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Patterns of Family Life

The textures and colors of everyday comfort mix in cheerful profusion at the London house of Sir Peter and Lady Osborne.

Amy Lowell, in her seminal 1915 poem “Patterns” – suffering under the terrible bondage of social constraints and romantic conflicts – asked in despair, “Christ! What are patterns for?” It is a question that seems not to have troubled Felicity Osborne. In her Bayswater house patterns are everywhere, tossed together in wild abundance, exaggerating and mirroring and undermining and complementing one another. This is a house about surface, not about depth, about what happens in two dimensions rather than three. It is sometimes too easy to miss the complexity of the skin of things; ornament and detail can disappear into form and architecture. Not at the Osborne residence.

Lady Osborne’s husband, Sir Peter, is a founder of Osborne & Little, the noted English fabric and wallpaper house. One thinks of Osborne & Little today as a firm so well established, with such resonance, that it must date back at least to Victorian times, but Lady Osborne is quick to explain that it is only the Osborne name that has so protracted and distinguished a history. “Osborne & Little was founded in the late sixties,” she explains, “when my husband was just out of university. He and his brother-in-law Antony Little felt that there was no interesting wallpaper available in England and set up a shop with paper they printed themselves by hand. We were all very young then, and it was experimental – though we produced, I think, some very beautiful things.” That store – in what has since become the fashionable shopping area of Brompton – caught the eye of a director of Clarence House when he was strolling in London; his decision to distribute the wallpapers in America contributed to the meteoric rise of Osborne & Little.

These days, Osborne & Little is one of the great establishments of English design, with a worldwide staff of more than 250 and its own showrooms in America. Though the company continues to produce wallpapers, it is increasingly focused on the several collections of fabrics it launches every year. Most of the woven fabrics are made in France, but the silks and print fabrics are English, except for the most delicate prints, which are done in Switzerland. Osborne & Little has no single and easily articulated style but the emphasis is usually on elegant patterns in English colors: muted semipastels of peach and yellow or deep red, blue, and green to which gold and silver metallic threads or paint are often added. The apparently solid colors are always complex; among the Osborne & Little classics are a series of wallpapers that imitate paint effects, and many of today’s papers have a richness that comes from the layering of several closely related tones in their backgrounds. The fabrics use surface and texture to increase the lushness of pattern.

Nearly all the fabrics and wallpapers in the Osborne house are from Osborne & Little. I asked Lady Osborne whether this was a matter of policy – home as showcase – and she laughed. “Other people’s fabrics, though often very beautiful, are not free,” she said. The drawing room paper has a pattern of two-toned gold stars on a rich cream background; it looks like the background for an Annunciation. The curtains are wonderfully sumptuous cream silk taffeta with green edges. In the kitchen/dining room there are classic stripes; in the bedroom the curves of a scroll pattern in the wallpaper are echoed on a larger scale by the paisley design in the curtains.

To limit discussion of pattern to the papers and fabrics would be to miss the real point of the Osborne’s house. Seldom have I encountered such an array of inlaid, painted, and veneered furniture and of exquisitely decorated and richly fashioned ceramics – even the bindings of the books stand out here in the full splendor of their establishment. The collection is strongest on arts and crafts; there are William Morris fabrics and chairs and William De Morgan vases, plates and tiles. There are also fine examples of other great pattern-obsessed craftsmen, among them a Tiffany lamp and a lot of Fornasetti. There are two pieces of rather grand eighteenth-century Portuguese furniture, both elaborately carved and one inlaid with ivory. Over the mantel in the drawing room is a fabulous mirror with Minton tiles, designed by Edward Godwin, which was bought at auction by a proxy “who forgot to stop bidding,” recalls Lady Osborne. “But we do love the mirror.” If the patterns were busier, the effect would be intolerable, but though there are lots of patterns, many are simple and they do not overwhelm.

The dining room is full of Carlton Ware from the 1920s and ‘30s and Mason’s ironstone, toward which Lady Osborne maintains a casual attitude. “I rarely buy anything so valuable that I can’t use it,” she says. “It was made to be used, and I enjoy it, and I put almost all of it through the dishwasher.” The whole house is a funny mixture of the highly decorated and the English undecorated. Everything is clean and fresh. “Old fabrics are the emperor’s new clothes of our time,” Lady Osborne asserts, though she does have one panel of rather wonderful chintz from the Great Exhibition of 1851 in a bathroom curtain. The colors are muted but not faded, the tones rich but not muddy. Everything has its place, but it is a house in which you can flop comfortably among the cushions, a house in which children have clearly been made to feel comfortable.

Indeed, the Osborne children express themselves freely in their own bedrooms. One son, who is at art school, has covered his walls from floor to ceiling with postcards, bumper stickers, drawings, magazine pages, and other pictures. They are overwhelmingly strong images, mostly psychedelic, but together the effect is one of pattern; though the room is at first startling in the context of this cozy English house, the sensibility that underlies it is not far from the sensibility manifest elsewhere in the Osborne house. It can only be a matter of time before champagne bottles fabulously distorted with the wax of a thousand late-night students candles give way to some latter-day William De Morgan.

What are patterns for? The patterns on the walls and the patterns on the furniture and the patterns on the objects and the patterns on the plates seem in this place, a pattern called home, to fit with well-established patterns for a life lived according to London habits and old-fashioned valued. Such implacable surface order is the oldest priority of the English – and is in fact what patterns are for.