A number of artists like Sheila Bridges, Jessica Smith, and Richard Saja (whose embroidered seats for a set of Knoll chairs appear above) have found toile to be a useful contemporary art medium.
In today's parlance, toile, which is shorthand for "toile de Jouy" (pronounced "twal-da-'zhwee") generally refers to a finely detailed, scenic or storylike pattern printed in a single color. Its themes often revolve around pastoral life, recreation, and the pleasures of the seasons.
At its inception in the eighteenth century, the term referred simply to the cloth made at the royal manufactory in Jouy-de-Josas, in France, which was established in 1760 by Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf in order to make printed cotton cloths that could compete with the influx of imported Indian chintzes. The factory began making block prints, like the one you see in Image 3, moved to printing with the use of copper plates in the 1770s, and then switched to printing with copper rollers in 1797 (as in Image 4).
Toile was a great medium for storytelling, and the fabrics depicted a wide array of themes and tales, ranging from representations of texts like La Fontaine's fables to depictions of Chinese life, as imagined by the French (chinoiserie was another eighteenth-century fad). Pastoral themes were among the most common, fitting in with the claims of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who idealized country life and argued that it was purer and more wholesome. This fascination even spread to the court, and Marie-Antoinette was known to be taken both with rural life and with the Jouy textiles that depicted it.
While the process of making toiles is less laborious today (and thankfully skips the step of soaking them in a mixture of cow dung and water to remove excess color), they remain popular, versatile fabrics. Simultaneously elegant and casual, they fit well with a variety of decor styles, from traditional French countryside to eclectic, funky, and modern (as in Image 6). A number of artists have even made use of toile's storytelling capabilities to make cultural critiques or to subtly incorporate new, modern, or fantastic imagined scenes (Image 7).
For more in-depth information about toile, check out:
• Toile: Explained and Explored
• Classic Wallpaper Pattern: Toiles de Jouy
• Toile de Jouy in 3D! Folly by Beth Katleman
• Toile Goes Street: Brookly Toile Wallpaper by Beastie Boy Mike D
• "Historically Inaccurate" Toile by Richard Saja
(Images: 1 and 3. Judith Straethen, 2. Musée de la Toile de Jouy, 4 and 5. Topics of Capricorn, 6. Matthew Williams via Apartment Therapy, 7. Richard Saja)