How to Give Traditional Fabrics a Modern Spin

March 17, 2020
What happens when traditional motifs and elements are brandished with a contemporary hand and keen eye? Consider Schumacher president Benni Frowein’s light-filled Greenwich Village apartment. Infusing damasks, hand-stitched embroideries and lush velvets with a touch of whimsy and informality, he breathed new life into the 19th-century architecture with a classic collection of fabrics.
Here, Frowein takes us on a quick spin around the space and shares a few invaluable lessons he picked up throughout the design process.


Why did you decide on a textured damask for the living room sofa?

Since it’s a modern Italian sofa, I wanted to juxtapose something sleek with something textural and traditional, but in an informal fabric to freshen up the space. In my old apartment, it was upholstered in a green velvet, but I felt it wasn’t all that exciting and much too plain for that shape.
I really allowed the space to dictate what fits, and thought it required a classic setup with valances and elegant but muted fabrics to make it feel youthful, which corresponds with how I live and dress—lots of classic pieces but broken up with something unusual.
The living room’s creamy palette is broken up with clever pops of color on chairs, pillows and an amusing banana light fixture on the wall.Max Kim-Bee


What drew you to these classic yet informal fabrics?

These are some of my favorite fabrics because they all have interesting textural appeal to them, which comes from how they’re made. You have a velvet, an embroidery, a damask and a faux bois with a tiny bit of sheen. What’s especially neat about the faux bois is that it’s all the same yarn but the texture comes through in the weaving structure [check out the video at the end of this post to learn more!].
It’s all about playing with contradictions, like having a sleek sofa upholstered in a traditional damask or an exquisite embroidery on a modern chair. The goal is that these contrasts are subtle enough that you don’t immediately notice them when you walk right in, but rather they appear slowly over time as you take in the space.

Explain your choice to do a monochromatic color scheme.

I find New York very stressful, so I wanted to have a very soothing space at home. What’s great about the muted colors is that they don’t have to work too hard, they’re just kind of there making the room feel airy. I really wanted the visual interest to come through texture rather than color.
Ivory-hued curtains and valences add height and visual interest while also blending in with the surroundings.Max Kim-Bee
But if it’s all the same color, it quickly starts feeling like what my mother calls ‘all the same sauce,’ so using pops of color breaks it up a bit. I used them on things I can easily swap out– a chair or a cushion in the bedroom—while the bigger statement pieces are in neutrals. They keep the room feeling calm.
A buttery yellow headboard makes for a subtle but refreshing contrast to the neutral scheme of ivory and cocoa.Max Kim-Bee
And I must say, I love the floral print on the antique bench in my bedroom. I really believe that a dash of print somewhere just touches your heart.
A lush floral cushion, classic stripe pillow, and rich chocolate-hued velvet lend a fresh vibe to an antique bench.Max Kim-Bee


You've used trim in some unusual ways. Can you explain?

What’s special about the pillows on the living room sofa is that they’re 3 colors (gold velvet, blue velvet, green velvet) with one side in one color and the other side in another, but I used the same silk lip cord to top them off and pull it all together.
In the bedroom, I used a cord to outline the valance and curtains to give them some shape. The valances may seem like a traditional element, but a casual linen keeps them from feeling overly formal.

Why did you use a traditional embroidery on modern chairs?

This embroidery is very playful and yet has a sophistication to it that’s amazing. I bought the Gubi chairs and had them upholstered in a normal gray salt-and-pepper fabric, and then fell asleep because they were so boring! I’m obsessed with these chairs but they definitely needed to be upgraded. I ultimately chose a textured pattern over a print to give them dimension. Now, everyone that walks through this apartment freaks out over these chairs, and I love a good conversation piece.
A word to the wise: choose the part of the pattern you want to show on the chair very carefully. My favorite parts of this embroidery were cut off by the upholsterer!
A modern Gubi chair is upholstered in the charming Gerry Embroidery by Schumacher.Max Kim-Bee

Tell us about this adorable dining area.

Because it’s a small room I wanted to make it inviting without being too overpowering. So, I decided I needed something with warmth behind the bookshelves, like this scenic wallcovering.
Iksel’s Governor’s Visit wallcovering makes for an old-world-meets-modern juxtaposition with the sleek built-in bookcase.Max Kim-Bee
I specifically chose the segment of the panel based on what I would see at eye level, but I also wanted to see enough of the sky at the top. I installed it with double-sided adhesive tape because I want to be able change it out at any time. But next time, I’m definitely hiring a wallpaper installer!
A vintage pedestal table is set for a casual Spring dinner.Max Kim-Bee


Want to learn more about the fabrics in Benni's apartment?

Here, he chats with Pam Marshall, Schumacher’s VP of Design, about a few of her favorites from the scheme and what makes them so special.