York’s city centre is set to be transformed – temporarily at least – by designer wallpaper. The Paper Trail exhibition will be the work of two local sisters alongside students from York College. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

LAST May, several boarded-up shops and cafés around Brighton underwent a sudden transformation. The windows of one had been hung with wallpaper that looked like rows of books, giving the appearance of a library.

A blank brick wall had wallpaper with furniture designs hung on it, while the doorway of a disused café was wallpapered with a table and chair.

Each piece of wallpaper was part of an exhibition by Stillington-born artist and wallpaper designer Deborah Bowness entitled ‘Paper Trail’.

The aim, says Deborah’s younger sister and business manager Leigh, was to make people stop and look – “And to make them smile.”

It certainly achieved that. “It worked fantastically,” says Leigh. “We had some really positive feedback.”

After the success of the Brighton Paper Trail exhibition, the sisters decided to set up a series of similar exhibitions around the country. They aim to start in York next month.

The sisters have their eyes on potential sites that could do with brightening up, including the inside of the Leeman Road pedestrian tunnel and the White Swan Hotel in the city centre.

They have the backing of the city council and Reinvigorate York, and have asked businesses and landlords who have empty shops or unused walls in the city centre if they would be prepared to allow these to be turned into temporary works of art.

The sisters asked students from York College to come up with their own designs to feature in the exhibition. “Deborah went to York College herself to do the Art Foundation Course there,” says Leigh. “It was really nice for her to go back. She gave a talk to the students, and set them a design brief.”

York is home turf for both sisters. They grew up in Stillingfleet and went to Fulford School. Deborah, 38, then studied art at York College, as well as in Leeds and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Leigh, 36, did her A-levels at York Sixth Form College, then studied public relations at Leeds University. She then spent four years as a firefighter in Leeds before joining Deborah in her business five years ago.

The sisters’ business is based at Riccall, where they produce the wallpaper Deborah designs from her studio in Hastings, where she now lives.

She specialises in ‘trompe l’oeil’ wallpaper which ‘tricks the eye’. Her designs include images of domestic objects – comfortable chairs, tables, picture frames, shelves of books, even elegant dresses – which are slashed with lines to break them up and create an unexpected feel.

She has clients across the world, including Liberty in London, several prestigious restaurants in the capital, and a Kuwaiti maker of bespoke furniture who wanted a range of wallpapers to match its furniture designs.

In keeping with the ‘trick of the eye’ nature of her designs, the theme of the Brighton exhibition, Leigh says, was ‘displaced domesticity’.

“It took what you would normally find in an indoor setting, and put it in an outdoor setting.”

The sisters have the same idea in mind for York. Their wallpaper artworks can be designed to fit in with a location, Leigh says. So there could be a design of chairs and tables in an empty shop window or on a wall next to a café; or wallpaper showing one of Deborah’s dress designs next to a clothes shop.

But the aim will be to make people stop and look, by creating the feel of an inside space outdoors. Deborah is the creative brain, Leigh admits – but the younger sister has her own idea of what might work in the Leeman Road tunnel.

“It could be a scene of domesticity,” she says, gesturing as if to indicate the rounded walls of the tunnel around her. “You could start with wallpaper in the design of a lounge, then have a library, then a bedroom, then an office.”

The aim is to have at least six, and possibly as many as 15, wallpaper installations around the city centre, with a ‘Paper Trail’ map so that people can find them all.

Some of the wallpaper will be hung inside empty windows: some will be plastered on the outside of walls. The sisters have already experimented, and have had wallpaper hanging on the outside of their Riccall workshop for several weeks now.

All they need now is for landlords to give permission. The installations will only be temporary, says Leigh – the aim is for Paper Trail to run for a month – and it can be removed without trace once the exhibition is over. There will be no cost – and the centre of York could be brightened up.

Empty buildings and boarded up windows are depressing, Leigh says. “Even if it was just for a month that they didn’t look empty and depressing… surely that’s a good thing?”

• If you have an empty building or wall space in the centre of York that you would Deborah and Leigh to decorate for Paper Trail, contact papertrail@deborahbowness.com or call 01757 248500.


York Press: Natasha Murray, an art foundation student at York College, cutting out and colouring Deborah Bowness’s images
Natasha Murray, an art foundation student at York College, cutting out and colouring Deborah Bowness’s images

STUDENTS on the Art Foundation Course at York College were invited to come up with designs for Paper Trail.

Designer Deborah Bowness visited her former college in January to present students with a design brief on the theme of ‘domestic displacement’.

Working in groups, they designed and produced wallpaper, later visiting the Bowness factory in Riccall, where each student printed two lengths of wallpaper and presented their own designs.

Angela Newdick, Art & Design tutor at the college, said she had taught Deborah when she was at the college.

“It is fantastic to watch her now, working and sharing her experience with current students,” she said.

“This exciting live project is inspiring our students to think about all manner of things such as finding vacant walls in the city for the trail and using their artistic talents to create wallpaper designs as well as working on the final production of the wallpaper.”

The students are also enthusiastic. “We learnt so much about printing,” said Natasha Murray, who hopes to study Printed Textiles and Surface Pattern Design at Leeds College of Art.

“It was great to have first-hand experience with a current designer; seeing how her business has grown from a small idea and passion,” said fellow student Abi Ruddock.

The Paper Trail project has also been backed by the city council and Reinvigorate York.

“Anything that can improve the appearance of empty shops is welcome,” said Sir Ron Cooke, chairman of Reinvigorate York.