Susan Connery started The Wall Works, a company that specializes in fine paint and wallpaper application in 1988, and more than 30 years later she finds herself more in demand than ever.
While wallpaper can seem like a decoration trend of the distant past, social changes in the last two years have led to more people spending more time at home. The pandemic, the availability of remote work and the desire to spend time in surroundings that are both beautiful and comfortable have combined to give wallpaper a new life.
In the past wallpaper was like wedding china, according to Connery. “You picked your pattern. It went with the times,” she said. “Now it’s more than just a background.”
Now, customers have “trillions of choices,” Connery said. Those choices may not be easily found at a favorite store, but online resources like Cole and Son have vast galleries to choose from and the Phillip Jeffries website brags that it has “a million yards ready to ship.” Professional interior designers have access to what Connery calls “wicked cool” wallpapers as well.
“The papers I’m putting up now are different, not just gingham and checks and tiny little flowers,” she said. “It’s fish and jellyfish. It’s exciting … different. People want something that’s not going to 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 coastline of Maine makes a really nice presentation. There are textured papers with patterns pressed in relief to mimic tin ceilings. There are hemp wallpapers, wood veneers and straw.
“There are paint people and there are wallpaper people,” Connery said. Paint may provide a crisper look and is certainly more neutral, a concern for those interested in selling their homes. Wallpaper, however, is visual candy, Connery said.
According to Connery wallpaper can crowd a room but a large room with a lot of window light can take it. Some clients are intentionally opting for that more immersive experience. A job at a Bristol home in April featured an office with an underwater pattern in a dark blue-green. Fish moving across the design contributed to the sense of being inside a saltwater aquarium.
Left: Jellyfish wallpaper continues an underwater theme at a home in Bristol on April 19. Right: Susan Connery carefully fits a design to perfect the alignment of wallpaper in a corner at a client’s home in Bristol. Credit: Bisi Cameron Yee / Lincoln County News
Clients are also having her paper single walls, indulging in a beautiful design as an accent to a room. Connery said she actually does more single walls than full rooms.
The professional application of wallpaper is a vanishing skill. It’s not uncommon for Connery to get calls from desperate homeowners as far away as Connecticut, she said.
Paint companies in the area have reached out to Connery, wanting their employees to learn from her. She said she has toyed with the idea of running workshops, but in order to do so, she would need a room to paper.
Connery is methodical and detail-oriented in her approach to a room. She uses a mixture of vinegar and hot water to strip any old wallpaper and makes sure the walls are smooth by sanding or scraping them. Then she paints the walls the same color as the wallpaper to ensure that the seams will look right.
“If you’re paying for expensive papers you want to have good prep done,” she said.
Any paint details or trim are completed before the first sheet of wallpaper is installed.
When Connery’s ready to apply she pastes the wall, not the paper, using a clay paste with a chalky texture that helps the papers adhere.
There are challenges. Some papers can be fairly heavy, such as the grass cloths and fabric silkscreens. Colors can bleed on specialty papers if care is not taken in the application process. Connery saves scraps to address any issues that arise or to touch up corners and seams where wallpaper can occasionally misalign.
Connery finds the work challenging and stimulating. She enjoys being part of the physical expression of all the beautiful patterns she hangs.
When Connery decided to move away from more labor-intensive painting and focus on wallpaper, she was concerned that it would not be enough to sustain the business. She found that the surge in demand and a new line of floor cloths have kept her plenty busy.
Floor cloths are another trend steeped in the past. In past years the brightly decorated cloths were put down in spring and summer when the thicker wool rugs were put up.
According to Connery, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had floor cloths in their homes, and some can be viewed by walking through Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia.
“I love that part of it — the history of the floor cloth,” Connery said.
Connery pulls pattern inspiration from public domain designs and sometimes from wallpapers. She makes floor cloths to order too, collaborating with clients on size, design and color.
They are usually small, most often used as accents in place of mats or floor runners.
The cloths are made of heavy canvas primed on both sides with a 2-inch hem. Two coats of paint are used to complete the design, and five coats of polyurethane are rolled on. A rubber backing is added to prevent slipping.
Connery donated a floor cloth of the original Maine flag with the pine tree and North Star to Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta. After a season of snow and a season of mud, she retrieved it for a cleaning and returned it in practically pristine condition.
There are any number of homes in Midcoast Maine and beyond that have benefited from Connery’s meticulous work with wallpaper. There are many kitchens and bathrooms and halls made brighter by one of her floor cloths.
“I figured out a long time ago my job on this planet is to create beauty,” she said. “It fills me. It gives me such joy to make these images.”
This article appears through a media partnership with The Lincoln County News.