Mass Made: The Real Deal
ON A RAINY SUNDAY, John Burrows sips from a dainty porcelain cup. It’s high tea, and a decadent spread sits before him: a fluffy cloud of freshly whipped cream, delicate homemade scones, and tea sandwiches. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in England rather than Rockland, Massachusetts — and there’s good reason. Despite being raised in the Midwest and living everywhere from California to South Dakota, Burrows was most affected by the summer he spent in Marlborough, England. He returned with a deep appreciation for 19th-century design, pursued a master’s degree in architectural history at the University of Virginia, and became a renowned expert in Victorian decorative arts.
[sidebar]He eventually founded J. R. Burrows, one of a handful of companies in the world that design and produce Arts and Crafts-era wallpaper, William Morris-style carpets, and Scottish lace curtains. As such, everyone from a White House decorator to Martin Scorsese’s set designer has called upon his expertise. “We’re on almost every major set designer’s Rolodex,” says Christine Light, his assistant.
“Boston has some of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the country, and there was an untapped interest,” Burrows says, explaining why he settled here in 1985. His Church Street shop in downtown Boston served those looking to restore their home with period decor. Then museum curators, filmmakers, and presidents came knocking. In one year alone, he worked on the former homes of Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Sarah Orne Jewett.
Now based in Rockland, Burrows offers 30 wallpaper patterns, replicas of designs from the late 1880s through the 1920s that are exclusive to his shop. The proprietor’s unique stock includes designs he found in archives, books discovered in attics, and, sometimes, scraps found under layers of paneling in old homes. An upstate New York firm silkscreens the papers, and prices depend on complexity. The Honeybee, for example, involves 10 screens and starts at $150 for 6 yards, while the ever-popular Japanese Carp costs $60 for 5 yards.
Burrows’s 500-plus carpet designs make use of natural materials like pure wool, cotton, and jute. For these, he has exclusive North American access to the historical archives of the Grosvenor Wilton Company, a Worcestershire, England, mill founded in 1790. The lace curtains are produced in Scotland, and all are woven on the same power looms used in Victorian days. “I’m working with firms who are among the last manufacturers of these traditional products,” Burrows says. “They make the finest available quality and also have archives and an interest in heritage designs.”
Burrows’s exquisitely restored Federal-period home also doubles as a showroom. Some 20 wallpapers grace the rooms, and antiques occupy almost every nook — from a collection of straw hats to a working system of early 20th-century handcrank candlestick phones. “The key is to look as if you have ancestors and heirlooms,” he says.