Cole & Son is on an Incredible Roll

Words by
Fiona McCarthy

3rd April 2023

Cole & Son are surely the ultimate British purveyors of stunningly conceived wallpaper. Their vibrant, imaginative range boasts an incredible and supremely decorative history, yet the company also offers thrillingly modern, fun wall coverings to elevate interiors to their maximum creative potential. 

Tucked down a chic side street off the King’s Road, a wonderland of colour, pattern, fantasy and drama is unfolding within Cole & Son’s light-filled three-storey new HQ, based in a former photography gallery. The 148-year-old British wallpaper company’s creative and managing director Marie Karlsson had been hunting for a space like this for years, and was drawn to the late 19th-century building’s magnificent high ceilings and vast, tall walls — the perfect space for Karlsson to hang her brand’s hero products.

The ground floor, which opens to the public this spring, will serve as the brand’s flagship base, where clients can enjoy beautiful wallpaper from wherever they sit, as Karlsson explains enthusiastically. “I want it to be a space where not only architects and interior designers but also anyone who wants wallpaper are welcome – to give them somewhere to simply enjoy what they see.”

The premises are home to the company’s extensive archive of antique printing blocks, some dating back to the 1700s, many used to produce papers for properties such as the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Chatsworth House. Also on site are a large design studio and the brand’s offices; Karlsson’s own is swathed floor to ceiling in Cole & Son’s lush Lilac. “There’s no better place for a design hub than in an old art gallery in Chelsea,” she observes. “It’s where we belong.”

Marie Karlsson of Cole & Son
Marie Karlsson of Cole & Son

Cole & Son’s origins date back to 1875, when John Perry, the son of a Cambridgeshire merchant, opened a hand-block printing business in a wallpaper mill in Islington. Ever an innovator, Perry revived the art of hand-flocking, (the late 17th-century Dutch process of imitating cut velvet), and developed a process that uses ground mica to create a lustre-like silk effect on paper. After his death, in 1941 Perry’s family sold the company to A.P. Cole, a successful wallpaper merchant, who then joined with Albert and Lionel Hill to form Cole & Hill. Cole & Hill was one of the UK’s first screen-printing studios, and produced papers for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The company was subsequently rebranded as Cole & Son.

Botanical ~Botanica~ ‘Fern ~Dryopteris~’ by Cole & Son
Botanical ~Botanica~ ‘Fern ~Dryopteris~’ by Cole & Son

Iranian-born, Swedish-raised Karlsson grew up in a house where there was “wallpaper all over, so when I stepped into the wallpaper industry, I felt I had walked into my childhood home,” she laughs. Karlsson came to Cole & Son when it was acquired by the Swedish Embellence Group in 2008. “I had a lot of brands under my portfolio but I fell in love with Cole & Son because they were still block printing some of their designs at the factory off Seven Sisters Road in Tottenham,” she recalls. “There were craftsmen there who had been working for the brand for years and years, pouring all their soul and effort into the most beautiful designs I’d ever seen.”

The Pearwood Collection "Vines of Pomona" Detail by Cole & Son
The Pearwood Collection, 'Vines of Pomona' by Cole & Son

Since taking over the Cole & Son helm six years ago, Karlsson has embraced the history of the brand — “we hand-paint everything first, exactly as it was done when the company started,” she says — while driving it forward using modern technology. Team members can spend months painting a design, vital for lending a pattern movement and depth, before transferring it into digital format. “Everything we create is original,” says Karlsson. They also have a lot of fun. “Our creativity filters through to the brand,” she enthuses. “We’re not your everyday wallpaper. When you come to us, you bring your attitude forward.”

Some designs, such as Hummingbirds, can still be found in Cole & Son’s impressive block archive. Where its original painterly pattern would have been printed with 25 or 26 colours, each one added across multiple blocks, today the design is produced using a surface print method; the pattern is engraved onto cylinders that the paper passes through.

Cole & Son expansive 'Reverie' panorama, complemented by the classic Rajapur design of 'Cascade'
Cole & Son expansive Reverie panorama is complemented by Cascade's dense canopy of bursting florals and foliage of the classic Rajapur design.

After an engraved cylinder is pushed onto the paper, depositing the ink, it is dried and then passed through the next roller, which adds a different colour. It’s a quicker process that maintains the design’s “artistic element”, ensuring the pattern is “full of life and detail,” as Karlsson explains.

Today, Cole & Son still produces almost 80% of its wallpapers in the UK. “It’s a real strength for us,” says Karlsson. Much loved by leading interior designers such as Kit Kemp, Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Martin Brudnizki, the company also collaborates with the iconic Italian design house Fornasetti (showcasing founder Piero Fornasetti’s whimsical designs, from puffer fish and cheeky monkeys to cocktails) and South African ceramicist Ardmore (think unbridled technicolour jungle joy). Last year, the brand launched Fungi Forest, a trippy contemporary toile de Jouy print, used as the backdrop to British fashion designer Stella McCartney’s Future of Fashion exhibition during Milan’s 2022 Salone del Mobile furniture fair. “Working with Stella pushed us to print on more sustainable materials,” says Karlsson of the new eco substrate used, derived from 79% renewable fibres and produced using 30% less greenhouse gases than traditional non-woven wallcoverings.

Ardmore – Jabula ‘Bush Baby’ by Cole & Son
Ardmore – Jabula ‘Bush Baby’ by Cole & Son

Some of Cole & Son’s best-loved patterns, including mid-century Palm Jungle and Flamingos, the romantic silhouettes of Cow Parsley and the Asian-inspired geometric Feather Fan, have also been translated into printed linens, cottons, velvets and embroidered silks for use as upholstery and curtains, alongside a small capsule cushion collection. “You might not be ready for wallpaper, but you can pop in a little cushion or two, here or there,” Karlsson suggests. The brand also offers a customisation service. “We can hand paint for you, print on raw silk, and if you wanted it in all shades of hot pink and white, for example, we can do that too.”

Previous craftspeople, from Perry and Cole onwards, “kept the archive alive for us to play with today, so we want to do that for the people a hundred years from now,” Karlsson beams. “Wallpaper is such an important part of English history and, as its custodian, Cole & Son needs to bring it to the future. We really need to show new generations how much fun it can be to use wallpaper in their homes.”