D. Porthault: DC’s French Connection

By his Instagram account, I knew my friend, the architectural photographer Erik Kvalsvik, was off to Paris, the Loire Valley, Palm Beach, New York and the Hamptons last year, recording snippets of his project to shoot a coffee-table book for D. Porthault, the iconic French textile company famous for its richly patterned and colorful bed and table linens, bath towels and other luxury fabrics. I knew it had finally come out when I received my latest issue of Architectural Digest in the mail, which profiled the book and its portrayal of the company’s legacy.

I have pored over this book, and, just, Wow. Erik tells me that his mission was to make the linens “readable” in the overall environment. I can understand that challenge, given that the environments featured in this book are just as sumptuous as the Porthault patterns.

I’ll have to save up for a while to afford these linens for myself, though. Let’s say I wanted to purchase Mariage, for instance, because green is my favorite color (and I love ferns and hydrangea). A Queen bed set (top and bottom sheets, plus two pillow cases) costs $2,750.

All book photography by Erik Kvalsvik

But once you learn how these patterns are created and imprinted—a different screening for each shade and hue—you’ll realize that you’re sleeping on art. Really.

But here’s where it gets good for us lovers of DC design: The owner of D. Porthault is Joan Carl, whose main home that she shares with husband Bernard is here in the city.

And shortly after she purchased the company in 2005, she asked the archival specialists at Gold Leaf Studios near Dupont Circle (whose founder, Bill Adair, I’ve blogged about) to help her gather and properly archive Porthault’s historical artifacts, textiles and patterns.

Many of Erik’s photographs in this book feature spaces in Washington and the surrounding region, and I’m happy to share them here, along with a Q&A with Mrs. Carl.

Joan and Bernard Carl’s dining room in their Kalorama home. 

Q. You have a home here!
A. My husband and I moved to Washington in 1972 after law school, and we have been a part of the community, with a few years living in the New York area and in London, since then. Our three children went to the Cathedral schools [St. Albans and National Cathedral].

On the Carls’ table: hand-embroidered linen placemats and napkins in “Pois de Senteur”

Q. I knew about Porthault’s vivid patterns, but not its intricate embroidery.
A. Porthault is also known for its abundant – and yes, exquisite – hand embroidery! We stock many designs, but a client can come to us with a special commission and we will produce it for them. All the work is hand done. Our design studio in Paris selects threads, colors, pattern placement and works personally with our clients.

Designer Barry Dixon has some gorgeous embroidered patterns at Elway Hall in Warrenton:

Barry’s table is set with placemats and napkins in “Feuilles d’Automne”

From Joan Carl: “Barry Dixon’s design aesthetic meshes beautifully with Porthault. Barry shows a deep sensitivity to the colors and fluidity in nature, and his interior spaces seem to glow from within with Southern hospitality, charm and sophistication. We were very honored to be featured at Elway Manor.”

Barry’s table here is set with “Chasse,” a custom-designed hunting scene.

There are also some gorgeous table settings at the DC homes of Katherine Bradley, the education advocate and philanthropist, and architect David Schwarz.

Q. Do you help clients choose designs for their table linens?
A. Yes, I worked with both David and Katherine to select linens for their homes. We reviewed their china, crystal and flatware and chose linens that complemented their collections and the interior design of their rooms.

“Mers de Chine” linen placemats and napkins grace Bradley’s lunch table.

“Katherine Bradley has an incredible sense of style, and she entertains with grace, warmth, creativity and great attention to detail. The elegance and human touch one can always feel in Porthault linens are a perfect complement to Katherine’s style,” Carl says.

 

Hemstiched linen “Belle de Jours” is a handsome ground for David Schwarz’s neoclassic-style china and silver.

“David Schwarz is an outstanding architect who has a great eye for line and proportion and a deep appreciation for the artisanal,” Carl says.

 

The book is separated into sections: The Table; Outdoor Living; Bedrooms; Bathrooms; and Nurseries/Children’s Rooms.

The Outdoor section features a local designer who is new to me: Henry Johnson of the Baltimore firm Johnson|Berman.

A “Demoiselles” scalloped tablecloth graces this late-afternoon setting. “Matisse Coral” boudoir pillows are on the bench.

Barry’s work is further represented in the Bedroom and Bathroom section. Here’s one of his bedrooms:

“New York Mille Fleurs” and Porthault’s crisp white shams and coverlet await a lucky guest at Elway Hall.

And a sumptuous bath:

Barry chose “Matisse Coral” terry towels and bath mat for this bathroom.

Back to Baltimore, this is Henry Johnson’s bathroom:

“Prairie” and “Cachemire” hand towels

We don’t have any local spaces represented in the Children’s section, but I’m DROOLING over this bedroom, belonging to the daughters of Architectural Digest editor in chief Amy Astley, who wrote the book’s forward:

The bedding is “Desmoiselles,” a fitting pattern for two young girls.

