Sheila Bridges is fearless. Especially when it comes to pattern, color, and the truly iconoclastic design of her interiors and products. The former includes residences and offices, such as the 8,300-square-foot Harlem site for former President Clinton. It also encompasses academia where she has gone high, completing projects at Columbia University and Princeton University. As for products, she has created furniture and home accessories sold online and through brick-and-mortar retailers. A clear standout are her designs in Harlem Toile de Jouy. Here, Bridges upends the classical toile de jouy patterns with joie-de-vivre designs that celebrate being Black. Harlem Toile de Jouy started as a wallcovering and grew to include fabrics, bedding, plates, glassware, umbrellas, and enviable clothing. Bridges also has entered into partnerships with Sonos (yes, toile for speakers) and Converse (yes, toile for sneakers). Most recently, she has created a five-pattern collection for The Shade Store. Meanwhile, her designs are part of the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s permanent wallpaper collection and have appeared in museums including the Museum of the City of New York; The Studio Museum in Harlem; The Brooklyn Museum; The Museum of Arts and Design in New York; and the Musée de la Toile de Jouy in France. Having read an excerpt from Bridges's "The Bald Mermaid: A Memoir," we’re adding it to our reading list.
Bridges grew up in West Philadelphia with her parents and older sibling in a traditional fieldstone house with carriage house-garage. She earned a bachelor's in sociology at Brown University and studied at Parsons School of Design at The New School and Polimoda, a fashion school in Florence. Prior to establishing her firm in 1994, she worked for Shelton, Mindel & Associates and Renny B. Saltzman Interiors. Her studio is at home in Harlem. Her house in Hudson Valley is open with white walls and lots of color, pattern, and texture in bedrooms and baths. Surprisingly for one so design savvy, she arrived via a circuitous route.
Interior Design: Our first question is a no-brainer. What were the catalyst and inspiration for your Harlem Toile?
Sheila Bridges: I love the French toiles, but when I was decorating my own home I couldn’t find a toile that spoke to me personally. So, I created my own.
ID: What was your introduction to design and your earliest memories? How did you envision your future in design?
SB: Honestly, I never really thought much about design, meaning a future in design. I probably discovered design when I studied abroad in Rome while I was in college. Interior design was not my first choice for a career, so it really was never on the radar.
ID: What was that choice?
ID: And then design?
SB: I worked in fashion, for Bloomingdales in their management training program to become a fashion buyer and for Giorgio Armani (menswear) before going back to design school to study interior design.
ID: What role did Italy have in informing your work?
SB: Having spent so much time in Italy, both Rome and Florence, I am sure those experiences influenced my work as a designer even though I didn’t realize it at the time. A lot of my design inspiration comes from my travels. People, culture, nature, and art are also influences.
ID: Obviously, your work is diverse. Are there any constants?
SB: The goal is always the same, to tell the client’s story through design.
ID: You have so many partnerships. Do you work with an agent?
SB: I briefly had a relationship with a licensing agent a few years ago, but since they could not secure any deals for me, I decided that it would be better to represent myself. I understand my own brand better than anyone else. Same goes for publicity.
ID: So, how did you expand from your own line to partnerships?
SB: It’s simply based on the relationships I have cultivated throughout my 30-year career. I am often approached by companies or people who are familiar with my design work from magazines, television, or from museum exhibitions.
ID: Is The Shade Store your most recent collaboration?
SB: Yes, I am extremely excited about it and the opportunity to bring my designs to a new home furnishings category. What’s a home without a window treatment?
ID: How have you fared during the pandemic, and what have you learned from it?
SB: The pandemic has been very challenging both personally and professionally. My business was closed for four months during 2020. I’ve managed by focusing more on my product design business than my regular interior design business. I’ve learned that you have to be willing to pivot and be flexible.