THE world of wallpaper has never known the like.

After provoking uproar with patterns depicting homeless people, prostitutes, and drug addicts in its home city, Timorous Beasties, the cutting-edge Glasgow design company, has sparked further outrage, this time in London.

A wallpaper themed on the UK capital could be torn down from a new GBP26m arts complex, built to celebrate the east end's cultural diversity, amid accusations that the design contains insensitive stereotypical images of a black gangster pointing a gun at a white woman's head.

Loading article content

The depictions in the London Toile print are among a series - designed to represent the dark underbelly of London - on show at the Rich Mix Centre in Bethnal Green.

The centre opened in April and is one of the flagship arts projects of Ken Livingstone, the London mayor.

Oona King, the facility's chairwoman, who was ousted by George Galloway as MP for the constituency at the last election, has called the wallpaper "offensive" and urged that it be removed.

Keith Khan, chief executive of the venue, defended the design as an "intelligent and humorous" play on society's "anxieties and stereotypes".

Interviewed by the East London Advertiser, Ms King said: "I found it offensive and don't want Rich Mix to be associated with any sort of violence.

"Of course, it's important for artists to have some freedom of expression and I don't sanction each and every artistic decision before it is made.

"But as chair of Rich Mix, I can't allow that image to be the defining image."

Mr Khan, who said he had received no complaints from the public, defended using the creation in the venue's cinema foyer.

He said: "I believe that the content is intelligent and humorous, and plays with our anxieties and stereotypes to great effect. Art has always shocked and challenged, and good design can do the same."

The board of trustees who include Lord Alli, the Labour peer, is due to meet to discuss whether the wallpaper, which costs GBP80 a roll, should be torn down.

The design was also defended last night by its creator, Paul Simmons, who founded Timorous Beasties in 1990, with AlistairMcAuley, a fellow Glasgow School of Art graduate.

The controversial gangster figure featured on the wallpaper - who was modelled on a photograph of Mr Simmons's white studio technician - appeared to be black, he argued, because of the shading used. He said: "The colour is only shading. The whole argument is ludicrous. Timorous Beasties is more than 100-per cent anti-racist."

As well as depicting gangsters, the toile shows drug dealers and Big Issue sellers against a backdrop of the Gherkin building and the London Eye.

Toile has its origins in prerevolutionary France and was often designed portraying violence to reflect the turbulence of the time.

As such, Simmons said that in the London toile - like the Glasgow version before it - he was trying to create something close to the original anarchic spirit of the French design rather than the cosier, twee depiction of the medium's imitators.

He said: "Our toiles are a parody of Victoriana. The originals, which were quite sinister, were bastardised by the Victorians, so ours is a take on that."

The designer, whose admirers include Noel Gallagher, the Oasis musician, artist Dinos Chapman and writer Paul Morley, called critics of the London toile "narrow-minded".

He said: "Our toile depicts the underbelly of society. If politicians want us to show life in a completely unrealistic way, it is narrow-minded and blindfolding people to reality.

"Some things in society aren't pleasant. We do show people getting mugged and suchlike, but these things happen whatever a person's colour."

Once compared to "William Morris on acid", the work of Timorous Beasties has received international plaudits and recently triumphed in the outstanding contribution to style category at the Scottish Style awards.

Gavin Thomson, the technician who modelled for the image at the centre of the controversy, said: "I was not asked to imitate a 'black gangster'. Colour didn't even come into the discussion.

"When I was asked to pose, I was just told they needed a picture of someone holding a gun, to reflect gun crime in London."

The toile was not commissioned for Rich Mix, and has been exhibited in a number of locations across London, including the prestigious 100-per cent Design exhibition last year, as well as at Claridge's Hotel.