When we think about the colour palette of Malta, we tend to imagine the cerulean blue sea, that particular shade of limestone, a sunset sky awash with pinks and violets, the dusty muted shades of sun-drenched fields. What we lack in our natural landscape (save for those few months of winter rain) is the colour green. As someone who spent most of my life in Canada – a country known most prominently for its impressive landscapes and foliage – it is no surprise that I have recently found myself utterly bewitched by the hue.
I have learned that botanicals seem to be a universal feature of Maltese homes – lush palms at entranceways and hanging over balconies, internal courtyards brimming with tropical greenery that thrive in humid environments; bougainvillea shrubs that creep up limestone walls, the fuchsia-coloured flowers glow electric in the sunlight.
An acquaintance of mine told me that in Maltese folklore, green is considered bad luck, however, I am not entirely convinced. I have heard that green is the colour of genius; it is a colour that encourages positivity due to its associations with nature. Whatever the interpretation, a stroll alongside the last remaining townhouses in Sliema, and noting the prevalence of green doors and balconies, it would seem that the colour is here to stay.
Edward Said, a local conservation architect, muses that the traditional preference for green apertures may be simply an aesthetic one – the colour complements the yellow limestone beautifully. He notes that in Gozo, it was customary to paint one’s door and balcony either light blue, beige or green. “Green together with blue being primary colours possibly recalled vegetation, sky and sea,” says Edward, “which together with limestone created a distinct, familiar contrast being the main staple colours of the Maltese landscape.” Maltese design is also highly influenced by its closest neighbour, Italy, with green being a popular colour for home exteriors in Sicily.
With my green obsession in full swing, it was no surprise when my eye was drawn to a photograph of a particularly vibrant and voluminous wallpaper. It reminded me of something charmingly classical – an era of mint juleps at happy hour and Cape Cod holidays; definitively American, yet timeless. But also of something exotic and sweet-scented – a South American sojourn that I never took but dreamt about. Have you ever had a particular smell inspire a memory? Well, apparently a colour and a pattern can trigger a similar effect. I quickly learned that the wallpaper could be found on the walls of the Beverly Hills Hotel in California.
Located on the famous Sunset Boulevard, the Beverly Hills Hotel first opened its doors in 1912, and has since been a favourite of the Hollywood elite – the restaurants, lounges, rooms and palm-tree lined pool filled with a revolving bevy of directors, actors, models and other people “in the biz” as well as a fair share of international royalty. What I find most intriguing about the hotel, however, is not its star-sighting potential (as exiting as that may be), but rather its architectural history, design and decor.
Even before the town of Beverly Hills existed, a wealthy Midwesterner bought the land from the Mexican government with the intention of building a hotel situated “halfway between Los Angeles and the sea”. Today, the hotel is situated amongst twelve acres of tropical gardens and exotic flowers. With its white stucco exterior and terracotta roof tiles, it was designed in the Mediterranean Revival style by noted Pasadena architect Elmer Grey. The initial investment for the hotel was $500,000 US – a mammoth sum in those days. Two years later, in 1914, Beverly Hills became incorporated and secured its longstanding position as one of the chicest addresses in the country.
Fast forward to the 1940s – the hotel is painted its signature pink to complement the colours of the West Coast sunsets and is affectionately nicknamed the “Pink Palace”. Internationally acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams (whose client list included Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball) added the Crescent Wing to the hotel, and made changes to the Polo Lounge, Fountain Coffee Shop and lobby, opting for a pink-and-green colour palette. Williams also added the now legendary “Martinique” banana leaf wallpaper.
Today, the wallpaper may be found in the Fountain Coffee Room and the hotel hallways; there was nearly 9 kilometres of wallpaper used in total. CW Stockwell, a wallpaper manufacturer, created the pattern, which was inspired by a Don Loper fabric design (he was one of the most famous and influential fashion and costume designers in Hollywood at the time). Originally, the wallpaper was applied using a hand-cut technique, fixing the leaves individually to the walls (the historic staircase leading to the Coffee Room still features the hand-cut application). Over time, the wallpaper became a signature of the hotel – if you ever visit Los Angeles, make sure to include a stop at the hotel to experience a taste of Hollywood glamour and, of course, to view the wallpaper.
On the other side of the country, in West Virginia, there is another luxurious hotel that features a similar palm leaf pattern. At the same time that the Beverly Hills Hotel was undergoing renovations in the 1940s, the Greenbrier Hotel & Resort received a facelift from interior designer Dorothy Draper. A New Yorker by birth, Draper was a pioneer in interior design and considered one of the most influential tastemakers in the country.
Draper’s style could be described as anti-minimalist or “Modern Baroque” – she loved black and white tiled floors, oversized stripes and botanical patterns, large scale mirrors and jewel toned walls and furniture. Architectural Digest described her as “a true artist of the design world [who] became a celebrity in the modern sense of the word, virtually creating the image of the decorator in the popular mind.”
During the Second World War, the Greenbrier was used as a hospital for soldiers and it was Draper who revitalised the hotel during the postwar period, making it a place of elegance and luxury. The renovation and redecoration project was considered the greatest undertaking of the period, and Draper herself referred to the hotel as the “jewel in her crown”. And perhaps the most exquisite jewel borne from the project was her creation of the Brazilliance wallpaper, featuring bright green banana leaves and sea grapes. It is likely that Draper’s design was inspired by a work trip to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil just two years prior to beginning her work at the Greenbrier.
Perhaps you have seen the pattern before – not necessarily Loper or Draper’s, but something similar. On a wall, in a painting or on a throw cushion – or perhaps it reminds you of a vintage tropical aesthetic; maybe the colours recall a long forgotten holiday (for those of you who remember the TV series Golden Girls, you may remember Blanche Devereaux’s bedroom wall…). The design evokes a lush quality, a sense of gentle movement. Like swaying in a hammock; feeling the balmy breeze against your sun-kissed skin. The effect of the design is dramatic, moody, striking, while at the same time, it is calm and refreshing. This botanical print is timeless – an icon of twentieth century interior design that continues to inspire today.
The shades of greens in palm leaf patterns are perfectly suited to warm coral pinks and gold accents. Find inspiration in the abundant oleander shrubs which may be found across the Maltese islands – bright pink fragrant flowers amongst thick dark green leaves. Although we tend to rely on whites, greys and beiges for our interior design – with the assumption that these are the “safest” choice – green is an incredibly versatile colour.
Create an energetic space by pairing it with other bright colours or a more traditional ambience when combined with warm neutrals. There are many ways to incorporate these patterns and colours into your home. Choose fabrics for chairs, sofa cushions or your hallway bench; select a green patterned area rug; wallpaper the entire room (accent walls are so last year), giving the effect of a glamorous jungle paradise.
If patterns are not for you, choose green accessories and wall paint to instantly enliven your space. Or start small – adopt a leafy plant from your local nursery and give your home a taste of the tropics. Take a page from Manhattan interior designer Miles Redd, who said this about this eclectic hue: “My favourite way to use green is with plant material. Green is a subtle reminder of nature, and it makes you feel healthy, fresh, and alive.”
This essay was published in the June issue of Taste&Flair magazine