“The whales are great, have always been great,” sales clerk Matthew Stovall is saying, rather poetically. “The yeti is hidden throughout. The designer loves abominable snowmen.” Stovall works at Walnut Wallpaper, a tiny, cutting-edge wallpaper store on Beverly Boulevard. The designer in question is skater/illustrator Geoff McFetridge. “Did you see some of his whales have teeth?” says Stovall. For good or ill, wallpaper is back.
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Mark Mothersbaugh's “Don’t Be Koi”
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“Femme Fatale 1″ by Sum
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Walnut Wallpaper's Norinne DeGal
Stovall is an art student/aspiring designer with English-major leanings. He hasn’t been at the store that long (just over eight months), but he has opinions. And what is wallpaper, really, but a wall with opinions? Let us deconstruct: The trend in wallpaper right now is really big. Like really big pineapples, or whatever. That’s what makes it modern. But then again, something like “Baby Elephant Walk” by Jill Malek is good, because you step back and see the tiny pachyderms in a secondary pattern. Do you see the undulating wave of bigger elephants?
Another trend is sweet with an edge. “This is her crow,” Stovall says. “It’s sweet, but it’s, like, dead crows too.”
Norinne DeGal, the store’s petite brunette owner, walks in. “Did you talk about the Timorous Beasties yet?”
Timorous Beasties is a Scottish wallpaper company. Iguanas and parrots being strangled by vines, pheasants and tangled roses threatening to resolve into skulls, anxious moths fluttering against pink skies, millipedes curling around gnarled branches: All of it is heady, beautiful stuff that makes you wonder what the hell is going on in Glasgow. This is clever wallpaper that is aware of its place in the historical continuum, of its own wallpaperness. Take Timorous’ version of a damask — “Devil Damask” — where the devil is literally in the detail. Look long and close enough and you’ll see his little face grinning out, daring you to cut the lights and go to bed. Sweet dreams!
Flavor Paper’s version of the damask, called “City Park,” is a melange of fire hydrants, pigeons, parking meters and rats. DeGal just installed Flavor Paper’s “Laced” pattern on the store’s ceiling, in yellow, to complement the black thistle on the walls. Asked to describe the thistle, Stovall says: “It’s a violent flower, but they’re standing there so well behaved. They’re like debutantes. And it swags so well.” But he has also seen the thistle in a hallway “looking so mysterious” next to dark-wood paneling.
“We need some personality in that bathroom, hon,” says a woman flipping through the swatch books. She eyeballs the toiles. Her husband groans.
DeGal’s got a toile pattern that looks nice and sedate from afar, but get close up and it’s a different story. “It was made when the crime rate in London was out of control,” Stovall explains. “See, there’s some hoodlums. Here’s a bum. This fool’s getting mugged. … It’s a favorite for bathrooms.”
The wallpaper scene had gotten so bad for a while, with manufacturers ruining the practice with that awful vinyl crap. This, DeGal believes, is the reason why papering walls went out of vogue. Then with the minimalism that swept through the ’90s, interiors got stark, or Starck, in a way only androids could appreciate.
“He likes those,” says DeGal of Stovall, as he admires a paper by Erika Wakerly. It’s a desert landscape, timely for the war in Iraq, but rendered in a slightly pixelated way, in coral-pink ink. Stovall has it up in his kitchen. “To me, they’re very ’80s. Of course, he wasn’t around yet then.”
Some papers don’t just reference the past. They are the past. Walnut has a hearty selection of historical-document papers, so you can do up your living room with a vintage honeybee design that once hung in a European castle in 1860. Already, there are distinct movements in the current renaissance. One season it’s circuit boards, the next, chrysanthemums, or koi, or bats. For a while, people went gaga over Cole & Son’s etched “Woods” pattern, which turns your room into a moody, Albrecht Dürer forest of bare branches and tree trunks.
DeGal is there to hold the hand of the commitment phobic and guide them through this brave new world of interesting walls. She has installers to recommend, including one guy who is so good with paste, and so in demand, he’s like the wallpaper-installer equivalent of Linda Evangelista, who won’t get out of bed for less than 10 thousand a day.
By the way, if you are of the mind that walls should be touched and smelled as well as seen, Flavor Paper, I hear, is making scratch & sniff wallpaper now, in “B-A-N-A-N-A-S” and cherry flavor. It was just a matter of time. Walnut Wallpaper, 7424 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 932-9166 or www.walnutwallpaper.com.
Mark Mothersbaugh wants to put snakes on your wall. Now that the Devo lead singer and composer of film, television and commercial soundtracks has conquered the world of fine rugs, he’s set his designs, literally, on wallpaper. One pattern he’s calling “Black Forest” is a mutated collage of a 19th-century image of a bird. Those who recoil at the idea of reptiles splayed 24/7 across the walls of their kitchen should steer clear of “Snakes in a Tree,” a pattern of snakes, in trees. The unenlightened might find this one creepy, but Mothersbaugh’s wife, Anita, pictures it in a kids’ playroom, to enhance a safari-adventure theme. On the other hand, “Don’t Be Koi,” with its cheerful orange fish patterns, would be lovely even in Martha Stewart’s bathroom.
