of a loose end than him. All my friends were becoming stockbrokers and bankers, and I did the obligatory year in the City and absolutely hated it. I wanted to do something more exciting and entrepreneurial. Antony was the design side and I was the business side, but there was quite a lot of overlap between the two of us.”
Osborne & Little opened a showroom on London’s King’s Road in 1970, and by the middle of the decade they started producing fabrics, too (textiles now account for more than three quarters of the business).
The shop is still there now, one of only a handful of retailers to have survived huge change in the area, from swinging fashion boutiques such as Mary Quant to the birth of punk fashion via Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s World’s End shop, and on to the immaculately well-heeled place it is today.
Osborne & Little was initially surrounded by antique dealers that have all fallen away. “I actually prefer it, now it’s more cleaned-up, and with all the restaurants,” confides Osborne.
If it started off as a rebellious upstart, Osborne & Little has now long been part of the establishment, but Osborne still enjoys nurturing new talent, visiting the main graduate shows to seek out designs to buy. This is how Neisha Crosland, now one of the UK’s leading print and pattern designers, got her big break in the late Eighties. Little spotted her Royal College of Art exhibition, inspired by the architecture and textiles of Venice, and snapped up the lot. Crosland’s resulting Romagna collection was a huge hit and kick-started a wider vogue for crackled-gold, eight-pointed celestial stars everywhere you looked (one of the Romagna designs, Coronata Star, is still available).
“You can get these hero designs, but it doesn’t happen very often,” says Osborne. Recently, his eye was caught by the work of Hannah McVicar, the Bristol illustrator, after he saw a photograph of her mural at RHS Wisley. McVicar’s Carlotta fabric and wallpaper, launched this spring, features a painted array of oversized fruit, flowers and vegetables, the delicacy of the watercolour technique balancing the boldness of scale.
From the mid-Eighties, the company became well known for its advertising campaigns that incorporated witty, even surreal images where the fabrics and papers would be used in a thematic way.
The first one, for the Regatta collection, featured striped-paper-covered oars hovering above water, for example. “We didn’t want to just show a sofa with a cushion on it, with a beech tree out of the window in the background. We wanted to do something that was entirely different,” says Osborne.
The idea, ahead of its time, was to draw in buyers by the sheer imagination of the imagery. The campaigns got more and more ambitious, with beetles clad in bright trimmings clinging to bamboo, or a fanned-out pack of dogs on leads, shot from above, each of their coats a different checked textile.
In the days before Photoshop, these confections were no mean feat, and the company still follows the tradition: for its 50th birthday, an enormous “cake” of fabrics and wallpapers was made for the advertising campaign, and for the showroom window.
Interior design magazines are currently full of “maximalist” clashes of pattern and colour, and even hints at the return of matching wallpaper and fabrics. But it’s a look that’s still niche, and Osborne & Little is not yet extensively feeling its effects.
“Colour and pattern fell out of favour 10 years ago. People wanted to have nice objects or pictures on the wall instead,” says Osborne. “But we have noticed that people are starting to look for something more dramatic.” Silks, printed velvets and embroideries are all doing well, and 40 per cent of fabrics sold are plain.
"There are dove-grey walls and white linen curtains in every room. And it’s wonderful, so calm and peaceful. I have to say I can see the point in that sort of look."
None of this stops Osborne from sticking his neck out for a bolder design if he loves it, such as Portovenere, an illustration of a never-ending jumble of Italian rooftops on a hillside.
The company also exclusively distributes collections from Nina Campbell and Matthew Williamson, which complement its own designs.
I’m curious as to what Osborne has at home, given that he has the pick of hundreds of fabrics and wallpapers to choose from. He’s just moved house, so it’s a matter he’s been considering too, although not all that closely, as it turns out.
“There are dove-grey walls and white linen curtains in every room. And it’s wonderful, so calm and peaceful. I have to say I can see the point in that sort of look. But no, I’ve got to do something about it,” he chuckles. “I represent pattern and colour, so it can’t stay like that.”