News & Politics » Chicagoans

This week's Chicagoans: Allen and Judy Koessel, wall-covering designers

"We did 80 rolls of wallpaper with little crystal rhinestones for Dr. Phil's wife's dressing room."


1 comment

A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

Judy: Even though Al and I are from the same small town in Iowa, I didn't know him, because he's ten years older than me. He was living in Chicago after college, trying to start his silk-screening business, and he came back to Iowa for Thanksgiving one year. We met at the local tavern, and we hit it off immediately. When it came time for him to go back to Chicago, he said, "Long-distance relationships don't work out, so why don't you just move in with me?" He sent me a ticket, and at 22 years old, I moved in with him. He was living in the corner of his studio. My mother was horrified. Anyway, here it is 30 years later.

Allen: Our studio was in Pilsen. We shared the bathroom with, like, 12 different people. We had a barbecue on the fire escape, and that's how we cooked.

Judy: The city was totally different then. Everything just seems so sleek and professional and hip now. Chicago was just Chicago back then. We'd go to Taylor Street and get Italian ices. And Greektown—oh, back in the day, it was really cool. We'd have lunch at Greek Islands and get what they called the cold plate; it was so exotic with octopus on it.

Allen: It wasn't Greek Islands, it was Diana's Opaa. We were having lunch with your mother there the first time the restaurant caught on fire.

Judy: Al basically started our business by knocking on doors and saying, "Hey, I can print fabric; do you need this?" Eventually they started asking for wall coverings to match. Because we didn't really know what we were doing, we had our own style. Years later, people told us that's why we had an untapped, fresh look—because we weren't so aware of the industry. When we started doing this, there wasn't much of anybody doing what we do, and there still isn't anybody using the exact same technique.

Allen: We sell to professional interior designers, not the public. I do the designing, and Judy's more the stylist and does a lot of the sales work. She can spot color trends.

Judy: I've been really lucky being able to spot trends before they happen. We were doing pears for years, and then all of a sudden the pear became the hip motif. And then ferns. Everything was ferns for a while. And then the fleur-de-lis craze of the 1980s. But I'm at Al's mercy, because I can't sit there and draw a pattern out to make it match top and bottom and side to side.

Allen: We don't use any computer graphics; all the designs are hand-drawn and hand-crafted with unconventional tools and techniques that we've developed. We sell all over the world now. We don't print fabric anymore—it's all wallpaper. It's more like wall art than wallpaper. It creates an intimate environment, and I'm pretty sure that it does affect how people perceive their lives. I think things are pretty rough nowadays for a lot of people, and if wallpaper brings you some happiness, I'd say that's a good thing.

Judy: Let's see, what are some of our brushes with fame? We did fabric for Walter Payton. We did 80 rolls of wallpaper with little crystal rhinestones for Dr. Phil's wife's dressing room. We did 25 rolls for a closet ceiling for some celebrity in West Hollywood—they wouldn't tell us the name.

Allen: I'm happy we don't live in our studio anymore.


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment