Images courtesy of Chelsea Cefai
By Jo-ann Fortune
In 2008, Arts Development Officer Chelsea Cefai came across the mid century pattern designs of artist Sheila Bownas at auction, and bought up the collection of more than 200 works. The vast body of work had in fact only been discovered the previous year, in an old drawer in a Yorkshire Dales studio after the death of artist Sheila Bownas. It was the quality of these designs that led Chelsea to devote her time to bringing Sheila Bownas’ midcentury patterns back to life through limited edition reproductions and carefully considered collaborations.
Mid century pattern design: a lesser known name
Sheila Bownas grew up in Yorkshire, attending Skipton Art School from 1941 to 1946 and then gaining a county art scholarship to study at London’s Slade School of Art, where she won several prizes. Although she gained early recognition for her paintings, with five of them accepted at The Royal Academy of Arts, Sheila was drawn to designing surface patterns for textiles and wallpapers as a more comfortable alternative to selling her paintings. Living in London during the late 1950s and 1960s, Sheila worked on numerous commissions for some of the most established wallpaper and textile manufacturers.
Unlike mid century pattern designers like Lucienne Day or Jacqueline Groag, Sheila Bownas isn’t a household name. Chelsea explains that although Sheila Bownas’ work was just as much a “signature of the time” as her contemporaries, it was perhaps due to her reserved nature that she remained unknown. “Although her designs were sold at high-street stores, they were not named. While Sheila Bownas was very much in tune with what was going on, she was a very private person.”
Mid century pattern design: the Sheila Bownas archive
The 210 prints in Chelsea’s collection include commissions for Marks and Spencer, Liberty of London and Crown Wallpaper. They have been meticulously catalogued by year and pattern, and now live in tissued archive boxes in Chelsea’s home studio. So far just 22 of the colourful 1950s, 1960s and 1970s designs have made their way into the public domain, through carefully reproducing her designs as prints, cushion and upholstery fabric, and on furniture. Chelsea chooses which prints to release based on current interior design trends. “I take out a few at a time, I lay them side by side and I look at them for a few days, then I change them around. I want to create little families of prints that work together.”
Mid century pattern design: collaboration with contemporary designers
To date, Chelsea Cefai and her husband, who helps out with the business side of things, have formed close working relationships with the Glasgow School of Art, who produce fabric by the metre, cushions, and pads for Bertoia chairs, and small independents like lighting designer Zoe Darlington and bespoke furniture maker Parlour. Chelsea explains, “People will also soon be able to buy linen fabrics in eight designs, courtesy of Classic Textiles, who work with iconic design archives including that of Lucienne Day.”
Chelsea explains to us that she gives a lot of consideration to which designers and makers she collaborates with. “I try to imagine what Sheila was like, as I want to faithfully and sympathetically restore the collection in a way she would have approved of”, says Chelsea, with the sincerity that underlines every aspect of this all-encompassing project. “I think about who she would have wanted to work with and I make sure that the collaborators understand what Sheila was about.”
Mid century pattern design: a personal quest
It’s clear that no element of this unique business ever comes close to being a chore for Chelsea and her family, for whom Sheila Bownas has become an integral part of life. “It’s very much a family affair and a labour of love – my husband comes to meetings with me and my two girls, who are nine and eleven, love what I do so much that they ask if they can work for me when they’re older. It’s important to me that family and work knit together naturally.”
Six original Sheila Bownas designs hang proudly on the walls in her own kitchen and Chelsea lists among her favourites Sheila Bownas’ floral designs and a more abstract work she has named ‘Gilbert’, admitting that these often change based on the pieces she’s working with at the time. “I fall in love with particular designs all over again”. She adds, “Really what I want to do through this project is allow others to do the same.”
And in this venture, we wish her all the best, which makes it very pleasing to see sheilabownas.com listed as one of the best new online interior shops by the Sunday Times magazine this month.
For information about purchasing prints and fabrics, go to www.sheilabownas.com
For lampshades, check out the Zoe Darlington collection