Think you know all about stencilling?

Think again. Today's stencils have moved on from twee garlands and smudgy teddy bears. Hester Lacey looks at the latest designs and finds Oriental influences alongside images inspired by contemporary art
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The Independent Online

Anyone who remembers the stencilling frenzy of the late Eighties and early Nineties might well greet the news that stencilling is back with a frisson of alarm. Personally, I have very bad memories of a kitchen that I used to visit where an endless parade of yellow geese in blue sunbonnets marched aggressively round the walls. Crude designs and violent colours were the order of the day, and enthusiasts slapped stencils on anything that didn't move.

This time around, stencils are, happily, far more subtle and sophisticated, says Hester Page. According to Page, who is houses editor at Country Living magazine, regimented patterns and hard edges have gone by the board. "Stencils have become much lighter, more fluid, less graphic," she says. "You might try shades of the same colour on top of each other: the new look is very tonal. I've seen florals with a Chinese look of blossoms on very thin branches that have come out of this summer's chinoiserie feel. The look is very soft and drifty, much looser; you might use it in small areas rather than great expanses. It's a delight." Phew. Thank goodness.

Helen Morris, who founded the Stencil Library in 1988, has always gone for the stylish top end of the market. "In the Eighties and Nineties, a lot of people didn't know how to control paint," she says. "They were working with big blocks of colour, and it wasn't particularly well done. We are more educated now." She, too, has identified a move towards Oriental and tone-on-tone themes. "Our Japanese and modern ranges are the best sellers at the moment. One of my favourite effects is iridescent silver over grey. In some lights you can see the pattern, in others you can't."

Stencilling, she says, is also a way of introducing colour. "You can have three walls that are plain, and on the fourth wall go berserk with colour. We are really quite brave about colour over here; when I teach in the US, they admire our boldness." Morris's book and her new video, both titled The Stencilled Home and available from the Stencil Library, offer inspiration for the experienced stenciller, and basic instructions for the beginner. The key to an effective technique, she explains, begins with top quality materials. "Good paints allow for the tiniest wisps of colour to be used; we use concentrated acrylics. Good brushes are not necessarily expensive. And use the paint sparingly."

Morris practices what she preaches; her own home, Stocksfield Hall, a Georgian farmhouse in Northumberland, is stencilled throughout. One of her current favourite projects, which illustrates the subtlety of the new stencil finishes, is her hallway. At the bottom, she explains, the walls are a very pale grey, almost white. As you turn each corner, the base colour becomes one shade darker, until, by the fifth landing, the walls are mid-grey. "I've added a stencil of meandering rows of dots in different sizes, in mid-greys and pearlescent finishes, rather like a pearl necklace. As the walls get darker, the stencils get lighter. No two bits are the same, and the dots also look as if they are 'holding' the paintings on the walls." The paintings are stencils, too: homages to Andy Warhol, Georgia O'Keeffe and Bridget Riley.

Helen is just putting the finishing touches to a new range. "We began working on very contemporary themes for the Millennium, and that has kept going. But our new collection goes back to the past, and has taken 18 months to put together. It's a chinoiserie set of designs based on 18th-century, hand-painted wallpapers."

This back-to-the-future feel is completely in keeping with the distinguished history of the stencil. Chris Ellis, managing director of the Stencil Warehouse, which she co-founded in 1984, says that current trends are going right back to the stencil's roots. "There is stencilling in Buckingham Palace. We were recently involved in cutting stencils for a redecoration project for the Albert Hall. Stencils have gone full circle, and have returned to being an integrated part of interior design, rather than simply being dotted everywhere as an afterthought."

Today's stencillers, she says, don't simply plaster designs over any available surface. "People are much more aware before they start. They think about colour and light, and they are using much more subtle shades - creams and ivories and pale shades that are easy on the eye. The stencilled look is much more successful when it's thought out from the beginning rather than just being added on." And, she adds, the current look is much more relaxed. "People are using more colours, letting shades overlap, and it looks far better."

According to Ellis, this effect is being felt even at the level of stencils for children's rooms. "Where once you'd have had just a teddy bear, now parents are creating themes and murals. For example, they might use stencils to make a jungle, with a proper background. Even that end of the market has really come up." Many of her clients, she says, are restoring older homes. "They are looking for designs from 150 years ago. I think we've grown up since the boom of the Eighties and Nineties. Once people see the stencil look again, they realise how different it is."

The Stencil Library and the Stencil Warehouse both offer a wide range of designs and a bespoke service for individual projects. At the last count Helen Morris had around 3,500 patterns. "Our cheapest is £4.95 and prices go up to £300, though we also offer a hire service for prices over £33," she says. Given the cyclical nature of fashion, she thinks even those geese could make a comeback. "But if we did geese, they'd probably be six feet tall, with an intricate design as part of the whole." No blue sunbonnets then. Thank goodness.

The Stencil Library, 01661 844844, www.stencil-library.com. 'The Stencilled Home' book is £12.99; video £14.95. The Stencil Warehouse, 01271 882615, www.stencil-designs.co.uk

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