When Hurricane Sandy struck New York City, Rachel Mosler and Nick Cope were in their apartment in Red Hook. From their abode perched above the beloved Fairway Market, they surveyed the devastating damage the storm wrecked on their neighborhood. They couldn't leave their apartment for a week.
With plenty of time to spare as the floodwaters receded, Rachel (a local artist and former art therapist at NYU Hospital) and her husband Nick (the owner of design/build firm Dark Green), along with Nick's studio assistant Najee Wilson, began brainstorming a new project. After countless hours spent experimenting in the studio, the trio finally struck gold. Behold, Calico Wallpaper, a series of luminous large-scale handmade marbleized wallpapers inspired by an obscure 1940s print by the designers Erwine and Estelle Laverne.
Nick Cope and Rachel Mosler, photo courtesy of Calico Wallpaper
Fast-forward one year, and Calico Wallpaper is taking off. Rachel, Nick, and Najee have presented their designs at ICFF, launched a collection with DESIRON in the NY Design Center, and are now distributing their wallpaper at at New Wall in Toronto and WALPA in Japan. Available in two signature color arrangements, WABI and LUNARIS, the wallpapers overlay neutral backgrounds with a striking design of swirling marbleized metallic paints—evoking a celestial landscape or water flowing over stones in a creek. "We really see our wallpaper as art," says Mosler. "It's one of the only papers that never repeats."
A view inside Mosler and Cope's live/work space, with WABI II on the wall
WABI II wallpaper installed for a client, Photo credit by Home Made
We ventured to Brooklyn to chat with Rachel and Najee (Nick was setting up WestEdge Design Fair in Los Angeles at the time of the interview), check out their Red Hook studio, and of course, meet Irie—the calico cat who provided the company's namesake.
How It All Began
Rachel Mosler, Najee Wilson, and Nick Cope, photos courtesy of Calico Wallpaper
Najee: "Before Hurricane Sandy, Nick and I had been working on interior projects in the city. However, after the storm our projects were put on hold for a variety of reasons. Nick had previously visited Spirit & Matter [an antique store in the East Village] and found a swatch of marbleized paper designed by an obscure designer from the '40s, and he was really inspired by it and developed the idea that it should be wallpaper. After Rachel produced a few early samples that were stunningly beautiful, we thought 'let's try to make this happen!'"
An image of a Laverne design that provided the inspiration for Calico
Rachel: "Nick thought it would be an amazing idea to enlarge the Laverne designs to wall scale to become something architectural. [Laverne] did these really large marbleized wall coverings, which were the only ones we've ever seen in existence. ... So I just started marbleizing paper, all here in house. I started coming up with these swatches, producing literally thousands of them. It was really messy—I was the one covered in paint, and washing everything off in the shower. But then I would bring everything out and show Nick and Najee, and we were all so excited."
From Ancient Turkish Methods to NASA and the Moon
Original marbleized swatches produced in studio by Mosler
Rachel: "I've always been interested in handmade objects, book arts, and paper-making specifically. While I was studying sculpture at RISD, I left to study with a master bookbinder for several months. So when Nick proposed paper marbling, I was so excited—it was right up my alley. ...
"When I was researching paper marbling, I looked through various historical techniques. I tried them all. In the end we decided that Ebru, which is a Turkish method inspired by cloud formations, was the most suited to the metallic accents in our inaugural collection. You can see it in the WABI designs—we all thought that was the most beautiful and a good place to launch from.
A LUNARIS sample
"LUNARIS was inspired by moon topography captured from NASA satellite imagery. WABI is more subtle—we were attempting to capture the aesthetics of Japanese minimalism reflective of things in nature. Our new capsule collection NIGHT launched with Desiron recently and is pushing something altogether different now. It’s something primitive and futuristic. Plus, we're already brainstorming for our next collection."
How Calico Makes Its Artful Papers
Materials used to create the original Calico designs
Rachel: "We relied on the expertise of folks at Dieu Donné, a nonprofit dedicated to hand papermaking processes, to develop the perfect recipe for cotton paper to marbleize. They have been a vital partner in the development of our original papers. There are so many facets to papermaking–as subtle as the temperature in the room. Then I worked on creating the right consistency of metho-cellulose-based bath, which is used to float paint atop. After much trial and error, we found the perfect formula and that’s our secret."
Calico wallpaper swatch samples
Najee: "At Dieu Donné, we hand-marbleized onto massive 40” x 60” sheets, which we then digitize. In the end, the wallpaper directly reflects the original artwork that was made."
Rachel: "The only thing that was any different from the original designs are certain colors. We have the ability to color shift to fit the client’s needs, but the pattern is original to the scan. We cannot reveal our printing methods, but they're pretty masterful. All of our wallpaper is printed using UV technology on silver Mylar substrate, which is Fire Grade A and suitable for hospitality projects."
Najee: "And that's the tricky part about understanding the designs. Even in our first round of examples, it was eye-opening to know it's not an easy thing to translate—that it takes a lot to get to this point. That's the one thing that we wanted to preserve."
A piece of furniture designed by Patrick Weder set against WABI, photo courtesy of Calico wallpaper
Rachel: "We're really interested in collaborating with local Brooklyn artists. We shared a booth with Patrick Weder at ICFF and WestEdge Design Fair this year. He's one of the most talented designers I've ever met—more so an artisan. Beyond exceptional furniture, he makes these organic-inspired honeycomb lamps that look really incredible juxtaposed with the wallpaper patterns.
Najee: "He has a monk-like way of producing his furniture pieces—he'll tell you how many hours he spent making them—and it's impressive."
Rachel: "We share that similar aesthetic and work ethic. We're both doing something different and are interested in more than just interior installations. As we like to say, we make around here—we make wallpaper raised to high art—and I know Patrick would say something similar about his furniture and lighting pieces"
Rolls of marbleized wallpaper produced in studio
Najee: "On another topic, some projects just come out of knowing the right people. A friend who does visuals for the New York menswear boutique Odin, mentioned that he was doing the interiors for Richard Branson's Carbon War Room project, and I told him that I would love to send him a swatch deck of our wallpaper. He shared it with the people his client, and we were in. Apparently, Sir Richard likes a cosmic theme!"
Rachel: "We just did a custom color for the WestEdge Design Fair – it was a deep indigo color, which had a deep resonance and was received warmly by the audience. We're really excited to do custom colors. Our network is so strong in Brooklyn—Nick's work with his design firm has been a huge asset for us. He did work for Paul Smith stores in the past, and now Paul Smith is interested in placing our wallpaper in their displays for holiday. Lonny Magazine just had a designer for the MET create a ballgown out of our paper, and we love it."
Calico's (Adorable) Cat Mascot
Irie, the Calico cat
Rachel: "That's Irie, she's a Calico cat and our namesake. She likes being involved in everything. We just launched a new pattern with Desiron, and she's completely obsessed with it. Her coat actually blends in with the pattern, like a camouflage. I don’t think it was just a coincidence."
Najee: "She helps out with quality control."
All photos taken by the author unless otherwise noted