Susan Connery started The Wall Works, a company specializing in fine paint and wallpaper, in 1988, and more than 30 years later, it’s more in demand than ever.
Although wallpaper may seem like a decorating trend from the distant past, societal changes over the past two years have meant that more people are spending more time at home. The pandemic, the availability of remote work and the desire to spend time in an environment that is both beautiful and comfortable have combined to give wallpapers a new lease of life.
In the past, wallpaper was like wedding china, according to Connery. “You chose your model. It kept up with the times,” she said. “It’s more than a background now.”
Customers now have “trillions of choices,” Connery said. These choices may not be easily found in your favorite store, but online resources such as Cole and Son have huge galleries to choose from, and the Phillip Jeffries website boasts of having “a million yards ready to ship”. Professional interior designers also have access to what Connery calls “wickedly cool” wallpaper.
“The documents I release now are different, not just candy, checks and little flowers,” she said. “These are fish and jellyfish. It’s exciting… different. People want something that won’t be in someone else’s house.”
One client had Connery paper a room with New Yorker magazine covers. She has used nautical charts in the past and said the Maine coastline makes a really nice representation. There are textured papers with patterns pressed in relief to mimic tin ceilings. There is hemp wallpaper, wood veneers and straw.
“There are paint people and wallpaper people,” Connery said. Paint can provide a cleaner look and is certainly more neutral, which is a concern for those interested in selling their homes. The wallpaper, however, is visual candy, Connery said.
According to Connery, wallpaper can overwhelm a room, but a large room with lots of light from windows can handle it. Some customers deliberately choose this more immersive experience. A job at a home in Bristol in April featured an underwater-patterned office in navy blue-green. The fish moving through the design added to the feeling of being in a saltwater aquarium.
Left: Jellyfish wallpaper continues an underwater theme in a Bristol home on April 19. Right: Susan Connery carefully fits a design to perfect the alignment of wallpaper in a corner in a client’s home in Bristol. Credit: Bisi Cameron Yee / Lincoln County News
Customers also have her paper single walls, indulging in a beautiful design as a room accent. Connery said he actually does more single walls than whole rooms.
Professional wallpapering is a dying skill. It’s not unusual for Connery to get calls from desperate homeowners from as far away as Connecticut, she said.
Paint companies in the area have contacted Connery, wanting their employees to learn from her. She said she has toyed with the idea of holding workshops, but to do so she would need a paper room.
Connery is methodical and detail-oriented in her approach to the room. She uses a mixture of vinegar and hot water to remove any old wallpaper and makes sure the walls are smooth by sanding or scraping them. She then paints the walls the same color as the wallpaper to ensure the seams look right.
“If you’re paying for expensive documents, you want to have good preparation,” she said.
All painting or trim details are completed before the first sheet of wallpaper is installed.
When Connery is ready to apply, she tapes the wall, not the paper, using clay paste with a chalky texture that helps the papers stick.
There are challenges. Some papers can be quite heavy, such as grass cloths and silk screen prints. Colors may fade on specialty papers if care is not taken in the application process. Connery saves scraps to address issues that arise or to adjust corners and seams where wallpaper can sometimes shift.
Connery finds the work challenging and stimulating. She enjoys being a part of the physical expression of all the beautiful patterns she hangs.
When Connery decides to give up the more labor-intensive painting and focus on wallpaper, she worries that it won’t be enough to sustain the business. She found that the surge in demand and the new line of floor cloths kept her very busy.
Floor towels are another trend that has sunk into the past. In years past, the brightly decorated canvases were put down in the spring and summer when the thicker woolen carpets were put down.
According to Connery, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had floor cloths in their homes, and some can be viewed by walking around Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia.
“I love that part of it — the story of the floor cloth,” Connery said.
Connery draws inspiration from designs in the public domain and sometimes from wallpaper. She also makes custom floor cloths, collaborating with customers on size, design and color.
They are usually small, most often used as accents instead of mats or sliders.
The fabrics are made of heavy canvas, primed on both sides with a 2-inch hem. Two coats of paint were used to complete the design and five coats of polyurethane were rolled on. A rubber pad has been added to prevent slipping.
Connery donated a floor cloth of the original Maine flag with a pine tree and North Star to the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta. After a season of snow and a season of mud, she took it out for cleaning and returned it to practically pristine condition.
There are many homes in Midcoast Maine and beyond that have benefited from Connery’s meticulous wallpaper work. There are many kitchens, bathrooms and hallways made brighter by one of her floor towels.
“I realized a long time ago that my job on this planet is to create beauty,” she said. “It fills me up. It gives me such joy to make these images.”
For more information, visit susanconnerydesigns.com or facebook.com/mainewallworks.
This article appears through a media partnership with The Lincoln County News.