Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tobacco Road

I admit that I don't know all of the whys and wherefores of chintz, but I do feel it's my civic duty to correct the misguided belief that all chintz is floral. Chintz can take the guise of florals, Chinoiserie prints, stripes, or a myriad of other patterns. Truth be told, I'm not so crazy about floral chintz, but that's simply because I'm not really a floral print person. But there is one chintz that makes me giddy as a schoolgirl: tobacco leaf print glazed cotton.

When I was young, we had a sofa in our library that was covered in a tobacco leaf chintz. My mother can't remember from which fabric house it came, but let me just say that it was mighty fine. The background was a clear, vibrant yellow against which the blues, purples, and gold of the tobacco leaf played their roles. Sure it was quite traditional- after all, the print is based on Chinese export tobacco leaf porcelain- but it also had Style with a capital "S". The only problem was that the fabric was a bit too delicate for a high traffic piece of furniture. Two daughters and a Springer Spaniel were a bit too much for the tobacco leaf. It started to look a little shabby a little too quickly, but you know, shabby is not so difficult to pull off.

I was reminded of this fabric when I came across an old photo of the late designer Stephen Mallory's Rhinebeck, NY house. How disappointing that the photo is in black and white (see below), but just imagine the impact the fabric must have had when used on not just the sofa and armchairs but on the walls as well. I bet it was truly stunning in person. Oh, and it looks as though the upholstered pieces were quilted, something which seems to be making a comeback today.

And then my friend Barry recently wrote about a unit in our high rise building that had been decorated in the late 1960s by the same designer who worked on my childhood home, decorator David Byers III. I'm wondering how many homes in Atlanta got the tobacco leaf chintz treatment as he used it not only on our sofa but also on a sofa and some chairs in the aforementioned condo. (The photos are at top and below.)

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if this particular print is still in production. I do know that Carleton Varney has a tobacco leaf print, but it doesn't have the rich yellow background like the one that I adore. If I could find the fabric (and if I had an extra room lying around), I'd cover everything- walls, windows, and upholstered pieces- in the stuff. Now that would really be smoking.

David Byers III used tobacco leaf chintz in the Plaza Towers unit of Mrs. Robert R. Snodgrass. The print stands up well to the other yellows and acid greens used in the home. The photo at the top is the Music Room/Library, while the one directly above is Mrs. Snodgrass' Sitting Room.

The late Stephen Mallory covered walls, sofa, and chairs in the chintz. It was not completely crazy...but it almost was.

Carleton Varney's version of Tobacco Leaf

And of course, Mottahedeh's Tobacco Leaf china is a classic.

(Photos of the Snodgrass apartment from Landmark Homes of Georgia 1733-1983; Mallory photo from New York Interior Design, 1935-1985, Vol. 1: Inventors of Tradition)


  1. The bamboo secretary-bookcase in the Mallory room is pretty amazing!! The room must be the only one of its kind--funky and great.

  2. I so would have like to have seen the Stephen Mallory room for I love a good floral chintz. My favorite is Climbing Geranium by Colefax and Fowler. I first saw it in the 80s and wonder if it is still produced.

  3. Wow, I was never a big fan of floral chintz, but thanks for sharing this tobacca leaf chintz. It's stunning and refreshing! I'm loving the china set in the last photo!!!

  4. My mother used to say, "Now that's shades of tobacco road." I swear I never knew what she was talking about, but thought it was really bad. You've just changed my mind.

  5. I am so glad you posted that picture of Stephen Mallory's house; he was a heavenly person. And his house in France was unbelievably chic.

    1. Hi! My name is Susan. Love this thread! Admittedly, I'm biased as I'm married to Stephen's son. I found this site as I'm currently collecting articles and magazines that reference Stephen's work and plan to gift them to his wife and my husband. I mentioned this blog to Jenny and she was delighted to know Stephen's work is remembered, and that there was a comment from someone who'd visited them in France. If you and she have lost touch, please do respond to me and I'd be happy to reconnect you. I'm sure she'd love to touch base with old friends...

  6. Fantastic photos! I love the sophisticated southern style.

  7. Well, I like Tobacco Leaf and I didn't even know it! Oh I love that Tobacco Leaf by Varney, thanks for putting it on my radar. It's all the colors that do it for me, I could even see it on a very simple strapless evening gown.

    But, I cannot imagine putting fabric like that around the mantle, it looks almost like a bumper. That being said, of course I would love to see it!

  8. I love the fabrics that reference china. That pattern could easily have been a Dec Walk fabric-they would have been the resource for designers doing their own fabric signatures. Bob Collins. All the fabric combinations like the purple and yellow. Not so very many now, sadly so.

  9. Very retro, very cool and very chic!! Would work great in a modern setting as well.

  10. Edward3:59 PM

    Early in my career at W&J Sloane in NYC we had a promotion featuring a Tobacco Leaf print made by (I think) Cyrus Clark Chintzes. It was used to cover sofas,chairs, bedspreads, curtains, and You name it. The accessory buyer went to China and brought back all manor of Jars, vases, cachepots, and planters painted with the Tobacco Leaf design. It was a well coordinated effort and very successful for the store. I still see an occasional piece in antique shops, probably from that promotion.

  11. Ooh I love this room! The colors are very pretty. Thanks for this post.

  12. Anonymous10:28 AM

    ..tobacco leaf was originally an exclusive motive for the Portuguese market. It looks so wonderful applied in fabric!

  13. I love the right yellow room.