Newton Paisley

The designer celebrating rare and endangered species

How a conservation biologist-turned-illustrator tells nature’s stories – with her wallpapers and textiles.

Susy Paisley is a conservation biologist who spent years studying the Andean spectacled bear. She has a PhD from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, is a winner of the Whitley Award for conservation, and serves as a fellow of the Royal Geographical and Linnean Societies. Paisley is also an artist. She follows in a long line of women in natural science, including Maria Sibylla Merian, Elizabeth Gould and Margaret Fountaine, who created detailed illustrations of the flora and fauna they studied. In December 2016, she launched the company Newton Paisley, through which she designs fabrics and wallpapers she has created in order to tell the impassioned and important story of the world’s endangered species.

Conservation and curiosities

“My designs depict species of conservation concern in order to interest people in the more than 25,000 species currently known to be threatened with extinction,” says Paisley. “The goal is engaging storytelling, so sometimes the designs include extinct species like the Carolina parakeet, or a wonderful species recently lost, the Rabb's fringe-limbed treefrog, or species for which the conservation struggle is ongoing like the red squirrel in Britain,” she says. The designer is also working on publishing mini field-guides to accompany each design.

Bringing the outside in

“One finds flora and fauna are everywhere in textile design, but often these aren’t really put into context,” says Paisley. “Flowers are often stylised, animals appear randomly in what I call a ‘lick-and-stick’ approach to design. I think that narrative and context are key so I always try to tell a story through my designs,” she says. But how did this begin? “It all springs from my geeky obsession with nature,” she says. “My approach to design is all about employing visual story-telling in conservation biology to create a quirky cabinet-of-curiosities feel in my designs that showcase rare species and fauna.” Through a collaboration with World Land Trust, the international conservation charity, for every metre of her fabric that is sold, and for every roll of wallpaper, 100m2 of wild habitat is preserved, making a direct contribution to conservation. Paisley works from her home studio where she draws on paper, creating the repeating patterns, and then scanning the imagery and having it digitally printed in the north of England. 

Home from home

“This photograph is from my hut in the cloud forest of the Bolivian Andes where I lived in the late 1990s,” says the designer. “It was miles from the closest small town, and without any electricity, telecoms, heating or running water. Of course, I had pepper spray, in case of a puma or bear attack, and a flower press, a pair of binoculars, and other such items. I always had flowers and animal skins and beautiful wool blankets to make it homely. Home has always been so important to me, even when, before I built this hut, I lived in a tent and in a cave.”

In the clouds

Susy spent years in the high Andean cloud forest studying the spectacled bear, a mysterious and threatened species and the inspiration for the story of Paddington Bear. She was based in Bolivia's Madidi National Park, since discovered to have the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. “Alone in this extraordinary environment, I became increasingly intrigued by the patterns and colour around me,” she says. “Lichen, orchids, tiny mushrooms, hummingbirds, frogs, magnificent cloud forest scenery, and of course the bears, were all captured in my detailed drawings. Many of these illustrations have been used directly in my collections.”

A fitting tribute

The English Mercia collection is the designer’s tribute to one of the greatest conservation parables ever written, The Lorax by Dr Seuss. “The species in the design are based on real-world English equivalents of the imaginary species featured in the Lorax story that inhabit the region of the ancient kingdom of Mercia,” she says. “The humming fish are represented by great crested newts; the precious truffula trees are clover flowers whilst the playful barballoots are the red squirrels. The bees, which also feature in a companion print, are short-haired bumblebees. This is a wonderful conservation success story, as they were extinct in the UK, but acres of flower-rich meadows were planted in Kent, and the bees were reintroduced and are now thriving.”

Out of Africa

This design was created to commemorate the wedding of two of Paisley’s friends who are conservationists, and who were married at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. “A cattle ranch only 40 years ago, it has been transformed by the Craig family into one of the world’s most successful private wildlife conservation initiatives,” she says. “This pattern features species of particular interest to the bride and groom, with the special theme of myrmecophagous species, or those that feed on ants and termites,” she says. “Lewa Union includes termite mounds, a pangolin mother and baby, an aardwolf, a Jackson’s hornbill, a colony of naked molerats and the full moon over Mount Kenya.”

Southern belle

The Carolina Tree of Life collection tells the story of the Carolinas in the American South, where Paisley spent a lot of her childhood. “This design inspiration comes from free-flowing 17th-Century tree-of-life prints, and depicts flora and fauna of the region, including the extinct Carolina parakeet, the Monarch butterfly, whose migratory life cycle is critically endangered, and carnivorous native plants such as the Venus flytrap,” she says.

Looking sharp

Cactus Mexicanos is the culmination of several years during which the conservationist and designer lived in Mexico – as well as a recent return trip this summer. It celebrates the incredible diversity of Mexican cacti. Mexico is one of the world's centres of endemism for this group of plants, and includes marvels like the Creeping Devil which actually moves across the desert floor. “Cacti are enjoying a new popularity, but globally, one out of three cacti is in need of conservation attention,” she says. The flowing portion of the design is a critically endangered cactus called Hylocereus escuintlensis.

On beauty

Each Newton Paisley main collection comes with a print highlighting the beauty and importance of pollinators. “For the Carolina collection, it is the Monarch butterfly. For the English Mercia collection it is the short-haired bumblebee. For the Cloud Forest collection it will be hummingbirds. This design will be launched this summer at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York,” Paisley says.

Where the wild things are

“Newton Paisley has an aesthetic of bringing the outside in, and of bringing wildness and wilderness into interiors,” says the designer. The wallpaper is manufactured in Britain. It is made from a cellulose-based substrate, using recycled wood pulp, and the curtain and upholstery weight cloth is pure natural linen, woven in England and Scotland. “The printing all takes place in the north of England,” she says. “It is solvent-free, with minimum energy, chemical and water inputs, representing the most eco-friendly methods possible. The colours achieved using these pigment printing methods are gentle yet vivid, and the commitment to eco friendliness is central.”

To comment on and see more stories from BBC Designed, you can follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.