“I love the idea of a freaky dining room somewhere with this wallpaper and the matching plates and bowls and rug,” Mothersbaugh says.
Sitting in a conference room shaped like a slice of pie at Mutato Muzika, Mothersbaugh’s music and design studio/secret lair, I dig my fingers into tufts of rug samples, waiting for a guy to pull up images of wallpaper on a computer.
“I used to hate wallpaper,” Mothersbaugh is saying. “I was a maintenance man for an apartment building in downtown Akron, Ohio, and it was so hard to remove. The wallpaper needed to be changed every so often, and peeling it away unleashed the aromas of the decades — as well as the styles. It was like peeling layers off an onion.”
Even so, Mothersbaugh and his brothers all had wallpaper in their rooms, and they each picked their own patterns. His brother Bob chose a light chocolate-brown style with pop icons, like the Brillo soapbox. His younger brother, Jim, picked a kind of Spirograph design. Mothersbaugh picked a paisley pattern. They spent a lot of time staring at their wallpaper.
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Palace Papers' “Deerly”
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Mark Mothersbaugh's “Girl With Flowers”
“I mean, Jim’s room must have been horrible to look at!” Mothersbaugh says. “Not surprisingly, they both got into drugs in high school.”
“In Ohio,” says Anita, “staring at wallpaper in the dead of winter is a pastime.”
“These images come from a diary of everyday events,” Mothersbaugh says when the guy at the computer starts pulling up the wallpaper designs. “I’m doodling and drawing things all the time.”
“We both collect old photographs — stuff from India, portraits of maharajas and maharanis,” says Anita, a design connoisseur, expert shopper and woman with all-around fabulous taste. “At estate sales, we were shocked at what people would leave behind, at what they were willing to let go of. [Mark] just started doing stuff with them.”
“We have Photoshop now,” Mothersbaugh says, “but in the old days, I would use mirrors and cameras to create these pictures. I like this one, based on the Black Forest rug. It’s got this lattice pattern and feathers and claws.”
“We like things that are familiar,” Anita adds, “but when you look closer, something’s off. That’s our aesthetic.”
Now the computer guy pulls up a design called “Boudoir Beware.” A nude woman with short black hair holds a drapey, cobwebby veil. A hand pokes out of her stomach where her belly button should be.
“That you could use for a bathroom,” says Anita. “Or perhaps a lingerie store, or a hotel powder room. Or a romantic restaurant.
Another design flicks up onscreen. “Girl With Flowers” is based on a picture of a girl from Mothersbaugh’s “Beautiful Mutants” series. The girl in “Girl With Flowers” has curly brown hair, a bulbous nose, an angelic expression and dopey eyes. If you stare at her for long enough, her bouquet starts to look like a creature. Are those teeth in the flowers in the vases flanking her?
“That you could do in a little girl’s room,” Anita says. “Or a lady’s dressing room.”
“Or a woodshed,” Mothersbaugh adds.
Ignoring him, Anita says, “Some years are wallpaper years, others aren’t. We happen to be in a wallpaper year right now.
“This next one,” she continues, “when you get up close, it’s actually spindles of coral from an antique biology drawing. I see it in hallways, or you could do a sort of Versace-style dining room. It’s a little universe. This one’s all about the scale, which we can manipulate based on what the client wants.”
“Big like that could be good in a principal’s office,” says Mothersbaugh.
“What’s the component image on this one?” I ask, about a pattern called “Black Magic.”
“Just things growing in the garage,” Mothersbaugh says with his enigmatic smile. “Or your stomach.”
“By the way,” I ask, “In ‘Girl With Flowers,’ who is the little girl in the photo?”
“Hmm,” Anita says. “I don’t know.”
Mothersbaugh pipes up: “It’s your mother.”
“What?” Anita says, surprised. “Really?”
I move in close to examine a pattern called “Monkey See Monkey Deux” and feel compelled to ask, “Are these … monkey butts?”
“We’re always on the lookout for potential wallpaper patterns,” Anita says. “If something has an interesting shape that repeats, it’s worth trying.”
Mark Mothersbaugh’s limited-edition rugs and print-to-order wallpaper designs are produced and sold by Walteria Living at www.walterialiving.com. Also at New Stone Age, 8407 W. Third St., L.A., (323) 658-5869; Alpha Man, 8625 Melrose Ave., L.A., (310) 855-0775; Barneys, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 276-4400; Fred Segal, 8100 Melrose Ave., L.A., (310) 651-4129, Also available at Luxehaus, 1410 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-5200, www.luxehaus.com and other Southern California locations.