“I hate beige, anything oat, neutral or that matches,” insists designer Totty Lowther. Totty’s uncompromising view reflects both her style and her life, a colourful messy tangle of influences and loves that have crashed – rather than merged – into each other. Merging would be far too gentle a procedure for the playful audacity of Totty’s approach: “I adore untidiness – piles of clothes, layer upon layer of textiles, paintings any old how, overflowing heaps of books and magazines, vast installations of wild flowers like cow parsley, blossom, magnolia branches and budding beech that remind me of a secret garden bower, bright clashing colours, decorative objects thrown together, a splash of gaudy glitter.”
With her disdain for the safe and orderly, it’s perhaps no surprise that when Totty launched her Pomegranate Grand range of wallpaper, she was photographed in front of it (top), standing on a rug, wearing jeans and a richly embroidered frock coat – but on horseback.
The photograph was taken by her son Harry in a barn on a Cumbrian farm, where Totty lives with her husband Tom. Her wallpaper range grew from her shop in nearby Penrith, housed in a container, where she recreated an evolving series of room sets. “I designed my own wallpaper to have complete control of my installations,” she says. The Pomegranate design was inspired by an original 18th century Indigo Indienne block print that Totty found at a textile dealer. She then collaborated with Lewis & Wood, who are now printing it on fabrics and wallpaper.
I adore untidiness – piles of clothes, layer upon layer of textiles, paintings any old how, overflowing heaps of books and magazines, vast installations of wild flowersTotty Lowther, designer
They’ve already launched in the US, and Totty’s added Grasscloth, Damskus and Queen Anne Squiggle to the range, all in exotic colourways like Turkish Tobacco, Libyan Lime, Byzantine Blue, Granada Green, Persian Pink and Alabaster. Her wallpapers invest even the drabbest space with glamour, drama, mystery, character and sensual beauty. They’ve been featured in numerous interiors magazines, and decorators are seeking her out.
Totty is now a member of the Fabric Collective, a showroom for artisan designers, on Langton Street in Chelsea. Recently she’s been snatched up by Victoria Barnsley, who runs Castle Howard and has commissioned Totty to create ‘faded country house style’ in houses on the estate that are available to rent. “It’s like set-decorating – finding the right props and textiles to give the houses atmosphere and a sense of history’ says Totty, “I’m absolutely loving it.”
‘Faded country house style’ is what anyone else might have applied to their home on moving to the wilds of Cumbria, but Totty’s background made her too much of a rebel for that. Totty grew up far from the fells in Montpelier Square, Knightsbridge and went to Saint Martin’s School of Art to study textiles and fashion. Her mother is Belinda Bellville, founder of couture house Bellville Sassoon, the atelier that dressed Princess Diana and the Duchess of Kent among other ‘it girls’ of their day. Bellville Sassoon was at its height during the 1970s and 80s when Sloane Rangers ruled, and girls still needed taffeta ball gowns and puffy, meringue-style wedding dresses. But Totty was no Sloane. She embraced punk, complete with Goth make-up, blue hair, leather and chains. Nevertheless, she worked for her mother sourcing trimmings, giving her an unerring eye for detail, and still describes her mother as a major influence, an “arbiter of taste and enduring elegance”.
Totty soon landed a job as a stock hire assistant at Berman’s & Nathan’s, the theatrical and film costume hire firm, and went on to be Laura Ashley’s window display designer for five years, before becoming a freelance photographic stylist and set decorator, clocking up impressive clients like Wedgwood and Harrods. It was when she became a prop buyer for the award-winning designer Michael Howells that film took over her career. After helping to earn an Oscar nomination for art direction on Orlando starring Tilda Swinton, Totty went on to other films including Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow and Miss Julie, directed by Mike Figgis.
She then collided with her future husband, Tom, married him in 1997 and gave up the filmset for the farmyard. “I cried when I saw the motorway sign saying ‘Welcome to The North’,” remembers Totty. “I was totally out of my comfort zone on the edge of a windswept fellside with not a pavement in sight.”
It’s like set-decorating – finding the right props and textiles to give the houses atmosphere and a sense of history. I’m absolutely loving it.Totty Lowther
She made no concessions to the style of the 17th-century Westmoreland longhouse she found herself in. Behind a forbidding façade, the interior is without question Totty’s domain. Walls are painted turquoise and vermilion or brightened with her own wallpaper and vintage Colefax & Fowler. They serve as a backdrop to oil paintings, watercolours, vintage posters and even antlers. There are glitter balls and huge, hand-painted lampshades. Exotic, ethnic throws and Totty’s signature cushions disguise sagging sofas. Vintage quilts and crochets add comforting warmth to bedrooms. Kilims and rugs soften flagstone floors. At one end of the kitchen, there are sofas inhabited by dogs and cats and an enormous ottoman under piles of newspapers and books by the fireplace. Behind them are windows onto the fells and a towering vase of blossoming branches. Also, there are Tom’s turntables, crates of vinyl and a chunky free-standing fridge – “like Cuba,” laughs Totty. It’s a glorious, happy, brightly coloured, welcoming jumble.
The day I visit, Tom is barbecuing a haunch of lamb on an upturned oil drum outside the front door. Behind him is a vast expanse of wide, glowering sky and the Pennines. The ruins of Lowther Castle, home to Tom’s ancestors for centuries, are visible across the sheep-speckled Eden Valley. The nearest village is over a mile away down a bone-rattling drive. It’s an unlikely and remote location in which to find one of Britain’s most original designers, but then Totty is a hybrid, embracing rural scruffiness as much as slick metropolitan chic and relishing the clash. She’s as likely to be in men’s patent loafers, a purple silk shirt and designer bomber jacket as muddy riding boots, jodhpurs and battered tweed – or even more likely, a mix of both.
Her influences are as eclectic as her style. Apart from her mother’s elegance, she cites visiting the Dennis Severs’ 18th-century Huguenot house in Spitalfields, when she was still at St. Martin’s, as a defining moment. It was candlelit as there was no electricity, and she fell in love with its historical authenticity. “It smelt of tobacco and roasting beef. They had recreated the sounds of horses and carriages on cobbles outside and we were offered mead to taste,” she remembers. “It made me realise how much touch, smell and sound matter when creating an atmosphere.” She was also greatly inspired by visiting Zandra Rhodes’ flat above the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. “Zandra was a rule-breaker and it was so exciting to see that creative chaos and explosive blasts of colour.”
It made me realise how much touch, smell and sound matter when creating an atmosphere.Totty Lowther
Totty’s style is not for the timid or restrained but for people self-assured enough to embrace flair and a celebratory spirit in their surroundings. It’s the antidote to innocuous, safe neutral. As we emerge after Covid looking for fun, it’s no surprise that her wallpapers are being so feted and bringing joy and colour into people’s homes all over the world. Their majestically ornate patterns are a culmination of all the disparate influences she has succumbed to. Summing up her design ethos, Totty says: “I adore the wonder of everyday things, whether it’s the peeling paint on the red byre door or the flicker of yellow goldfinch wings against the downy thistle tops. My palette is bright and spontaneous.” We could all do with more of that palette right now.
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