Designer Sheila Bridges, Changing The Face of Toile

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By Liz Seymour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

It doesn't get any more traditional than toile. First lavished on bedding and draperies in 18th-century France on the brink of revolution, the printed fabric is known for pastoral scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses on swings, with milk pails and courting on a garden bench. Always and invariably, they are white.

Flash forward to a 21st-century update: couples dancing with a boom box nearby, girls doing double Dutch jump-rope and a trio playing basketball. And, for once, they are black.

The fresh take comes from Harlem designer Sheila Bridges, who is possibly best known for designing the New York offices of Bill Clinton. She also has been voted America's best designer in 2001 by Time magazine, written a book ("Furnishing Forward: A Practical Guide to Furnishing for a Lifetime," Bulfinch Press, $24.95) hosted a show on the Fine Living cable channel and is starting a new Internet venture.

The designer, 42, grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from Brown University and the Parsons School of Design and opened her own firm, Sheila Bridges Design, in 1994. Her toile-patterned bed linens are available at http://www.groovyq.com/ and wallpaper at http://www.studioprintworks.com/ .

We e-mailed her with questions about her new line, her famous clients and what she sees ahead. Here are some excerpts:

Why did you design your own toile? Do you see this as a tongue-in-cheek comment on design currents in this country -- about ethnic traditions influencing the mainstream?

I've always loved toile wallpapers and fabrics but could never find a toile that I wanted to use in my own home, so I decided that it was time to design my own. Harlem Toile de Jouy (my toile) was designed to tell a somewhat satirical story about African American life as seen through the sometimes distorted lens of the media.

I have the wallpaper in the yellow color on the walls of my work studio in upstate New York (the perfect pastoral setting for toile, of course), where it makes a huge impact above black paneling.

You are probably most famous for designing Bill Clinton's offices in Harlem after he left the White House. What was he like as a client?

Clinton was a great client, and his style sensibility was definitely more contemporary than I had expected. He chose colors that were fairly muted, mostly greens and beiges against deeper wood tones. One thing that was great about working with the former president was his overall clarity and his ability to make a quick and firm decision about what he liked and disliked.

You were fired by Sean ["Diddy"] Combs and Tom Clancy, according to newspaper reports. How can that be?

While we're on the topic of past clients, it's definitely inaccurate to say that I was "fired" by Sean Combs and Tom Clancy. Like many relationships both personal or professional, sometimes they just don't work out. The media had a great time putting a big spin on two professional relationships that eventually ended, simply because the clients were celebrities.


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