Interior Designer Sheila Bridges Tells the Story of Her Iconic Harlem Toile Wallpaper
Her now-famous print is just one example of a life well-lived in richly decorated interiors.
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Have fun with color. Experiment with texture. Pay attention to the details. These are three of the tips that interior designer Sheila Bridges might offer a client who's looking to turn a house or apartment into a home.
In addition to putting these tips into practice when styling her own home, Bridges advises anyone seeking to master the art of interior design to "follow the inspiration." Doing just that led Bridges to the creation of her coveted Harlem Toile De Jouy wallpaper, which is part of her successful product line that now includes wall decals, fabric, clothing, umbrellas, and glassware. For Bridges, who has been named "America's Best Interior Designer" by Time as well as CNN, her journey is a powerful example of how one's personal drive can result in artistry that not only breaks boundaries, but captures and celebrates one's culture and history.
It's said that the best creations are born from necessity. And, in the case of Bridges' Harlem Toile, this proved to be true. As an aspiring designer, the Philadelphia native studied at some of the top institutes in the world—Brown University, Parsons School of Design, as well as a focus on decorative arts at Polimoda in Florence, Italy—all before planting roots in Harlem, New York. And yet, for all of her collegiate education, she found that something was missing. She was inspired to design a wallpaper and fabric that, prior to her creation, simply did not exist anywhere in the market. "When I was looking for a toile originally for my own house, I couldn't find one that spoke to me, that I could really, truly relate to," says Bridges. "And so, this one I designed to talk about stereotypes of African Americans and also cultural appropriation but, ultimately, to celebrate our culture, which is again often appropriated."
Toile de Jouy of traditional origin refers to the linen cloth ("toile") from Jouy-en-Josas; an area southwest of Paris. Its signature pastoral scenes and romantic imagery has made it popular since the late 18th century, but there's been a modern resurgence, too. Harlem Toile De Jouy, by comparison, reimagines this classic print by replacing those motifs with images of Harlem and its community. It comes in a range of vintage colors—including Cherry red, Pistachio green, Robin's Egg blue, and a rich mustard Yellow.
Creating a work of art that she could see herself reflected in and that tells a significant story is an accomplishment that Bridges is very proud of, and with good reason. "In general, toile usually tell stories or, at least, that's how I interpret the traditional toile fabric or wallpaper," she says. "And I think of myself as a visual storyteller. That's what I do in my design work and that's also what I do when I design products. Harlem Toile allows me to do that through a different lens, because most toiles don't have Black people in them... and so that's why I created it." Noting that wallpaper is typically an expensive purchase, Bridges was also inspired to design Harlem Toile as a piece of art that is affordable enough that people could own it.
Living with Color, Patterns, and Sense of Style
Of course, this is only one part of the sum of her work. Bridges says that color, pattern, and texture are three of her favorite things—and she puts those elements to work in both her interior design and Harlem Toile product line. Her work on a Harlem townhouse bedroom (pictured directly above), for example, is one of her favorite projects; that's partially due to the fact that her clients gave her the freedom to do whatever she wanted. To create this design scheme, Bridges played with complementary patterns in the wallpaper, headboard, and pillows. The layered bedding, pillows, and velvet upholstery of the settee bench at the foot of the bed combine for a look of soft, plush texture. And the eye-catching sunburst mirror reflects the print of the headboard beneath it. In your own bedroom redesign, she suggests starting with one item and building around it. A focal point of this bedroom scheme was a pair of gorgeous down-filled, embroidered linen pillows by Holland and Sherry Interiors. If you're interested in more of her tips, Bridges shares some of her best in her book, Furnishing Forward: A Practical Guide to Furnishing for a Lifetime ($125.60, amazon.com).
Browse through her portfolio and you'll notice that it's full of further examples. Bridges has mastered the art of bringing together decorative elements from tables to chairs, artwork, and accessories to create the picture-perfect room rich with detail. And her work has garnered a celebrity clientele, including Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Tom Clancy, and former President Bill Clinton. With the success of Harlem Toile De Jouy wallpaper, which has been featured in the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's permanent wallpaper collection, Bridges has accomplished something quite extraordinary—a contribution to the interior design collective that fills a void in the market as well as celebrates a culture and history that has been misrepresented and misappropriated.
As for what's next? Even with a successful design career that spans over several decades—25 years to be exact, as Bridges points out—she has a lot more to share with the world, including a secret product launch slated for this summer, the latest of her several successful collaborations. "I'm thrilled to collaborate with other companies that I think are a good fit for my brand," says Bridges. "We've done men's clothing—I collaborated with Union Los Angeles and we did menswear for Nordstrom, we did a project with Sonos Speakers. It's pretty organic, how I do it, but I love collaborations especially when it's a good fit between two brands." One thing worth noting is that these products are collectible as they covetable. "All of our products are considered limited edition. So most of the time when we sell out of something, that's it," says Bridges. "I sort of approach it like art in that different people have different products. Some people own our bedding, and sheets and some people own our plates, and some people own our umbrellas."
On Inspiring the Next Generation
Bridges—who, like the rest of us, has been grounded due to the pandemic—is currently planning an overdue return to Iceland, where she owns a home. When asked what she wants her legacy to be when it's all said and done, Bridges reflects, "Well, I think I want people to say that I was an inspiration to all people, not just Black people, but to all people, in my design work—in the product that I designed, in the books that I wrote, in the television shows that I had—basically my body of work is reflective of me and who I am as a Black woman in America."
For Bridges, it's about leading by example. "I also hope that by doing the things that I've done I've helped open the door for young Black designers to follow," she says, "and just creating more opportunities for young Black people who finally could see an American-African woman on TV, in magazines, in books, selling products—doing all these things that they may not have known were possible. It's sort of the idea that 'if I can see it, I can be it.'"