Woman of Substance


The French translation of Toile de Jouy is “linen cloth,” and traditional toile designs depict scenes of provincial life: stories of farmers and hunters, of shepherds driving sheep, of lovers meeting beneath trees, or of dandily dressed ladies and gentlemen riding in horse-drawn carriages. And when the hot-air balloon was introduced in France in 1783, textiles and wallcoverings with scenes depicting balloons became extremely popular. So, toile is both storytelling and historical documentation.

Disappointed by its narrow themes, but inspired by the narrative possibilities, designer Sheila Bridges embraced toile and made it her own. “I didn’t especially want to look at the milk maid on my walls the way she’s usually depicted, so I began creating my own scenes.”

Bridges’s Harlem Toile design lampoons some of the stereotypes commonly associated with African Americans in a way she describes as subtle, even celebratory. While not all specifically about Harlem, the celebrated New York City neighborhood, her scenes are informed by culture and by her Philadelphia childhood. “I’ve always loved horses and have ridden since I was a kid. I used to jump rope with my friends in front of my parents’ house, and my brother and dad were basketball fans who played in our driveway, the way you see people in Harlem playing pick-up.”

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This story appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of MILIEU.