I also can’t stop thinking about New Yorker Emma Jane Pilkington’s kid-friendly guest bedroom:

A sweet “Coeurs” boudoir pillow tops “Lilas” bedding.

Getting back to my conversation with Joan Carl, she explained to me that she grew up with D. Porthault at a time when most bedding was either white, or if one was feeling adventurous, ivory. One of her first jobs out of Vassar was as a buyer in the linens department for Garfinckels, our beloved local department store that, sadly, closed in 1990. She ushered in some of the store’s first prints and colors on bedding and bath towels in the 1970s—think African-inspired basket-weave, zebra pattern, and block-print-like animals stamped on a terra cotta background. “I thought, omigosh, this is incredible! It helped that I had been an art-history major,” Carl says. “I wasn’t afraid of pattern, growing up with Porthault, and it made a statement.”

Fast forward to when she and her husband bought D. Porthault. They built a new, modernized weaving, cutting and sewing factory. Besides being a loyal customer for decades, Carl told me that she immediately identified with the company’s artisans, as she herself is skilled at needlework and knows how to sew. “Because I sincerely love this product, and the fact that I know how to sew, and understand what the craftspeople were doing, they got that sense from me,” she says. “I really wanted to preserve this art form.” (She did an expert job of it, considering she was recognized with one of France’s most prestigious honors, the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, in 2008.)

Q. What is your favorite pattern?
A. I have always loved Muguet (Lily of the Valley), which was one of Grace Kelly’s requested designs and has been printed in several different colors over the years. The flower’s symbolism of sweetness and the return of happiness adds to the design’s charm.

Muguet

A. I also love the meaning of Trèfles (Clovers) because of the historical association of the motif with the French poet and intellectual Louise de Vilmorin, whose iconic signature is captured in the design. For her, for her friend [and company founder] Madeleine Porthault, and for me, the four-leaf clover represents hope and good fortune.

Trefles

A. And I must add to these two designs another favorite, Libellules (Dragonflies, below), representing harmony and understanding. This is a design from the 1950’s that we are re-printing for the first time in many years.

A. Every Porthault pattern has a client’s name and/or a story attached to it. This, along with the knowledge that the linens are all hand made, adds to the “human connection” one always feels with Porthault.

Q. Can you estimate how much D. Porthault you’ve personally collected for your homes over the years?
A. A lot! But never too much!! I inherited my mother’s Porthault and visited the first D. Porthault New York store (on 57th Street between 5th and Madison avenues) with her in the 1960’s. My mother loved the Chardons print (also a favorite of Charlie Chaplin!).

Chardons

A. I bought my first “very own” boudoir pillow (Coeurs) in Paris in the 1970’s; and I have been collecting piece by piece ever since. I have been known to become very excited if I see a vintage piece for sale or a friend or client offers to show me a printing from fifty or so years ago!

Coeurs

Q. Amy Astley said in her forward to the book that your mother taught you needlework. What are you working on now?
A. I am starting to design a canvas showing the border garden of my host and hostess on Martha’s Vineyard as a thank you gift.

Q. Have you incorporated your own craft into D. Porthault patterns?
A. Perhaps the focus on and appreciation of detail, color and pattern placement, as well as the joy of experiencing the finished product is the best parallel I could draw between my needlepointing and Porthault. I know the dedication, time and skill that the Porthault artisans put into the linens.

Q. I see that Jacqueline Kennedy is known for introducing D. Porthault to America when she used its linens in the White House. What kind of things did she like?
A. Here’s an historical example [after the White House years]: A preliminary sketch and color transparency for a special-order commission of placemats and napkins for Jackie Kennedy Onassis, for the yacht Christina O.

 

 

Q. Erik Kvalsvik is such a talented photographer. Did he capture anything in the homes featured in this book that maybe you hadn’t noticed before about your company’s linens?
A. Erik was wonderful to work with because he understood our product and is such a master of his craft. He was able to capture not only the joy and whimsy in the linens, but also the luxury of the fabrics and workmanship. His sense of placement, proportion, light and color are outstanding. Erik was confident in his judgment, but collaborative as well … qualities I like very much. Creating the book, and working with Erik, was such a personal pleasure for me because it showed our linens in many different contexts — formal, informal, inside the home and outside in the garden — just being lived with and enjoyed!

Q. Where can DC-area residents buy D. Porthault locally?
A. Abrielle (Ann Sullivan) has some Porthault, and is certainly able to order anything a customer might like. And many of our DC clients visit us on our website or come to our New York store (470 Park Avenue at 58th Street).

Thanks to Erik and Mrs. Carl for their generosity in sharing their time—and images! If you can’t afford a full set of bedding, this book is certainly a worthy investment.

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Comments

  1. Jennifer Sergent says:

    That is good to know, thanks Pamela!

  2. Porthault NYC has some great sales twice a year — everyone I know (including many people featured on this page) hit the sale and pick up towels, bathrobes, sheet sets… that’s how we can afford it!

    They also launder beautifully and last forever.