This winter, the RISD museum is featuring “Making it in America,” an aptly named art exhibit displaying 200 years of American innovation. It celebrates not only designers, but also an evolution of technique and creation in the marketplace. Set to the backdrop of 18th-century wallpaper, the exhibit was designed by the master of Americana himself, Thomas Jayne. In addition to being a renowned decorator, author and principal of Jayne Design Studio, Jayne is a historian. He incorporates historic patterns and hues to create an installation that highlights the evolution of color and pattern in American design.
LX: Describe the inspiration you drew from the objects curated for the exhibit.
TJ: Each of the objects, through their age and design, indicated colors and patterns that would have been popular when they were new. We have a wide knowledge of historic paint and wallpapers, so many of them came to mind when appraising the pieces and their display. Philosophically, I think most objects look their best with at least some aspect of original context—and that is what we worked to achieve.
LX: Did you play a role in choosing the pieces displayed?
TJ: With such a fine curatorial staff and director, there was little need for my input on the paintings and decorative arts exhibited.
LX: What was the original wallpaper inspiration?
TJ: For replicas of historic wallpapers, we relied on the archive of Adelphi and George Spencer. In fact, some of their patterns were commissioned for our firm’s restoration projects.
LX: Describe the exhibit’s color palette.
TJ: I am traditionally drawn to warm rather than cool palettes; I lean toward yellows, warm greens, blues that almost turn green, and reds verging on orange. I think these colors are generally softer and flattering to old paintings and antiques. We selected the first paper—a large 18th-century leaf pattern in iron red reproduced from a document in the Joseph Webb House—and built from there because the wallcoverings chosen for this inaugural display had to relate well.
LX: This is such a departure from the traditional display of artwork on a white backdrop.
TJ: It takes effort to use color and pattern for displaying art, but the returns are huge. Most paintings look best on color and often, they are improved by the complexity of pattern, as well. The key is finding the right color and pattern. So often, white walls are a default—an easy path—rather than the best choice.
LX: Go-to source for historical reference or inspiration?
TJ: Books dedicated to old drawings and paintings of interiors. These often document the remarkable use of color and pattern so popular in early America. I often refer back to Peter Thornton’s Authentic Décor and Harold L. Peterson’s American Interiors.
LX: Last word:
TJ: It is a fantastic exhibition—if the walls were white, it would have still been a grand display. The color and pattern used transform the exhibit into a particularly memorable one.