The scent of honeysuckle and jasmine was incredibly seductive as I made my way to the front door of the home cleverly concealed from the street by a large hedge. Houses in Beverly Hills are lovely that way, accented by flowers and trees bigger than life, no doubt the result of a potent combination of ocean breezes, balmy temperatures and that famous Golden State sunshine forever struggling to break through the ubiquitous brown haze known as smog.
It was my first visit to the home of interior designer Barbara Woolf. And even though we’d known each other for a number of years through business, I’d never had occasion to visit her on Almont Drive. I don’t exactly know what I was expecting, and looking back I probably never gave it a thought, but I was utterly charmed and transfixed by the private world that this gracious and talented lady had created.
It was as if I’d entered some fabulous Russian country home complete with period furniture, animal skins of zebra and leopard everywhere, colorful prints, a diminutive spiral staircase leading to an exotically themed loft, walls in the most beautiful shade of red I’d ever seen and exquisite upholstered walls and ceilings.
What a treat, what a trip — and right there in the heart of Beverly Hills. I’d always liked Woolf personally and certainly admired her professionally, but being in her home and seeing her creativity raised my esteem even higher.
After a tour we sat and talked and I told her how wonderful her home was and mentioned that I was especially intrigued with all the fabrics, colors, tented ceiling in the dining room and that sexy loft with its fabric walls and ceiling. I’d never been in a home quite like it and I wanted to know more about the use of wall upholstery. Any design technique that could create the effect that I was experiencing, I had to know more about.
Woolf began by giving me a little history of the derivation of my newfound interest and I learned that before paint and plaster were used in the castles of the Old World, stone walls were covered with fabric. The large thick wall coverings, tapestries and draped walls were used for soundproofing, warmth and, eventually, for interior design. (Well, truthfully I knew most of that, but I wasn’t going to let on because I was really enjoying myself just sitting and talking with her and didn’t want my visit to end.)
Since that initial introduction, I’ve had occasion to use wall upholstery in homes of all different sizes and styles, and in rooms ranging from powder rooms to bedrooms and, of course, in home theaters from the very large and grand to smaller and more intimate spaces.
I’ve always relied upon it to add color, pattern and texture to a room’s design and have bemoaned the fact that more designers and clients don’t avail themselves of this multipurpose design element. No paint or wallpaper in the world can add coziness and warmth to a space the way that fabric can, while at the same time improving the acoustics and providing a backdrop for furniture that simply can’t be beat. Wall upholstery literally has the magical ability to actually change the visual perception of a room while enhancing its architectural details as well. And, with the use of wall upholstery, a designer can create illusions of another era (just as Woolf did), change a dark room to light or add excitement to an otherwise dull and featureless space.
Today, most of us only see wall upholstery as acoustical insulation in home theaters, where it is, naturally enough, a basic requirement. What makes a room work well as a theater is to deaden the sound — the same as in any professional recording studio — so that it doesn’t bounce off the walls and ceilings. This is a must for a home theater to work as well as it should. Wall upholstery in this way serves the same purpose as special acoustical sound-proofing for a theater, but looks so much better. I’ve noticed that installers use wide cotton padding for the variety of extra wide fabrics that are specially made for such applications.
From time to time I’ve turned to the glamour and sophistication of upholstered wall panels for an even more elegant look. I’ve found that nothing works quite so well for turning regular to regal as this treatment does, especially when combined with a tented ceiling, which, I feel, is the most graceful and romantic look of all.
And what is so great is that this alchemy, if you like, works equally well in any kind of home, from traditional to contemporary. It’s certainly no longer necessary to own a castle or live in a museum to turn ordinary into elegant and plain into palatial. All any homeowner has to do is to choose a room where he or she wants texture, color and a degree of softness, and leave the rest to a professional wall upholsterer.
Oh, and by the way, I went on to share both life and career with Barbara Woolf for the past 23 years.
Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design International; he has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to stephen@soleil designinternational.com.