The marvel of marbling
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Marbling – the ancient art of pattern-making on paper – is magic. Even once all the implements (tray, paint brushes, combs) and ingredients (carrageenan or water base and gouache, oil or acrylic paints) have been carefully assembled, and the instructions followed (drop your paint carefully onto the thick carrageenan base, create your pattern and then lay over the alum-treated paper to capture it), there’s an element of happenstance. And for the burgeoning army of would-be marblers, herein lies both the delight and the devilry.
“When it’s going well it can be very therapeutic and meditative – it’s cheaper than therapy,” says Alex Lewis, who together with Clementine Stone runs Compton Marbling, a Wiltshire studio that’s been hand-making papers since the ’70s. “But when things are going badly it’s best to just walk away.”
The fascination and frustration of marbling echoes down the ages. According to Kate Brett, the author of Making Traditional Marbled Papers (The Crowood Press, £12.99) – who practises at her workshop Payhembury Marbled Papers, and frequently forages for her own carrageen seaweed along the shores of the west Scotland coast where she lives – the earliest example of marbling dates to the 12th century in Japan. Known as suminagashi, meaning “floating ink”, it is a process in which ink and dispersant are carefully combined in a tray of water before being transferred onto paper to ethereal effect. By the 15th century, the practice had moved to southern India, later spreading to Iran and Turkey, where the vibrant decorative paper industry of Istanbul eventually found its way to the west.
“They curiously fleek their paper, which is… dappled like chamolet,” wrote the author and traveller George Sandys in 1615, of the often ornate, figurative Turkish papers, scented with fenugreek seed and named ebru, meaning “the art of clouds”. Marbling flourished in Europe, says Brett, entering England via Holland in the mid 17th century, when everything from chest boxes to drawers, bookends to shelves, was prettified with a distinctive array of “Dutch papers”. Since then, marbling has been in and out of vogue. In recent years, marbled patterns have moved beyond books and paper goods, increasingly featuring on everything from wall coverings and decorative objects to interior fabrics and fashion.
“If everything comes in waves, then marbling is a tsunami,” says Lucinda Chambers, co-founder of the online retail curation site Collagerie and label Colville, of its renaissance. Chambers first encountered marbling as an adolescent, when her mother Anne Chambers immersed herself in the art form after studying bookbinding. “There were dripping papers all over our flat,” she recalls. She went on to write seven books on the subject, teaching and lecturing around the world, but it’s only lately that Chambers has felt able to reconnect with the craft. “I could see the beauty of it,” she says. “But I wasn’t interested in bringing it into my home – it’s always just taken me back to the ’80s.” That was until now. Chambers recently installed a pair of mismatched, hand-pleated marble lampshades by Rosi de Ruig in her kitchen as an ode to her mother. “It’s a simple way to add some colour and pattern without it feeling too overwhelming,” she says.
When Chambers saw the work of Austin-based marbling artist Mercedez Rex, she invited her to collaborate on a series of prints for Colville’s AW21 collection. The design mimics a work-in-progress social media shot showing concentric circles of acrylic paint layered over the surface of Rex’s marbling tray. “It’s punchy, modern and theatrical. The colours are extreme and in your face. It put marbling in a whole new context for me,” she says of the American’s bold, psychedelic style. With a background in textile art and a passion for process, Rex is drawn to the experimental possibilities of marbling. “I like a little unpredictability in my art; it’s where I can let go,” she explains. “And people are being drawn to these more whimsical elements of surface design.”
This sense of whimsy is precisely what compelled the London-based Swedish interior designer Beata Heuman to develop her own Marbleised Velvet fabric when working on her first big project – a smart west London townhouse – a decade ago. “I love the freeness and the randomness of marbling,” she says. “There’s this element of always trying to tame it, but you can’t.” Inspired by an old paper sample, it also gave rise to a marbled wallpaper – which remains far and away her bestselling design – and recently took the eye of designer Adam Bray, who backed the bookshelves of a client’s library with the paper. Last year, Heuman introduced Dappled Velvet, a swirling marble textile playing with scale and pattern repeats. “It’s distinctive, but has classical connotations so it doesn’t ever feel too out there.”
Such traditionalism similarly drives the Bath-based marbler, designer and maker Florence Saumarez’s paper goods business, Inq. Since setting up her studio in 2017, Saumarez has been working with decorators, stationers and designers to create bespoke marbled papers, as well as lampshades, paperweights, marbling kits and workshops that delve into the craft’s rich history. Saumarez employs gouache paints, which, although temperamental, create a matte, velvety finish and crisp patterns. She believes the current marbling wave is buoyed by people becoming more willing to try their hand at the craft and by practitioners becoming more open in sharing their knowledge, often on social media. “Even when I had my first marbling class six years ago there were secrets being held back,” she says.
For Saumarez, the allure of marbling lies in its many applications. “I’ve always been fascinated by what marbled papers can become,” says the designer, who will shortly launch her own line of wallpapers and decorative objects for the home. “Even though it’s this very traditional craft, its applications are infinite.” Saumarez has long offered a bespoke, hand-marbled wallpaper design service, but these new creations are the first to be sold off-the-shelf using an amalgamation of handmade and digital techniques. The collection includes Spanish marble wall coverings available in multiple colourways and a rusticated pattern that borrows from the vivid floor pattern found in the atrium of Villa Borsani in Milan. Each colourway has a corresponding border, and will be sold alongside classically informed mirrors, wall lights and ceramic lamp bases to accompany her marbled paper shades.
American paper artist Beth Scanlon, the founder of Scanlon Apparati, creates high-end and decorative cartonnage desk accessories, including boat-shaped trays, wastepaper baskets and ornate baroque letter holders, some featuring shadow boxes, informed by the 18th-century art of paper theatres. “I’ve always been drawn to marbling,” she says. “It has this bookish, literary charm.” Sold at Colefax & Fowler and KRB in New York, with whom Scanlon is launching a series of five new marbled designs in November, many of the papers she uses are polished with beeswax, lending them an elevated patina – and a suitably scholarly scent. She works with an array of marble artists to bring her designs to life, including Payhembury, Naples-based Flavio Aquilina and John and Jane Jeffery, who artfully decorate what’s known as printer’s waste paper (which has been recycled from antique books and manuscripts) from their home studio in Edinburgh.
For such creatives marbling is a true labour of love. “It sparks as many tears as it sparks happiness,” says Saumarez. “The alchemy that you’re dealing with can be incredibly challenging. There are so many variables – the paint behaves differently from summer to winter, and even tension in the body can affect the results. But I love the fact that it’s so instant.” The joy for Saumarez? The possibilities are endless.