SHARON SPRINGS -- The shop is like a chaotic art gallery.
Wallpaper samples are scattered everywhere -- on tables, in storage cubbies, hanging up to dry and, of course, on the walls.
But the Sharon Springs shop isn’t a static gallery, nor is it a modern-day wallpaper factory where large rolls of paper are surface printed or coated with vinyl.
At Adelphi Paper Hangings the art of creating wallpaper strip by strip lives on. The shop is ever changing, as the design team creates handmade wall paper using techniques from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Sometimes the team is restoring wallpaper for a museum or historical society, and other times they're creating something new using traditional techniques.
It’s one of the only companies in the United States to do this kind of work. Founded by Chris Ohrstrom and Steve Larson in 1999, Adelphi Paper Hangings has created wallpaper for the White House, Jefferson’s Monticello and Daughters of the American Revolution, along with private homes and local museums.
Larson learned the technique through his years spent working at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown. The museum runs workshops on creating wallpaper and textiles from the 1800s.
But Larson didn’t stop there in the learning process. When he joined with his partner Ohrstrom to found Adelphi, the pair went to Europe to talk shop with a few other wallpaper makers who use the classical techniques.
Ohrstrom named the shop “Adelphi” after the neo-classical architecture he found in a village in Jamaica.
“He just decided it would be a good name for a company printing patterns of that time period,” Larson said.
Although the process varies slightly per project, the graphic designers at Adelphi usually start out with a small sample of the original wallpaper that the client would like to see restored.
Sometimes the cuttings are in rough shape and it can be difficult to recreate and redesign. However, no matter how battered the samples, Adephi artists are usually able to recreate wallpaper patterns from as early as the 1740s up to the 1930s.
Jenn Delpit, a graphic artist at Adelphi, reconstructs the pattern on paper and then transcribes it onto film. The reconstruction is then sent to a laser cutting company to make the printing block.
The heavy Swiss pearwood printing block comes back into Adelphi a few weeks later and the team gets started making rolls and rolls of the wallpaper. Usually only one printing block is used per color needed in the pattern.
Because Adelphi’s processes are rare, Ohrstrom and Larson had to have a few of their tools specially made. The presses, for example, were specially designed for the company, with a pulley system weighted for each pearwood block.
It’s an arduous process and one in which few mistakes can be made.
In keeping with the traditional methods, Adelphi seam-rolls most of its wallpaper.
“. . . before the late 1830s, they didn’t have continuous paper,” Larson said.
Large sheets of cotton fiber paper need to be delicately and precisely glued together using rabbit-skin glue. Once the wallpaper is installed, the seams are not obvious to the untrained eye, but they add to the genuine historical aesthetic of the finished product. Historical societies and museums are often looking for that added layer of authenticity, so it’s worth the extra steps.
The historical accuracy doesn’t stop with their pressing or hanging methods. Adelphi also uses traditional methods to create their paint.
They mix what’s known as distemper paint. Although it has nothing to do with sick dogs (as an antiquated definition of the word suggests), it comes from the French verb to soak. It’s a combination of calcium carbonate (chalk), china clay, water, pigment and a binder. The chalk, clay and water have to soak overnight.
It took several years for Larson and Ohrstrom to learn the old techniques of creating wallpaper and to develop modern versions. They had to create a network of people who have experience with the skills and expertise.
“ . . . when I started, Chris had been in communications with people in England and France,” Larson said. There were a few workshops in the United States where Larson and Ohrstrom learned and researched with other historical wallpaper designers.
“There was a lot of experimenting then,” Larson said.
Of course, there’s no other way to get the recipes and processes right than to go through periods of experimentation.
“There aren’t many companies that do this,” Larson said, “Everyone is somewhat willing to give advice or secrets of the trade but not completely.”
So the experimenting continues, though Larson and his team wouldn’t have it any other way.
For a recent project for the Daughters of the Revolution museum in Washington D.C., the team combined hand painting with block printing. A sample of the paper hung on the wall to dry and it was one of the most vibrant pieces on display.
“We’ve done a few projects that are flocked,” Larson said. The flocked style creates a pattern using upraised shredded wool and adhesive.
While the artists at Adelphi work to recreate various 18th- and 19th-century wallpapers, their cat and dog mill about and offer a bit of inspiration or relief from the detailed work at times with their antics.
“The cat’s name is Zuber after a famous French paper company and the dog’s name is Pixel,” Larson said.
Perhaps the pair will offer more inspiration as the Adelphi artists begin to stray into creating modern wallpaper designs of their own. They have a few designs currently hanging on the walls, but Larson said they might be doing more original design work depending on the number of historical pieces they receive in the coming months. For now, history keeps Adelphi’s print and design work going.