WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT: HELEN CORMACK & TISSUS D’HELENE






There are moments in life when you meet someone and you immediately know they are special. Meeting Helen Cormack was one of them. I met Helen back in 2008 at  Tissus d’Hélène, her fabric and wallpaper boutique showroom in London’s Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, when I was moving into Interior Design.

Helen is an all-round fabulous lady with rolls of experience and expertise in her field, lengths of personality and charm, yards of style (she has a rather dazzling collection of eclectic jewellery), and swatch-loads of enviable spirit of generosity (she invariably gives up her time and effort to support the trade or new kids on the block).
I remember vividly our first chat à propos de French culture (Helen was educated at London’s prestigious Lyçée français and is bilingual), Toile de Jouy (she is an 18th C French textiles enthusiast), interior decoration (or “desecration in some cases”) and of course green and blue (our favourite colour combination). After that passionate and bonding encounter, she offered me a 10-day work experience which turned into a whole year. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. Since then, every time I go back to this treasure trove of decor, it is like ‘going home’.




Her beautifully decorated space has a unique, warm and welcoming atmosphere which is so representative of Helen and her equally fantastic team. Tissus d’Hélène ‘s incredible array of artisanal fabrics and wallpapers from 45-odd carefully selected companies from all around the world attracts not only budding decorators and design connoisseurs but also an impressive coterie of famed interior designers who have  followed her over the years and made Tissus one of their ‘destination’ sources of inspiration and sometimes the place for them to sell their collections in the UK.
She has made for herself a great reputation over the years and I have yet to find a recent past issue of The World of Interiors or House and Garden that does not feature at least one of her products.

I owe my chère amie a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me to the fascinating world of interior decoration and also for giving A-Gent of Style his first ‘intimate’ interview to date.




THE INTERVIEW


Can you tell us about your career in textiles?


In 1984, I joined a small interior decorating firm in Mayfair where I worked for about 6 years. During my time there, I realised that I was really passionate about textiles. I took a job at Percheron, one of my two favourite [fabric] showrooms, and worked for Charles Hamer for 6 years. Then around 1997, Adam Sykes offered me a job at Claremont [another high-end fabric company]. I have been so lucky to work with two people from whom I’ve learned an enormous amount, as well as working with my most of my favourite fabric collections such as Burger, Georges Le Manach and Fortuny. But then I left Claremont in November 2005


How did Tissus d’Hélène come about?

In May 2006, with tremendous help from Nina Campbell [a leading English designer], I opened Tissus d’Hélène. I have always adored prints and decided to specialise in them. Nina offered me Galbraith & Paul and Quadrille [both fabric & wallpaper companies in the States] and Tissus has evolved since then. We now have a large number of companies from the UK, France, Italy and America. I have concentrated on small printers and weavers and feel very strongly that we must do all we can to preserve artisanal trades. My latest acquisition, thanks to Adam Sykes, is the Adelphi Wallpaper Co from America, which produces the most exquisite hand-blocked wallpapers and borders. I also have a new range of hand-weaves from Bhutan, which are woven from wild silk or wild nettle; they are very beautiful indeed. Two new gorgeous hand-block collections have just arrived as well, both the creations of English designers, but printed in India


Tissus d'Hélène window inside the Design Centre

Tissus d’Hélène window inside the Design Centre, March 2013


How did you discover fabrics?


I was aware of them from very young. My mother wore beautiful clothes – tweeds in winter and dresses in summer, particularly gorgeous 1960’s Pucci dresses. We would also have dresses and blouses made out of Liberty prints. The other thing that’s interesting is that I think I got my love of green and blue together from my mother as a lot of her clothes were green and blue

green and blue 1960’s cotton Pucci dress

 

Liberty prints


How did your childhood influence your work?

My clothes (especially my Fair Isle sweaters), annual trips to France. And my homes. My paternal grandmother had a very stylish house in Hampstead, which was most eclectic – chandeliers mixed with art deco inspired dining room furniture designed by my grand-father coupled with 50’s Danish furniture covered in nubby wool fabrics in jewel colours. It all worked seamlessly. I also remember that the sofas in our childhood home in Notting Hill Gate were covered in a gorgeous old linen print

Fair Isle sweater

Fair Isle sweater

 

Grasse, Provence

Grasse, Provence

 

Old linen print

Old linen print from Helen’s childhood


Where do you find your inspiration?

