Design Notes Archive

Tortoiseshell Paint Effects

Tortoiseshell Paint Effects

Think of tortoiseshell (or turtleshell) in the decorative arts and chance are you’re picturing inlaid boxes, small frames, or intricately applied marquetry on furniture at museums like The Wallace Collection and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The name André-Charles Boulle may come to mind—he the late 17th century cabinetmaker to Louis XIV. But today, as more compassionate minds have prevailed, designers champion the faux variety over the real thing. Free from the constraints of conscience and scale, skillfully applied tortoiseshell paint effects can be employed in the most unexpected ways.

“I love faux painted finishes because you can create something that’s really special and completely unique,” says artist and designer Luke Edward Hall. Should you find yourself in Paris, step foot inside the brasserie he designed, Café Les Deux Gares (left), and look up. Inspired by the classic bistros of Paris, Hall commissioned specialist painter Pauline Leravaud to create a tromp l’oeil tortoiseshell on the ceiling. The highly lacquered finish is surrounded by matte burgundy paint creating a cocooning quality. “It gives the interior an amazing sense of character, almost like old tobacco stains. It’s this feeling of an old cafe that I wanted,” he says.

For interior designer Stephanie Barba Mendoza, tortoiseshell feels like a neutral, much in the same way one might consider an animal print neutral. “They go hand-in-hand, like a little leopard print,” she says. That made it the perfect choice for updating the original Victorian mantel in her Queens Park living room (centre). “There’s so much going on in this room, it needed a neutral. And the existing fireplace has these beautiful old ceramic tiles that the tortoiseshell finish picks up on.” It also perfectly complements the Blue Gum wall paint colour. To execute her vision, Mendoza turned to The Finisher’s Co., a collective of artists and master artisans founded by Dominic Lewis. 

Atma Decorative Arts’ founder, Magdalena Gordon, studied paint effects at the Van Der Kelen Institute in Brussels and creates faux finishes using traditional techniques—but the results can look wildly different depending on her brief. For Campbell Rey, she recently completed a bathroom in Belgravia where walls and lampshades were painted in high contrast yellow and umber tortoiseshell. The result was a maximalist pattern-on-pattern effect. On the flip side, for a project by Colefax & Fowler’s Lucy Hammond Giles, the goal was a far subtler approach. Gordon painted woodwork (right) with layers of cream, taupe and brown tortoiseshell to compliment dark olive faux Japanning she’d lacquered on the walls. Having recently purchased a house, Gordon now has space where she’s working on small objects, like painted boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl. You must be patient though. “The finish is quite laborious and time consuming, especially if you want a beautiful finish that takes up so much depth and colour variation. The scale doesn’t really matter,” she says. Even the smallest item takes weeks to complete.

This is a process that artist Malcolm Scoular is also all too familiar with. His faux finish lampshades and obelisk bases have garnered a cult following—spot one on James Mackie’s bedside table in the November issue of House & Garden. Working meticulously on paper shades, he applies nothing short of eight layers, typically beginning with his signature gold leaf ground. From there it’s a dance of artist oils and scumble glaze and clear varnish; painting, drying, painting and wiping away, until the balance of colour and the softness of the final finish is just so. “You get this wonderful spatial quality of the depth and the glow from the gold leaf,” he says. Scoular’s shades can be purchased through Brownrigg and he’s also created a series of colourful shades for Dust + Eden, including a scarlet red ground that calls to mind Boulle’s trademark colour. Scoular also takes commissions for special projects and installations, like a set of tortoiseshell doors he recently painted for Barlow & Barlow, destined for a wine cabinet in London.  

And of course, we’d be remiss not to add that Balineum’s mottled tiles are our own take on a tortoiseshell motif. They too are handcrafted—you may even find the tile-maker’s fingerprints pressed into the back of the clay. Once ready for glazing, the colours are hand-applied using sponges. They can be mixed and matched or installed in unison depending on what effect you’re after. Here's to getting creative! 

Photographs © Benoit Linero, Casey Moore, Magdalena Gordon