A New Take On Wallpaper

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For as long as decorative painter Heather Dunn can remember, she has always been anti-wallpaper. She hated the seams. She hated the cheesy 1970s vinyl. And she hated its reputation.

It all came to a head one fateful day in 1997. She was rolling wallpaper for a client onto a huge, 18-foot-high wall when she heard a terrible ripping noise.

She paused, stopped working and held her breath in horror as she watched yards of old paper behind the painted walls peeling off in sheets around her—taking down the hundreds of dollars worth of new work with it.

“I almost had a stroke,” Ms. Dunn said from her East Hampton studio. “I was brand new at this and decided, ‘No more wallpaper. Just wall finishings.’”

She made a name for herself as a decorative painter and launched a business in Huntington that revolved around wall finishes, which are directly applied to or stenciled on the surface. All was well until the economy tanked—“I screwed it all up,” Ms. Dunn said—and the artist found herself in the basement studio of her East Hampton home, back at the drawing board.

There, with the help of a client, she had an epiphany.

Five months ago, a decorator called her and requested a smattering of plaster wall finishes for a modern barn in Bridgehampton. Ms. Dunn complied, sending over a few of her signature looks—one a dark-brown-and-black-tissue-paper finish, which resembles leather.

A few days later, the decorator emailed Ms. Dunn back. “My client loves the wallpaper,” she wrote, “but she wants it in white.”

Ms. Dunn laughed. “‘It’s not wallpaper,’” she recalled saying. “‘It’s a wall finish!’ I looked at my husband, Rich, and I just said, ‘Alright. I want to do it. I just want to make it wallpaper.’”

And so, she did. Ms. Dunn’s one-of-a-kind and hand-painted wallpaper line, “Faux to Go,” is something of a reinvention for the painter, she reported. This is her comeback, she said—alongside the rebirth of wallpaper on a high-end scale.

“Everything goes in and out. The ’70s are far enough away now, when the wallpaper just became this horrible vinyl thing. I think most of the trauma is over,” Ms. Dunn said. “We make things look like, ‘Wait, how did it get like that?’ Sometimes, people would rather faux it. It’s a look. It’s another world.”

Each individual project is unique, Ms. Dunn explained, because her wallpaper is hand-constructed into panels with paints, patinas, brushes, rollers and some additives—such as tissue paper or copper leaf.

The final product, which is affixed in the same fashion as regular wallpaper, can be bold and busy, so she recommends using the collection on an accent wall or inside a small powder room for maximum impact.

And now, she’s using the seams to her advantage.

“I had a friend in Centerport who did this amazing patinaed wallpaper, must have been 1993,” she recalled. “And what freaked him out were the seams and that they didn’t match. He went crazy. It cost him an arm and a leg. I was like, ‘Stop! This is awesome. That’s, like, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”

That wallpaper always suck with Ms. Dunn, allowing her to see her wallpapers and seams like puzzles. If a patinaed or faux rust look is too heavy, she breaks it up with base-colored panels, she said.

“It’s a little funkier. It’s a little more interesting. There are no patterns to line up,” she said. “See, I don’t hate seams so much anymore. Chances are, the whole thing is going to get laid out before it ever goes up on the wall. Sometimes, it’s just totally random.”

On average, it takes Ms. Dunn two days to make 20 panels—or 45 minutes to an hour per panel. Prices range from $8 a square foot to $150 a square foot, installed.

Making each panel necessitates a lot of walking back and forth, up and down the length of her table in her studio, she said. All day long.

On a late Wednesday afternoon earlier this month, Ms. Dunn got to work on a piece of eggplant “faux bois” wallpaper.

“Where is that black glaze, where is that black glaze?” she mumbled, sifting through hundreds of paint cans on wooden shelving against the back of her studio. “Of course, I can’t find it.”

Instead, she selected a silver glaze and mixed it into a plastic bucket.

“There’s no such thing as silver-grained, eggplant wood. And there’s some far-out woods out there,” Ms. Dunn said. “That’s the other fun thing about doing this wallpaper. You can do all these fun colors, which can also be done directly on the wall, I suppose.”

With long strokes, Ms. Dunn painted the silver onto the deep purple base coat.

“Now, I’m going to make it look like the grain,” she said, picking up a rocker grainer and demonstrating. “You just rock it back and forth. There’s a knack to it. Some people are definitely better at it than others.”

Finally, Ms. Dunn selected a check roller and dragged it up and down the panel, applying pores into the faux bois. She stepped back and looked at the final product, albeit wet.

“Now I’m glad I couldn’t find the black glaze,” she smiled, wiping her paint-stained hands on her shorts with a shrug.

For more information, visit heatherdunnandco.com.

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