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English wallpaper designer Mia Reay sitting at her desk

Design

Mia Reay is On a Roll

This English designer’s fascination with the historical and the mythic infuses her wallpaper collections.

“No trends,” declares Mia Reay, the Finnish artist and British aristocrat whose namesake collection of English wallpaper, inspired by historical prints, recently debuted in the US. “I can’t stand things that last for a year and then they’re gone. The wallpaper, whether it looks modern or old, has to be timeless. The most important thing is to have a room that will still be totally relevant in 100 years.” 

Reay is chatting with DP via Zoom from her country estate, Whittingham Hall in northern England. With her tousled blonde hair and Nordic good looks, she appears as if she leapt from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Of course, her husband is the 15th Lord Reay, who serves in the House of Lords and is the clan chief of the Scottish Clan Mackay.

“I have my alter ego,” Reay jokes. “I hang wallpaper, and then I go to the King’s speech.” Quite literally—she did attend King Charles’s first speech at the state opening of Parliament in November, the first of its kind in 70 years. “It’s incredibly lovely because there’s no other country who does those traditions. I think my husband’s coronation robes are more moth-eaten than not because they are so old. But that’s all part of the fun.”

A similar fascination with the historical and mythic infuses her wallpaper designs. “All my wallpapers have a lovely story behind them,” says the Cambridge-educated Reay, whose career path once veered from finance to fashion. Drottningholm Tree, for instance, a romantic and winding tangle of vines and blooms, is an interpretation of a tree painted in 1600, in the prima ballerina’s dressing room at the King and Queen of Sweden’s Drottningholm Palace theater. The Queen’s Necklace, a graphic and pointillist pattern, draws inspiration from a 1780s fabric scrap printed with Marie Antoinette’s infamous necklace that ignited the French Revolution. “I like wallpapers that have meaning but that don’t ever date,” says Reay. 

Drottningholm wallpaper: an interpretation of a tree painted in 1600 in the prima ballerina’s dressing room in Sweden’s Drottningholm Palace theater
Drottningholm Tree, a romantic and winding tangle of vines and blooms, is an interpretation of a tree painted in 1600 in the prima ballerina’s dressing room of Sweden’s Drottningholm Palace theater. Photo courtesy of Mia Reay
Mia Reay with Graham Carr and Jon Cheetham in the library of Whittington Hall. Underglaze Green Utopia wallpaper
Reay with her team Graham Carr, right, and Jon Cheetham in the library of Whittington Hall. Underglaze Green Utopia adorns the walls. Photo courtesy of Mia Reay

Then, there’s the OG design that started it all:  Utopia, (or “the mad parrots” as Reay calls it), inspired by Islamic ceramics and depicting an earthly paradise of birds. Reay was sitting in her library in the countryside a few months before Covid when inspiration struck. “Someone had painted the library the most awful color in the 1960s. I sat there for 11 years looking at it until I thought, ‘Hang on, I haven’t found anything I like to put in this room. So, I’m going to make it myself.’” 

She contacted her old friend, Graham Carr, the renowned furniture painter. “I said to him, ‘You know everything about pattern and repetition. Would you mind painting with me?’” 

The duo worked together, breathing life into what would become Utopia and ultimately, the Mia Reay collection—hand painted panels of art, transformed to parchment matte papers. “No computers involved, like most things nowadays,” insists Reay, who has painted since childhood. 

I sat there for 11 years looking at it until I thought, ‘Hang on, I haven’t found anything I like to put in this room. So, I’m going to make it myself.’” – Mia Reay 

Following the design completion of Reay’s own library, friends and family came calling. “Notting Hill in London is full of my things,” says Reay. As word got out, Reay set up her own company. One of her most lauded designs, Besler Iris, comes from Carr’s favorite illustration plucked from a 17th-century botanical tome. (British designer Rita Konig recently listed Besler Iris in Tobacco as one of her top ten favorite wallpapers.) 

After a few mentions in the press, Reay received the ultimate American stamp of approval: legendary interior designer Bunny Williams’s office, impressed by Reay’s designs, contacted her and connected her with American representation. 

Besler Iris Siam Blue wallpaper by Mia Reay on the wall behind a kitchen bench
Besler Iris Siam Blue. This repeat pattern design depicts Carr’s favorite iris, Calcedonica latifolia from the 17th century illustrated guide to plants The Besler Florilegium. Photo courtesy of Mia Reay
A sitting room decorated with Mia Reay Pichwai Lotus wallpaper
Pichwai Lotus in Parchment. The range was inspired by an ancient Indian painted panel (a Pichwai) depicting a pool of Lotus flowers, the favorite flower of Lord Krishna. Photo courtesy of Mia Reay
Bukhara Steppes Blue Small wallpaper by Mia Reay
Bukhara—here in Steppes Blue—is a colorful, graphic adaptation of a typical Uzbek suzani needlework depicting lilies. Photo courtesy of Mia Reay

Mia Reay is now available in 32 showrooms across the U.S. “I’m happy to be in the States and it’s lovely to get my name known a little bit,” she says. “I’m a mad English designer in the countryside, so it’s all rather wonderful.”

Hero photo of Mia Reay courtesy of Mia Reay

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