South African-born textile designer Bernie de Le Cuona is known for producing highly crafted but understated fabrics with a luxurious feel. She has run her eponymous textile company for 25 years from its headquarters in an old carriage house not far from Windsor Castle, near London, and has showrooms in the UK capital, Moscow and New York.
The fibres used by de Le Cuona include alpaca from Peru, linen from Belgium and wool from Australia. She offers bespoke furniture services and has worked on projects ranging from a Russian hunting lodge to a linen marquee.
How did you come to the design world?
It was a love of linen, or rather a love of beautiful things and interiors, and a youthful belief that I could achieve anything. I studied architectural design and started out importing pieces of modern classic design, such as Mies van der Rohe chairs, to South Africa. Then I moved to Brussels with my then husband. That’s where I discovered fabrics.
It was in a little shop 25 years ago. It sold everything from tablecloths to bolts of fabric and washed vintage French bed linen. I was intrigued by the sheer variety of textures, and the way each piece felt and took colour differently. I didn’t know at the time that it was 100 per cent linen in those days. I just knew it was something special and the complete opposite to cotton cloths.
How would you characterise your style?
Naturally sophisticated, but also always changing.
Name your top three influences
Nature, travel and unusual techniques such as stonewashing, which is that floppy beaten effect you get from old linen. I use it for my Cobbles collection, but only with old stones that have become smooth and rounded. I love experimenting. In order to achieve something you have to have crazy ideas.
When you have designed so many fabrics, is it hard to find new inspiration?
No, that’s the easy part. I find inspiration in travel, new techniques and the colours and textures of Africa. Zambia is really inspiring — it is such a calm, unexplored and uncommercialised place.
The Grand Safari collection is my reinterpretation of a traditional African design and the palette for Artist Canvas is inspired by African sunset colours.
What is the secret to having confidence in using and enjoying textiles?
Textiles can make or break a room. Bring them all home and live with them for a couple of days. Do not overthink it. Choose something you love and it will work out. With natural textures, it is all about the mixing and layering rather than one big print. Layers give a room depth.
Who would design a fabric for you?
I often think about a collaborator. If I had to choose, it would be [fashion designer] Raf Simons. He is a chameleon and able to adapt his style to the project in hand. Or Carlo Scarpa, my favourite architect. He used natural materials and shapes, light and colour in such an inspiring manner.
Is there anyone in your field you particularly admire?
[Interior architect] Axel Vervoordt for his fascinating minimalism, which is imbued with this serene sense of history and timelessness. He said, “My style is more than it looks”, and that resonates with what we do at de Le Cuona.
What is the one object you would never allow in your home?
An ashtray — unless it was filled with chocolates. And taxidermy!
What has been your strangest project or request?
I don’t think anything is strange any more, but we were once approached to cover a whole building in linen and to finish it with a big bow as a gift. We have also covered tents in our linen for a polo match in Windsor Great Park and upholstered Land Rover seats in one of our wool paisleys.
What do you look for in a client or customer?
I would hope they would appreciate the provenance of our products and the care and craftsmanship behind each fabric. I also love a sense of the unexpected.
What do you do when you start a design?
Each year we create fabrics to complement what we already have, rather than producing “books” of matching products. For my most recent collection I wanted to introduce more luxury and use fine fibres, such as baby alpaca. This launch started out with understanding where the fibres came from and what sort of yarns we could develop. It took a lot of mill visits and brainstorming with weavers and finishers. Then the colouring and sampling starts. We also spend a lot of time finessing the way a fabric feels and flows.
Do you have any favourite fabrics?
I always produce what I love, so it is hard to say, but I have a very heavy linen that I call Buffalo. I would not want to live without it. It is about 1.5kg per metre and is stonewashed to show all the marks of the stones. To me it looks like it has been hand-loomed.
What do you see as the overriding trend in your field at the moment, even if you don’t subscribe to it?
A more sustainable luxury, and I very much subscribe to it. All our packaging is recycled and everything for the shop is made from recycled materials.
Photographs: Jon Day Photography