How designers are returning the Swatch to the Toile de Jouy

How exactly did a thick cotton fabric scalloped with frolicking shepherds, haystacks and pastoral merriment in general become one of today’s greatest design fasteners?

We’re talking toile de Jouy, the classic 18th-century French printed textile with single-color repeating patterns. Before delving into its history, we know that you are asking yourself: what is the difference between the toile and the toile de Jouy? None, really, at least in France. Full name Jouy canvas refers to the fabric of Jouy-en-Josas, a city on the outskirts of Paris, where Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf opened a factory producing the fabric style in 1760, and where today there is a museum of the toile de Jouy. (Although Oberkampf was the main manufacturer at the time – their factory printed 30,000 different designs between 1760 and 1812 – there were many other manufacturers.)

In France, toile de Jouy has become the accepted generic name for the style. In most English speaking countries, the style of fabric has been shortened to the word canvas. But, out of purism, let’s stay in toile de Jouy (pronounced zhoo-ee) here. The style was also prevalent in Ireland and India in the 18th century. It was Marie-Antoinette who helped to make the toile de Jouy trendy during her iconic reign. Considering the connection to the late queen, it is only natural that the fabric – used as wall covering and upholstery – was, in its early days, the decor of the aristocrats’ house.

Fast forward a century or two, after the Revolution, fabric was still a reliable shortcut to chic French interiors. But less among the castle as a whole (those who still had their heads, anyway) and more on the budding middle class. In the mid-1950s, you would be more likely to find the fabric cladding walls in the small Parisian hotels on the left bank. Think about the room Audrey Hepburn’s character retreated to in the 1963 film Charade with nothing but her Louis Vuitton luggage in her name, after her supposedly millionaire husband abandoned her. The play was not fabulously rich, but strangely charming and very French.

The Toile de Jouy has continued to convey a certain design credit over the decades. Remember Zooey Deschanel’s charming Los Angeles pad in 500 summer days, the first dream apartment of every millennium? The walls were covered with toile de Jouy. The classic model has rarely declined in popularity. (Masterclass even offers a course on the toile de Jouy.) It also had a fashionable moment this year, as seen in the Dior Spring 2021 collection of candles, tableware, tote bags and clothing with classic prints. (The new toile de Jouy print on the underwear of French heritage children’s t-shirt brand Petit Bateau was another favorite reinterpretation this year.) But it was rapper Lil Nas X’s dramatic outfit for BETs Awards, a magnificent ball gown by Italian designer Andrea Grossi, who puts the fabric back in the spotlight.

Although people assume it is about grazing sheep in the countryside, the truth is that the web has always been used to criticize or comment on contemporary socio-political events. The growing popularity of printing in the 18th century sparked a trend for figurative designs depicting important news and current events. Oberkampf took advantage of consumers’ thirst for the craze. Coupled with the cutting edge production techniques (for the time) of his textile factory, he created a buzzing name for himself with his canvas prints depicting the important events of the day. When the first hot air balloon took off, a Hot Air Balloon print with balloons became very popular.

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