Words by Sally Wilson Does ‘pattern’ necessarily mean ‘order’? Not always. Proof is in the living, breathing, hypnotic wallpapers created by London-based artist and designer, Sian Zeng.
When you look at Sian’s wallpaper, what you immediately notice is the clever absence of pattern. Her works stir up a wild, less structured scene than traditional designs. They take you directly to the tropics, with rain dripping from Monstera leaves, or skywards, with the occasional Ficus lyrata floating by. You’ve probably guessed by now that these are no ordinary wallflowers!
‘When I design a pattern, I try my best not to make my design look like a pattern that is repeated across the surface, but rather something that is more organic and natural,’ Sian – who was born in Wen Zhou, China and grew up in Hungary – tells me from her studio in southeast London.
To achieve this, Sian uses various techniques. For one, all her designs are meticulously hand-drawn. And she uses all manner of materials: everything from pencil, gouache paint and drawing pens to crayons, brush pen, Chinese brushes and inks. But the real disguise is in the pattern formation itself. 'I like to design the pattern so that the repeat is disguised, making it difficult to see the beginning and end. This is why I normally design my wallpapers using a half drop repeat, which means the pattern is repeated halfway down the side in the vertical direction, making it harder for our eyes to detect the repeat.’ Designing wallpaper involves, perhaps unexpectedly, a fair bit of mathematics. There’s the repetition of the pattern over the length of the roll; there’s the pattern size and proportions.
‘One of the biggest challenges when creating patterns for wallpaper is the scale,’ says Sian. ‘The pattern has to be impactful when viewed from a distance and should also contain beautiful/interesting details when observed closely. It takes me a very long time to paint my wallpapers by hand, because I place a lot of emphasis on details. At the moment, I’m painting a large-scale tree mural for our next collection, which has taken 4 months to complete!’ Here is Sian's 'Summer Tropical Bloom' wallpaper, filled with Monstera leaves and bright pink hibiscus flowers. 'My studio South East London has massive windows overlooking a park with a line of trees, and sometimes if I am lucky I will spot the resident oversized squirrel carrying a piece of chocolate!' Sian’s wallpapers are not simply decorations – they are significant artworks that tell a story. ‘Summer Tropical Bloom’, from the ‘Seasons’ collection, for instance, is a vast, palpable jungle-scape. ‘With the summer pattern, I wanted to evoke the lush feelings of summer; overgrown jungle leaves, bugs buzzing underneath the foliage and bold, bright blooms brought on by the summer rains. In contrast, the hot summer days also cause some plants to dry up, becoming blackened and brittle – that’s why some of the foliage is in black and white. I think it creates an interesting dynamic between vivid hues and the absence of colour.’ In other patterns, such as ‘Autumn Cloud Forest’, the stratosphere delivers magnificent, uprooted plants on clouds as they drift softly past. The effect of the pattern here is a sense of time passing, momentum and calmness.
‘Somehow, I see wallpapers as a combination of fine art painting and textile design; a hanging wall art,’ Sian explains. ‘Behind each wallpaper collection, there is a story attached, with the latest wallpaper collection reflecting the beauty of the changing seasons.’
Plants feature front and centre in many of Sian’s designs, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Sian avoided them for some time! ‘When I started designing patterns, I was drawn to natural elements, but I’ve always mixed them up with man-made elements. For a while I actually tried consciously not to bring in too many botanical elements into my design, because in art school there is a certain stigma attached to those designers drawing flowers; they are often viewed as safe and commercial.’ 'When I first came up with my Seasons collection, I decided to take a non-traditional approach to floral patterns, by having plants float in the sky amid the clouds and by letting paint drip down the botanical patterns, signifying the rain in spring. I feel a lot more free to draw plants these days – as long as I’ve broken a few rules when creating them.’ Studies for 'Autumn Cloud Forest' wallpaper from the 'Seasons' series. Studies for 'Summer Tropical Bloom' wallpaper, also from the 'Seasons' series. Sian's wallpapers have impact from afar and offer beautiful details up close. Fancy a Ficus lyrata floating across your living room? Yes, please! These days, plants are a big part of Sian’s daily routine. Her London flat is filled with succulents. She has spent the past four months painting a mural-sized tree! Her three favourite plants are the fig tree, wisteria and peony. ‘Watering my plants and having them around has a very calming effect on me,’ Sian says. ‘But where I was born in Wen Zhou, China there was a very dense urban population and very little plant life. We had one big tree across my window and my Mum used to tell me to stare at it intermittently while studying to preserve my eyesight.’ What wise words! 'I moved to Hungary with my family when I was 7, and spent a lot of time with my Hungarian teacher and her husband, who had a beautiful garden at their house and at their holiday home next to Lake Velence. There was a large variety of plants surrounding me and I would forever be pressing flowers in my notebooks; I loved the shades of colours they produced… I now live in the UK, but for many years I still received pressed flowers from my Hungarian teacher in her letters to me, before she discovered the internet.’ As someone who designs voraciously, and with the seasons, Sian finds inspiration in many guises. But her favourite source of inspiration is not what you’d necessarily expect: ‘I like to be inspired and come up with ideas by taking a long train journey, where you have nothing else to do but think. I guess a lot of things inspire me that I’m not even aware of and all of these inspirations come together in my head when I’m sitting quietly on a train, with nothing to do but daydream.’ It’s those daydreams that translate in Sian’s wallpapers, which are anything but shy.