Other than textile fairs where I buy documents for my own collection, I am hugely struck by textiles in costumes, especially in paintings, which are often a revelation. I was in the Fine Art Museum in Seville a couple of weeks ago and was delighted to see a set of 8 paintings of female saints by Zurbaran. The juxtaposition of marvellous colours and designs is simply stunning. Also, the fashion and textile galleries at the V&A, although Paris has been far more influential to me

"Amelie" and "Eloise" from Helen Cormack's own collection "Fleurons d'Helene" (available at Tissus d'Hélène)

“Amelie” and “Eloise” from Helen Cormack’s own collection “Fleurons d’Helene” (available at Tissus d’Hélène)

 

Saint Rufina (ca. 1635) by Francisco de Zurbarán

Saint Rufina (ca. 1635) by
Francisco de Zurbarán

 

Costumes mounted on mannequins in the V&A Textile Conservation studio at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Costumes mounted on mannequins in the V&A Textile Conservation studio at the Victoria and Albert Museum


What technique or look of the past would you like to see re-appearing?

I have a love of wallpapers. Like printed fabrics, because of the taste in interiors over the last 15 years or so, wallpapers have become unfashionable. This is tragic. The various collections at Tissus d’Hélène show that there are designs and colours to satisfy most tastes. They enrich a room, particularly if they are hand-printed, because the fine quality of the paints used gives such depth. They are also invaluable when you need to recreate a certain period in a room, e.g. Directoire, because finding historic fabrics can often be extremely difficult and expensive. If you take, for example, Adelphi Paper Hangings in America, they have a wonderful website which lists all their designs historically and bespoke colours are possible. I feel I’m on a mission to persuade designers to start using them again. I want people to love wallpapers again and to not be nervous of using them. They should throw caution to the wind and be adventurous


Watch a short video clip of Helen Cormack at London Design Week in March 2012



What are the latest trends at the moment?

I don’t follow trends and nor does Tissus d’Hélène. It’s something which is irrelevant to me. You must find your own style and be true to it and never worry about other people’s opinions

 

What do you like to do most in your spare time?

Visit my friends and also garden if time allows

Chelsea Physic Garden, one of Helen’s favourite place in London. You can buy the recipe book from Tissus d’Hélène



What is your favourite room in your house?

My sitting room, which I share with my husband, beautiful fabrics and a lot of books and pictures

Interior by Charlotte Moss

Interior by Charlotte Moss



What is your most cherished possession?

It would be a beautiful portrait of Handel, which is in my dining room. My great-grandfather, Newman Flower, bought it in Germany between the wars while working on his biography of Handel. It holds so many memories of my family and my childhood

Handel biography by Newman Flower

Handel biography by Newman Flower



What books are on your night table?

I am re-reading All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West and The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, two of my favourite novels. I always keep a large selection of poetry books to hand

All Passion Spent (1931) by Vita Sackville

All Passion Spent (1931) by Vita Sackville

 

The Leopard (1958) by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Wool. We need to buy wool and do all we can to revive the sheep and wool industry in the UK.  It’s a vital part of our socio-economic history and should be part of our future also.  The richness of the products from wool, not least the wealth of tweeds, is extraordinary. I’m trying to work ever more with printers and weavers in the UK. So many trades and skills are being lost

Tweeds at Sequana (available at Tissus d'Helene)

Tweeds at Sequana (available at Tissus d’Hélène)



What exciting new projects do you have on the horizon?

I am working on some new designs for the Fleurons d’Hélène collection [her own], based on old documents from the 18th and early 19th centuries and hope in time to fulfil a long-held desire to bring out a collection of wallpapers

"Fleurons d'Helene" prints

“Fleurons d’Hélène” prints



What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Introducing designers to a stunning and varied selection of hand-printed textiles from Europe and America. The variety is so broad, but I love the fact that, despite their individuality, they are so complementary

Hand-blocked prints by Galbraith & Paul

Hand-blocked prints by Galbraith & Paul



Do you have any advice for young designers?

Allow your individuality to come through and don’t be crushed under the weight of conforming to modernism, minimalism and blandness

Helen's pet hate: blandness

Helen’s pet hate: minimalist blandness



What is your favourite gift to give or receive?

Jewellery or a painting from my husband and delicious soap or olive oil from friends

Helen's favourite oil - Hazelnut

Helen’s favourite oil – Hazelnut

 



Who are your style icons?

My taste in clothes is eclectic. The two women that I think that were the last truly elegant representations of style, elegance and femininity were Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. My other style icons would be Manet’s Amazone and Marie-Antoinette by Joseph Kreutzinger – I love riding habits and the modern twist on ladies’ dressage clothing, not forgetting the all important hat, is most alluring to me

Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy

Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy

 

"Amazone" by Edouard Manet, 1882

“Amazone” by Edouard Manet, 1882

 

"Marie Antoinette" (1771) by Joseph Kreutzinger

“Marie Antoinette” (1771) by Joseph Kreutzinger



What is your favourite jewel or stone?

