The Wallpaper Wonderland with Cole & Son's Hummingbird Collection

Words by
Fiona McCarthy

30th March 2024

Cole & Son’s ‘pretty maximalism’ concept draws on the fantastical, the whimsical, the extraordinary and the beautiful to create bold wallpapers with striking impact. Fiona McArthy checks out the latest in the Wallpaper Wonderland with Cole & Son's new Collection

Stepping through the doors of Cole & Son’s Jubilee Place headquarters in Chelsea is like being submerged in a wallpaper wonderland. In the VIP room, you are immediately enveloped in an 18th-century Toile de Jouy scene of lions, camels, elephants and bears. Giant palm fronds in one stairwell lead to flitting hummingbirds in another; and in the showroom, the eye traverses heavenly scenes of fantastical gardens melding with suns rising over a Mediterranean cityscape and  delicate chinoiserie, before settling on the soporific calm of monochromatic etched clouds. Downstairs, a gilded grassland veld where a mother leopard tends her cub swathes the walls of one room, while schools of spotty, stripy, spiky and endearingly puffy fish swim around the walls of another.

This perfectly encapsulates Cole & Son’s ethos of ‘pretty maximalism’, a term Marie Karlsson, Cole & Son’s dynamic creative and managing director, describes as the brand’s defining visual thread. “Pretty maximalism is our playground,” she explains with enthusiam. “Of course, we also do designs where there can be much less, but I would say the majority of our patterns are designed for maximum impact. Our customers are brave. That’s what we love.”

Cole & Son pretty maximalism - Marie Karlsson
Cole & Son Creative and Managing Director, Marie Karlsson

Cole & Son's new Hummingbird collection

Upstairs on the light-filled second floor, the Cole & Son design team is always experimenting, hand drawing and painting myriad potential designs for future collections. “When I set the creative direction for a new collection, I am always thinking, ‘How can I inspire them to bring their best?’ And then it’s important to leave them to be free in that,” Karlsson explains. “It is essential we go where others don’t.”

In January, during Paris Déco Off — the annual celebration of the latest fabric, wallpaper, trimmings and accessories collections from the world’s leading design houses — Cole & Son brought a new iteration of Hummingbirds, one of its most iconic and most historic designs, to the fore.

“We wanted to bring Hummingbirds, originally created in the 1780s, into the world of pretty maximalism to lend it a more modern feel,” Karlsson explains of the delicate pattern that graces Queen Victoria’s former bedroom at Kensington Palace. “We wanted to make it feel more contemporary and seasonal, which meant reimagining it in different colours and against different backgrounds.”

Cole & Son pretty maximalism - Hummingbird Selection
Hummingbirds, a historic Cole & Son design reimagined using the company's pretty maximalism principles, lends striking energy to decor

This was no mean feat. Hummingbirds was originally block-printed by hand in 18 colours, using a method called patch printing, which allowed the printing of more than one colour with each impression. Today it is surface printed, using 12 cylinders on a century-old machine. “It’s not an easy thing to translate, because it is a manual process, with a lot of serious work involved to get the colours just right,” Karlsson observes.

Hummingbirds Flora has been printed on a fibrous paper that lends this new design what Karlsson describes as “an extraordinary surface.” Lifelike hummingbirds, darting in search of nectar, are partnered by fluttering butterflies. The team also experimented with a fashionable colour palette traversing the chromatic themes of Love, Water, Nectar and Shelter: dusty and peachy pinks alongside bold shots of fuchsia and magenta; honeyed oranges and candied corals; moody green, teal and amethyst; inky shades of blue, from midnight and cornflower to duck egg and azure; as well as metallic backgrounds that look like a build-up of gold or silver leaf.

Cole & Son pretty maximalism - printing blocks
Hummingbirds printing blocks

To complement this fresh iteration of a Cole & Son classic, Flora, another new design in the collection, features a trailing pattern of flowers and foliage. In both Hummingbirds Flora and Flora, the magical detail Cole & Son’s creative team brings to every design is evident. “In a society obsessed with AI, it has been even more important for us to take a step back and make things authentic,” says Karlsson. “We are bringing innovation into the creative process much earlier — thinking about the textures we can use and the visual and tactile impact that makes on a design, before we go full on with our maximalism in the pattern.”

