Around the World in Four French Rooms

The New York Times Thursday, March 16, 2006

Written by Marianne Rohrlich

Fusion design is not a new idea, but if you want to get a sense of the harmony that can result from the artful melding of different traditions, step through the portals of an 18th-century building near the venerable Palais Royal. Continue up to the third-floor apartment of Dimonah and Mehmet Iksel, a couple who practice the design equivalent of spicing matzo ball soup with Turkish cardamom.

The melange includes French silk lanterns that hang over Persian rugs, evoking Mr. Iksel’s Turkish roots; antique pottery that reminds Mrs. Iksel of a childhood partly spent in Israel and Iran; accent reproduction Regency chairs; and overstuffed American sofas.

The result is a warm living space that also serves as the office, showroom and workshop for the couple’s 18-year-old wallcovering business, Iksel Decorative Arts.

There isn’t a single piece of avant-garde design in the place. The “art and decoration of the 20th century is too aggressive to have at home,” Mr. Iksel said last month.

“We love Paris because it is gentle on the eyes,” he continued. “The streets have a patina that we like and try to live with at home.”

Their wallcoverings - scenes rather than repeated patterns, printed on canvas or printed on paper - often feature classical images like potted palms in muted colors that create calming backdrops for interiors. Now sold internationally through the company’s Web site, they were once secret finds of decorators like Thomas Britt and David Easton in New York, Albert Pinto in Paris and William Eubanks in Palm Beach. “Their sense of scale and style is superb,” said Eubanks, who sometimes uses Iksel paintings and papers as an alternative to classic hand-blocked French scenic papers by companies like Zuber. The Iksels “will work in any style you want, and yet they maintain a wonderful sense of classic detail,” he said.

Timothy Corrigan, a decorator with offices in Los Angeles and Paris, uses many French wallpapers, but he likes the Iksels’ because they can be colored to match any design scheme and scaled to any room (they are available in panels up to 25 feet high).

“It’s such a different look,” he said. “It’s printed on watercolor paper and looks like a fresco. It’s softer than block-printed wallpapers.”

Though a number of the Iksels’ panels hang in designer-decorated homes and hotels around the world, their four-room, 1,500-square-foot apartment is anything but “decorated.” Instead the couple have drawn on their ethnic backgrounds and idiosyncratic tastes to create a highly personal setting, relying more on imagination than money.

It is decorating from the heart, in the European tradition of mixing styles and periods. “We live with what we like,” Mrs. Iksel said. “If you are sure of your taste, everything you buy ends up working with everything you have.”

Like many Paris apartments of a certain age, this one seems at first quite grand, with 14-foot ceilings, herringbone floors and door-size windows opening over a narrow street that leads to the formal gardens at the Palais Royal. But is soon becomes clear that the place is the opposite of formal.

“We’re bohemians,” said Mrs. Iksel, who favors comfortable shoes and wears her hair long and flowing. Neutral colors and soft silk draperies (bought at auction) soften the apartment’s aristocratic proportions. The Iksels’ 10-year-old son, Kubilai, sleeps in a room tented with Indian cotton. His parents share a daybed in the living room

“There are no precious antiques in the house,” Mrs. Iksel said. “Everything is either a reproduction that we had made in India or a modern piece from High Point that we bartered for wallcoverings.” (The Iksels have been selling their papers for years at the furnishing trade show in High Point, N.C.)

They met in 1988 in Jaipur, India, on the flip of a coin. Mehmet, a son of a Turkish diplomat, was living in Paris and teaching drama; he was in India buying paintings for a friend’s Istanbul hotel. Dimonah, born in Tel Aviv and a daughter of an Iraqi diamond dealer and a Hungarian mother, was living in New York and on vacation. She could not decide whether to extend her vacation. Her friends suggested she flip a coin: staying won, and they met the next day.

He was raised as a Muslim, she as a Jew. Together, she said, they grew up in 14 different countries, but the differences in their backgrounds were not a problem, given their cosmopolitan upbringing. In time they married. Meanwhile, “we were so seduced by the Indian experience, and by the paintings Mehmet bought for his friend,” Mrs. Iksel said. “We fantasized: Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have a studio and have these people paint wallpaper?”

Mr. Iksel set up a workshop the year they met, she recalled, hiring “rows and rows of painters” to reproduce “matte and calm” watercolor scenes on canvas: panoramas of gardens, architectural elements, chinoiserie, trompe l’oeil. “We painted by proxy, if you like,” she said.

“We are not artists, nor are the painters,” she said. “They are artisans. What we produce is purely decorative.”

Throughout the 1990’s, while the couple commuted between the workshop in Jaipur, various apartments in Paris and hotel rooms in High Point, their wall panels acquired a following among American and European decorators. J. Robert Scott, a to-the-trade fabric and wallpaper company in Los Angeles, carried the hand-painted panels, as did the Holly Hunt showroom in Chicago.

While working with her husband, Mrs. Iksel periodically came up with ideas for other products to make in India for the Western market, like jewelry, textiles and furniture. Many of the pieces of furniture in their apartment, in fact, are Empire and Regency reproductions made for them in India as prototypes. But Mr. Iksel has been single-minded about wallpaper. “He won,” she said. “That’s the Middle Eastern part of me. I couldn’t live with a man who gave me the final word.”

Iksel panels begin with a hand-held brush, but for the last few years they have been printed digitally. Computer technology actually improves the product, Mr. Iksel said, because it allows the recoloring and merging of images, yielding high-tech “collages” of the paintings. It also allows the couple to supervise their Indian workforce from a distance. Borrowing images from old books and paintings, the Iksels compose the panels and send the designs by e-mail to their team in India. Then the Indian artisans turn them into paintings, which are sent back to Paris by courier. The Iksels send these canvases out to be converted to digital files with a large-scale scanner that picks up the textures and nuances of the brushwork. Finally, Mr. Iksel manipulates the images on his home computer and prints the panels on an Epson large-format printer in the entrance foyer.

The couple’s archive contains more than 1,000 hand-painted images, and with the help of computers the Iksels have expanded their market to individual buyers as well as decorators. This year they plan to introduce a line of repeat-pattern wallpaper and one of fabrics.

Their panoramas line the walls not only of homes and hotels around the world, but also of their own apartment, contributing to its multicultural ambiance.

“I start decorating with a rug,” said Mr. Iksel, who acknowledged being very Western but said he could not deny his Middle Eastern roots. “I have classic taste, and I love 16th-century Persian carpets that I see in museums.”

Decorating on a budget, however, has meant buying new Senneh flat-weave rugs that are loomed in Iran and look old because they are colored with vegetable dyes, as well as buying fake heirloom furniture - all in the service of an interior that the Iksels surprisingly call contemporary.

“It’s putting together things of different periods to get a contemporary look,” Mr. Iksel said. “There is no recognizable style except our own in this house.”