Pearls every time. They are so complementary to the complexion. I have pearls in Victorian settings as well as in fabulous modern settings. As for a stone, it would have to be peridots. I adore green and they match my eyes so well

Pearl necklace by Garrard

Pearl necklace by Garrard

 

Peridot earrings by Van Cleef and Arpels

Peridot earrings by Van Cleef and Arpels



What is your favourite natural scent or perfume?

1000 by Jean Patou and Tabacco Toscano by Farmacia Santa Maria Novella




Tabacco Toscano by Farmacia Santa Maria Novella

Tabacco Toscano by Farmacia Santa Maria Novella



If Proust had his ‘madeleines’, what takes you back instantly to a place, a moment in life or a person?

When I hear the Marriage of Figaro, it always takes me back to when I was 8 and was with my grandmother at Covent Garden. This was first opera that I saw and it is still a world of magic to me



Where was your favourite holiday? What is your dream holiday destination?

France and Italy always, but my imagination is totally captivated by Rajasthan. I long to go to India

Dordogne

Dordogne

 

Castello di Reschio, Umbria

Castello di Reschio, Umbria

 

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan



What is your favourite hotel?

I would always rather stay in a villa or private house, but do love the Locanda Cipriani on Torcello, Venice

Locanda Cipriani, Torcello

Locanda Cipriani, Torcello



Which three interior designers or artists of the past would you invite to a dinner party?

Mariano Fortuny, Syrie Maugham and Philippe de la Salle

Mariano Fortuni

Mariano Fortuni (1871-1949), ‘the last Renaissance man’, was a Spanish-born, Italian designer, architect, inventor and couturier mostly remembered for his designs and fabrics

 

Syrie Maugham

Syrie Maugham (1879-1955) was a leading British interior decorator of the 1920s and 1930s and best known for popularising rooms decorated entirely in shades of white

 

Philippe de Lasalle, famous French designer and entrepeneur of the silk industry in 1the 8th C

Philippe de Lasalle was a leading designer and entrepeneur of the French silk industry in the 18th C



If you could go back in time, which interior designer or artist would you have liked to collaborate with? Who would you like most to collaborate with on a future project?

I would love to have known and worked with John Fowler. On a future project, there are three designers that I would adore to work with. Although very different, they would be Kate Stamps of Stamps & Stamps in LA, Jaime Parlade in Spain and Lars Bolander in Florida and Sweden. Between them, they represent everything  that I love in interior decoration

John Fowler

John Fowler (1906-1977) of the legendary Colefax & Fowler interior design firm

 

Interior by Stamps & Stamps

Interior by Stamps & Stamps

 

Interior by Lars Bolander

Interior by Lars Bolander

 

    Interior by Jaime Hayon

Interior by Jaime Parlade



Cats or dogs?

Definitely dogs

Fauve de Bretagne

Helen’s favourite, a Fauve de Bretagne



Blinds or curtains?

Both – the situation dictates which is most suitable

Interior by Mary McDonald

Interior by Mary McDonald



Tell us something we don’t know about you

Had I a more developed creative streak and the ability to draw, I would have wanted to be a milliner. I adore hats and have quite a large collection

The Duchess

The Duchess



What would your last supper be?

Oooh! We would dine in a small intimate room in Vaux le Vicomte and we would eat crab and langoustines, followed by riz de veau with morilles and a dauphinoise and finish with tarte aux abricots et amandes. The most delicious wines would be served, all French of course. My guests would be  my husband, my dearest friends, Edith Wharton, Christian Dior, John Singer Sargeant and Puccini

Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte, France

Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte, France

 



Edith Warton (1862-1937) the American novelist

Edith Warton (1862-1937) the American novelist mostly famous for The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth

 

Christian Dior (1905-1957), French couturier

Christian Dior (1905-1957), French couturier

 

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), American artist in his Paris studio with his scandalous painting Madame X, 1884.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), American artist in his Paris studio with his scandalous painting Madame X, 1884.

 

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was an Italian composer famous for his operas Madame Butterfly, La Tosca and La Boheme

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was an Italian composer famous for his operas Madame Butterfly, La Tosca and La Boheme

And finally, your ‘Desert Island’ moment: what three pieces of music would you take with you and which luxury?

In any order, I would listen to The Magic Flute by Mozart, Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto, and a selection of songs by Cole Porter and Jerome Kern sung by Eleanor Fitzgerald.

My bed would be my luxury: it have to include my sheets and wonderful woollen blankets (I detest duvets), my goose down pillows and a mosquito net made from a Toile de Jouy voile. C’est tout!


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