Interiors: Choose a house, choose to decorate, choose wallpaper
`Trainspotting' set designer Kave Quinn has turned her back on minimalism and transformed her London terrace into a riot of classic hand- printed wallpaper. Nonie Niesewand is dazzled
Saturday 31 October 1998
"Good on Lord Irvine," Quinn says. "That Pugin stuff is great, and it's appropriate in that setting. At home I find it like living with works of art, a living museum really." The look is completely different to one of her more recent films, A Life Less Ordinary, starring Cameron Diaz. In that film, her set for heaven was whiter than a soap-powder promo, with powdery walls, a chalky floor so alabaster pure that the film crew had to wear surgical gloves and boots so as not to mark it. "Hell to me," Quinn says, "devoid of colour because it's devoid of emotions".
Wall-to-wall emotion - as well as astonishment and a certain unease - confronts the visitor to Quinn's own home in Finsbury Park, which she shares with husband Aidan, baby Oonagh, toddler Fergus and two Hungarian sheepdogs with Rasta tangles. It's like stepping into a kaleidoscope and just as dazzling. Tiny rooms tremble with walls of over-scaled 1890s wallpaper patterns by Charles Voysey and William Morris. Everything has been pasted with paper covered in the stylised leaves of the late 19th century or painted in cocktail colours such as daiquiri, creme de menthe and damson.
In the tiny living room, William Morris paper sprouts spiked leaves more robustly than the real-life tree outside. In the bedroom, rattled by trains passing along the railway line at the bottom of the garden, Voysey's giant green tulips pulsate upon pink and blue, more triffid-like than tulip, so vibrant that it's like stepping inside Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak's scary book for kids. "The effect in our bedrooms is 3-D," says Quinn, "very Rousseau, jungly, naive. You don't quite know what's in the forest, bit of nightmare really."
Of course, that wasn't the impression the staid old Victorians wanted when they stylised nature and hand-blocked it on paper rolls. They were looking for a painterly effect. Sanderson still has the original hand- blocks for the extravagant designs of William Morris and Charles Voysey. Turning them into wallpaper requires what the design historian Peter Floud describes as a kind of "niggling repetitive handwork". Kave likes the painterly Arts and Crafts papers, "like potato prints", precisely because they show their handwork and are not products of the industrialised machine age. She got hers specially coloured by Sanderson, with the effect that the images appear to dilate and inflate. "Complementary colours and contrasts alter perception and the depth of field," she explains, which is why they have an emotional charge.
Her film sets for Shallow Grave and Trainspotting won awards for the same reason, her emotional use of colour design. That smug professional flat in Shallow Grave with its yellow walls with green dados like the Habitat catalogue was a sinister place pierced with shafts of light and long shadows. The turning point in the movie came when three friends found their new flat-mate was a heroin dealer who had OD'd in his room. Quinn visited the mortuary to find out exactly the right colour blue to paint the walls in his bedroom to get that drop-dead chill factor.
Her research for Trainspotting took her into crack smokers' shooting galleries and men's urinals. "We had to get yukkiness without being yukky. For that horrible toilet scene which most people remember, I overdid it with a breeze-block addition to a betting shop, slightly below ground level, water running down the walls, filthy, smashed tiles, never been cleaned and the only door hanging off the only cubicle."
The Day-glo orange and shocking pinks of the sets brought a sense of isolation and alienation to the characters, something she learnt from studying Francis Bacon's paintings. "It was never a documentary," she argues. "We had to set an emotional tone and either focus or divert attention. Irvine Welsh has more to offer than drug takers and losers. The film reflects the humour of the book. Grim, yes, real, but the same feeling the book had."
Kave used to be a punk who dyed her hair pink and strutted her stuff on the King's Road. The nose-thumbing dressage for her own home is inspired by a French chateau she and Aidan visited on a motorbike tour of France. She loves the richness and opulence and flamboyance that she finds sadly lacking from the English country houses bogged down in good taste.
It's the weirdly layered look of previous centuries that Quinn likes to deconstruct, pull apart, pierce and rip off in her own way. Quinn calls her style "fancy" and in her modest terrace reproduces this faux chateau style with heraldic muslin banners by Celia Birtwell, which show a hybrid bestiary - of a camel crossed with a porcupine, a yak with a fishface tortoise and a spotted unicorn. While Birtwell studied textiles at the Royal College of Art, Quinn studied costume at Central St Martins, where her tutors always said she was a good colourist. Her degree show was pink and green cowboy costume stuff, "very Vegas".
But until a few years ago the only work in films was for Merchant Ivory period pieces or BBC costume dramas, both of which she dislikes. So she took a film course, which led to her meeting Andrew Macdonald and Danny Boyle, the makers of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and the rest is history. Film work means building sets on an exaggerated scale, increasing the alienation of the actors without distorting the scale too much. The sitting room in Shallow Grave was modelled on New Town Edinburgh flats stretched to 40ft by 35ft. Her own living room is only 20ft by 15ft but she stretches the scale with the William Morris paper - "an overscaled pattern in layered colours to give it extra depths. You perceive the space like a camera lens opening wide focus and then zooming in close."
This celluloid approach makes sure that William Morris and his band of Merrie Olde Englanders don't pass their sell-by date. Morris will be back in fashion at the turn of this century just as he was in the last, she predicts. (Indeed, the world's most comprehensive archive of late 19th- and early 20th-century papers and textiles, the Silver Studio Collection, is now going back into production. The collection is owned by Hornsey College of Art, part of Middlesex University, and licensing of the designs to manufacturers will fund a museum devoted to the Silver Studio.) Not that Morris would be at home playing the spinet with his friend Rossetti in Quinn's home. This is the psychedelic version of his Utopian vision. Morris on acid.
Furnished in plain wooden Mormon furniture which Kave found in Salt Lake City during the filming of A Life Less Ordinary, with chandeliers and mirrors and triptychs and curious ornaments that include Lego creations by Fergus, her home is anything but commonplace. It certainly overturns the maxim that small houses are best painted white and left clutter-free. No one can deny that, after the last gasp of all-white minimalism, this style offers decoration with a well-defined personality
Off the wall: where to get the look
Sanderson 112-120 Brompton Road, London SW3 (0171-584 3344). Reproduces all William Morris, and some Voysey and Pugin designs. Morris hand-blocked wallpaper is available to order (about pounds 200 per roll). Sanderson also provides a historical research service.
Cole & Son Wallpapers Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 (0171-376 4628). Suppliers of wallpaper to Lord Irvine, Westminster Palace and the Houses of Parliament, Cole & Son provides a hand-blocked service of Pugin wallpaper designs to order, as well as other printed designs.
Watts & Company 7 Tufton Street, London SW1 (0171-222 7169). Pugin wallpaper, screen-printed and hand-blocked designs to order. From pounds 64 per roll.
Alexander Beauchamp 2-12 Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, London SW10 (0171-376 4556). Carries an extensive range of Victorian and Arts and Crafts wallpaper designs. Some can be reproduced by hand-blocking and printing, using authentic colours. Hand-prints from pounds 150 per roll (minimum order 10 rolls).
The Victorian Society (0181-994 1019) produces a booklet entitled Care for Victorian Houses No 5: Wall Coverings, which provides essential information as well as a list of companies who specialise in reproduction wall coverings, pounds 3 (incl p&p).
See a William Morris interior in situ at the National Trust owned Standen House, East Grinstead, West Sussex. Enquiries 0181-315 1111. Aoife O'Riordain
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