In January the New York Times ran an article about the resurgence of wallpaper--not your grandma's musty floral wall coverings, but modern boutique designs for Dwell readers and their ilk. Fledgling designer Casey Gunschel, a 33-year-old Chicagoan, got a brief mention and a couple of her papers pictured. The same day the Web site for her Palace Papers, which up to that point was attracting two or three visitors a day, got around 4,000 hits, and then Gunschel's in-box filled up with messages from people wanting to get their hands on patterns like Nevermore, featuring a whorl of ravens in front of a full moon, and Coy, with columns of Japanese-style fish undulating like double helixes. "I get e-mails from people like, 'Hi guys, can you put me in touch with your marketing person?'" Gunschel says. "Like I'm a real business."
Palace Papers (palacepapers.com) is just Gunschel, who was in the middle of moving into her new Logan Square apartment when the story appeared; she operates out of there and a friend's apartment, which is where her light table is because it wouldn't fit through the doors of her new place. She founded Palace Papers in 2004, but before the Times piece her client base was a few friends and acquaintances. These days she's trying to get up to speed on the mundane but essential tasks involved in running a business: "Stuff like shipping costs, who pays for what, setting up a PayPal account, figuring out how things work between my distributor and my manufacturer," she says. "I'm sure I'm going to make my fair share of mistakes, but hopefully nothing too catastrophic."
Showing off a few of her designs recently, she spread out her hand-drawn and -painted portfolio in the living room of her friend's place as her pit bull, Lucy, ran around. The bulbous ears of corn on one design, Cornish, need some tweaking, she explained--"These look too much like hand grenades"--but she'd just got back a sample of Coy from her manufacturer and was very pleased with how it turned out. Which is good, because it's one of the designs featured in the Times. "Those are the ones everybody wants," she says.
As a child growing up on Cape Cod, Gunschel drew constantly, taking as her subjects the horses she rode and the bizarre creatures she saw in Dungeons & Dragons monster manuals. In 1990 she moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute, but she dropped out a year later. "It was really suffocating to be just around artists," she says. She then transferred to the University of Massachusetts Amherst but soon dropped out there as well and proceeded to spend much of her 20s traveling around the country. She settled for a while in Denver, where she built public sculptures and installations.
In 1999 she moved back to Chicago, following her fiance, and designed sets for Redmoon Theater while she worked on her own art. Inspired by the highly detailed drawings of Arthur Rackham, a popular children's book artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gunschel did a lot of etchings, drawings, and paintings that stressed anatomical precision and a dark mood, like the images of creepy skeletons of birdlike creatures and twisted, blank-eyed horses mounted on pieces of wood or old maps that she showed at Ann Nathan and other venues.
She didn't start thinking about wallpaper until about four years ago, when she was working for a woman who specialized in faux finishes--painted surfaces that look textured. The job regularly took her inside tony North Shore homes, but she wasn't impressed with their decor. "I was up at people's houses all the time looking at their wallpaper and thinking everything sucked," she says. Around the same time she attended a wrap party at the Wicker Park house featured in the Chicago edition of MTV's The Real World, where her by-then husband worked as a soundman. There she spotted "the coolest large-scale wallpaper"--a textured brown background covered in electric blue birds. "I asked where it came from," she says. "Somewhere in Europe. I thought, that's awesome--why doesn't anybody have that here?
"I started thinking, hell, as an artist I would love to make wallpaper. I don't think it has to be this background. I think it can have presence and be interesting. It doesn't have to be subdued."
Reading industry publications, Gunschel discovered that wallpaper had been out of favor among decorators since the 80s, but she believed that there was an untapped market for affordable, sophisticated designs. At a Merchandise Mart showroom she heard about Peter Fasano, a manufacturer and designer of hand-screened wallpapers. His factory was in the Berkshires in Massachusetts--close enough to where she grew up that she could combine a meeting with a trip to her parents' house. She cold-called him and arranged a tour, during which he encouraged her to put a portfolio together. She did, using leftover house paint, and returned a year later with designs like Ellipse, a simple pattern of mauve and light blue eggs surrounded by scrolls and flourishes on a pale pink background. "I was wondering, where do I go now?" she says. "And he goes, 'I'll manufacture it for you.'"
The process is surprisingly low-tech: Gunschel draws the pattern by hand and then sends it to Fasano, who matches the colors, makes the silk screens, and produces the papers for sale. One roll (15 feet by 26 inches) retails for $120, with custom colors costing extra. That's a lot compared to the typical roll of mass-produced wallpaper, which costs less than $20, but rolls of finer wallpapers can often cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars. One of Gunschel's goals is to make good design accessible to the average person, but she's still trying to figure out the best way to sell her offerings. Palace Papers are available at an LA showroom that specializes in contemporary patterns by independent designers--the only such place she could find that's open to the public--but she's still looking for a Chicago representative.
"It's hard to figure out where to sell wallpaper," she says. "Either you go to the Merchandise Mart and the interior designer buys it, or you go to the paint store, which has a lot of crappy, cheap paper. There's nothing in between."
Palace Papers is still so new that Gunschel doesn't know who her clientele is, exactly, so she starts with what she likes: patterns inspired by nature that include art nouveau and art deco elements, like Parsnipity, which features curving green fiddleheads rising from a carrotlike vegetable. "If I try to please everybody, the design gets lost," she says. "If I think too hard about who I'm trying to sell it to, it's going to dilute all this." In the meantime she's perfecting her current designs--for example, she's thinking of changing the dark green hue of Fossils, a pattern of dinosaur skeletons. ("I think I made it a little too kiddish.") She's also planning to expand the business by offering fabrics, which she hopes to have available by summer. "Everybody's asking for it," she says. "People want upholstery, drapes."
Gunschel pays the bills by continuing to do faux finishing--she took over the business from her old boss two years ago--but she eventually hopes to make Palace Papers her full-time job. "I could design wallpaper from here to a hundred years from now," she says. "I have one in my head right now, a red coral pattern. I want to put these bubbles over the top, but I want them clear, high-gloss clear, so that if you look at them straight you can't see them but if you look at it from the side you can see them."
If and when the business becomes self-sufficient, she may even be able to use her own products. "I rent," she says. "My landlord would kill me if I hung wallpaper."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.