Antiquity-Inspired Paintings, Imagined As Frescoes for Your Walls

Xavier Donnelly, the creative director of design firm and hotelier Ash, partners with Backdrop to translate his dreamlike sketches of ancient Italian sites into vivid wallpaper.

Xavier Donnelly and Natalie Ebel with the Painted Sky pattern in Sunbeam. Photography by William Jess Laird

If the cinematic hotels that Xavier Donnelly dreams up as creative director for the design firm Ash are any indication, he loves to translate his global travels into memorable spaces viewed through the lens of the past. Though a painterly approach defines the firm’s layered interiors, his actual paintings have enjoyed a smaller audience. That’s soon to change thanks to Backdrop, the Schumacher-owned paint brand founded by husband and wife Natalie and Caleb Ebel. They recently joined forces with Donnelly to launch a four-piece wall coverings collection drawn from his travels to ancient sites throughout Italy and the vivid fresco-like paintings they inspire. 

“Xavier approaches everything he does with an artist’s eye and has the unique ability to transport us to distant, fantastical worlds,” Natalie tells Surface about the collaboration, the company’s first. It’s an entrancing debut—large-scale panels and repeating wallpaper festooned with fantastical motifs conjure dreamlike states that transport viewers to faraway places. Based on Donnelly’s photographs and sketches from a day-long bike ride, Appian Way took inspiration from the storied ancient road to Rome and its tree-lined landscapes. Painted Sky bathes cumulus clouds in light; Luminaries depicts a rhythmic array of stars, planets, comets, and other celestial bodies, deftly capturing their changes in tonality and illumination. 

To achieve each pattern’s painterly effect, Donnelly employs the “alla prima” (Italian for “at first attempt”) gestural technique of applying wet paint to previous layers of still-wet paint, often in a single sitting. It results in radiant, ethereal scenes that undoubtedly set a relaxed atmosphere no matter the wall—something Donnelly has expertly honed throughout Ash’s growing portfolio. Yet his paintings feel far more personal. “[The collaboration] has allowed me to explore my fascination with the grand tradition of scenic painting,” Donnelly explains, “and to play with a looser, more contemporary interpretation that speaks to a newer generation.” 

(FROM LEFT) Appian Way Panel Set in Daylight. Ascendance Panel Set in Dusk. Photography by William Jess Laird
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