Pretty maximalism doesn’t just focus on flowers. There are other collections, such as collaborations with South African ceramics collective Ardmore and Italian design house Fornasetti, that exemplify Cole & Son’s reputation for exquisitely colourful and intensely electrified expression.

Cole & Son pretty maximalism - detailed hummingbirds
Hummingbirds is available in various colour palettes

Jabula is a collection of 11 designs inspired by Ardmore’s captivatingly imaginative ceramic pieces, from planters and bowls to candle holders and objets d’art. They are produced by a collective of 70 African artists, based on Ardmore co-founder Fée Halsted’s farm in the Caversham Valley.

“Our collaboration with Ardmore is a celebration of life,” beams Karlsson. “It’s like reading a saga when you open that collection book — you can dream yourself away completely,” she says of the extraordinary creatures inspired by the farm’s location in a remote corner of the country’s coastal KwaZulu-Natal province, which is known for its white beaches, verdant plantations and wildlife, including rhinos, lions, cheetahs, wildebeest and antelopes.

At Ardmore, a sculptor will craft the ceramic element, then an artist handpaints its intricate detail. The Cole & Son team draws on the unique quality of these pieces to translate the 3D physicality of a plate or vase into an immersive handdrawn and painted wallpaper repeat.

Cole & Son pretty maximalism - Jabula
Graceful giraffes and frolicking zebras are among the cast of characters of Afrika Kingdom, part of the Jabula range created in collaboration with South African ceramics collective Ardmore

Take Afrika Kingdom, for example, a glorious celebration of the country’s exotic animal kingdom, from eagle owls with spread wings and elegant giraffes to dancing zebras and wide-eyed bush babies. The design might at first feel bold and busy, but there is a deliberate softness to each of the creatures. “We take care to focus on elements like the eyes, which need to look kind,” Karlsson explains.

On a wall, a pattern like this has a huge impact on a room, she says. “It needs to feel slightly softer, so while it is important not to be afraid of bringing out the character and charisma in a creature, what we look for is creating something that is immediately embracing and full of joy.”

Fornasetti is a frequent Cole & Son partner. In Senza Tempo II, the second collection of this name, there is yet more whimsical, enchanting delight in designs such as Soli e Nuvole — inspired by Piero Fornasetti’s 1950s Sole di Capri print combining personified suns and stylised clouds. Ortensia is a pattern the Cole & Son team found on a small tray in the archives, as well as in the cascade of towering hydrangea bushes which grow around the Fornasetti family home and atelier in Milan, where Piero’s son Barnaba (the brand’s artistic director since 1998) works and lives. “It was a print they hadn’t developed before, so we redrew that to a larger scale and then played around with it to create a beautiful repeat for the room,” Karlsson recalls.

Cole & Son pretty maximalism -Fornasetti
Soli e Nuvole, from the Cole & Son Senza Tempo II partnership with Fornasetti, is a delightful backdrop for a bedroom

The underlying success of Cole & Son’s patterns, and especially in collaborations with names such as Ardmore and Fornasetti, is down to long-term commitment to beauty and quality. “These designs haven’t been informed by a trend or something that’s very hot one minute, gone the next,” says Karlsson. “Ardmore and Fornasetti work in the same way we do. They have their ateliers, they have their artists, they work with art. So we really delve into their craft and study how their master artisans work, and then find a way to infuse that into our own craftsmanship so that we bring the best we have collectively to each and every design.”

And over and above the fundamental value of dedicated craft, there always has to be more than a hint of “a crazy quirk,” Karlsson adds. “That’s where the idea of pretty maximalism comes in, because it transports a pattern from just being lions and elephants, or flowers and birds, into different worlds that you want to disappear into, to dream. There needs to be an element of something extra in anything we produce. We pour joy and passion into everything that we do — after all, you don’t wallpaper every day, so when you select a design from Cole & Son, it has to feel special.”