A Maker’s Story: Natasha Hulse on communicating nature’s complexities in exquisite appliqué
From her studio in a bustling London conurbation, decorative artist Natasha Hulse creates pieces embellished with three-dimensional appliqué inspired by the living world, from the flora and fauna of California to the rolling Hampshire hills
- Nick Carvell
- Ellen Hancock
Natasha Hulse grew up surrounded by nature. As a child she lived in a cottage near Salisbury, on the edge of the New Forest. Immersed in the woods, the family home was often invaded by the animals that roamed the lands around it. “I grew up with sheep, cows, horses, dogs, rabbits…” says Natasha. “All the animals would wander in and out of the garden – and in and out of the house. Even the cattle sometimes.”
Looking around her studio space in Shepherds Bush, west London, you’ll find all manner of items souped up in Natasha’s signature sylvan style: a cornflower-blue wooden lamp embellished with delicately painted white floral detailing and dark-blue garlands, for instance. There’s a tall, sage-green fabric lampshade showing a strawberry plant in bloom, hand-cut and applied in intricate layers. Also here is a work-in-progress of a painted-fabric mural featuring a young sapling with spry, curvaceous branches and budding white flowers emerging from ferny undergrowth. On every wall you’ll find a watercolour sketches, paint charts, postcards, fabric samples, pages ripped from magazines. Inspiration is everywhere here, in this distinctly urban spot, but her work remains rooted in nature.
Natasha is interested in creating functional things as fine art. “I find it exciting when art moves beyond the frame,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be in a box with glass in front. It can be touched.” Many others would agree. Since pursuing her practice full-time in the late 2010s, Natasha has worked with some of the biggest names in interior design, including Kit Kemp of Firmdale Hotels, and Alexandra Tolstoy. She has also shown at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, twice hosting a buzzy live studio space, working in real time alongside the most exciting garden designers in the world. Today, however, much of what Natasha does is for individuals wanting a bit of her woodland magic for themselves. Here, she talks us through her methods.
“I had a very free-range childhood. I’m one of six siblings, the youngest girl, and my parents weren’t big on rules. It was a chaotic, amazing upbringing. In the house I was allowed to paint on fabrics, lampshades, walls… I still have handbags I decorated when I was younger. I painted an orchard of trees in my bedroom. Painting on paper came much later for me.
“After school, I studied textile design at Central Saint Martins and Chelsea College of Arts, including an Erasmus placement for a few months in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Later on, I had my own womenswear line for a little while, but I missed creating things with my hands, so I took up ceramics and started creating hand-cut, origami-like fabric flowers and butterflies in my spare time.”
“It was my roommate at the time who suggested I show these flowers to the interior designer Kit Kemp. That’s how I got my first big commission: a ‘Tree of Life’ design for a headboard I created for the Whitby Hotel in New York in 2017. It took me about nine months, working in the evenings while still doing my regular job. I’ve since produced pieces for other Firmdale outfits, including the Crosby Street and Ham Yard hotels in London.
“Any commission I work on starts with going into the garden or the woods, finding flowers to press, looking at the colours and textures. That’s the case pretty much wherever the client is is based; if I’m working with a Californian, I’ll incorporate Californian flora and fauna into the design. When I’m first looking at the space clients intend my piece to inhabit, I also take note of what kind of textiles they have in the room already. If they already have a printed floral fabric, for instance, I’ll try and bring its petals into my piece. It helps create a balanced interior.
“Once we’ve decided on the elements I will incorporate and the colour palette, I create a series of scenes on Photoshop that I think the client would like. When the design is agreed, I’ll sketch it freehand on to whatever base fabric I’m using. Then I’ll begin painting, adding detail, before ironing it and washing it. Once it’s dry, I start on the hand-cut embellishments. This can take some time – there can be a couple of thousand petals layered on a single headboard. I work on my great-granny’s dressmaking table in my studio, which is 3m by 2.5m. It’s perfect for my larger pieces.
“When all the initial details are attached, I’ll send a photo to the client so they can make any final changes. Then I use upholstery glue to secure it all to the base fabric, before working with my team of seamstresses to sew every layer into place. It’s all very secure by the time we’re finished! After all, I make these pieces with the hope they’ll be passed from generation to generation.
“Upcycling often features in my work. Frequently, I ask fabric companies to give me samples and cuttings that would otherwise go into landfill. Sometimes, people ask me to work directly on old pieces of furniture, or to incorporate heirloom textiles into pieces – a cherished grandfather’s old tie, for instance, or a wedding dress.
“I had a client in the Hampshire hills who wanted me to incorporate her late mother’s curtains into a headboard. The fabric was beautiful – very old and mustard yellow, with purple and blue flowers – but sadly it was stained, which meant I could only use the flowers as small details. Inspired by the landscape surrounding the house, I added the delicate blooms into the design, alongside little stitches to resemble footprints. I liked the idea that, in just the same way you’d walk across the nearby hills, people walk with you through life even if they’re not physically here anymore.
“There are always complex commissions – but I love a challenge. For example, one client wanted leaves and other foliage creeping around all sides of their headboard, rather than just the front, so I needed to make sure that design all matched up across the four surfaces. I also had a client who decided they wanted to slightly change one of the colours I’d used after we’d started sewing, meaning I had to unpick everything and start again. I actually love that kind of problem – it means I don’t become blind to the colours I use and I also get an insight into how other people interpret shades differently. It’s incredibly useful for an artist.”
“Creating something so bespoke matters to me. People have to look at this thing every day – sometimes it’s the first thing they see when they open their eyes in the morning – so I want them to love it, cherish it and give it to their grandchildren. It’s more than a piece of furniture in your house – it’s art and it’s forever.”
Natasha Hulse on Instagram
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