Studio Visit
Shanan Campanaro of Eskayel, Wallpaper and Textile Designer

Had you visited eskayel.com back in 2004, when Shanan Campanaro was still an art student at Central Saint Martins in London, you would have seen a very different site from the one posted at that address today. That’s because the whimsical high-end wallpaper and fabric company Campanaro now runs out of her studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was once a homespun t-shirt label she started with a college friend, featuring the booze- and boyfriend-related escapades of a comic-book character she’d invented. “My tutors at Saint Martins encouraged me to get really honest,” she explains of the project. “It was right when all the YBAs were coming out and Tracey Emin won a Turner Prize making personal quilts — that’s what everyone was into.” For her, the original Eskayel was like one entry in a diary that’s seen the San Diego native reinvent herself several times over the years, from her childhood as the science-obsessed daughter of the bodybuilder who founded Total Gym, to her switch from physics to fine art while studying abroad in Italy, to her time as a graphic designer for the shopping-mall staple Express.  In Campanaro’s case, it’s turned out to be more about the destination than the journey.

One crucial turning point was her internship with noted fashion illustrator Tobie Giddio, which she landed when she first arrived in New York upon graduating from Saint Martins. While bartending, working on her own art, and unsuccessfully attempting to transform the Eskayel t-shirt label into a full-fledged New York streetwear brand — “I was really into sneakers and graffiti at the time,” she recalls — she spent her days helping Giddio organize and run her studio. In return, says Campanaro, “Tobie was helping me develop my paintings away from line-art cartoons and into watercolors, the kind of prettier work I do now. She pulled me out of the edgy streetwear stuff and into things that are beautiful, whereas before I was convinced that everything had to be somehow dark.” It was during a subsequent job working for Express that Campanaro accidentally turned that new approach towards what would become the current iteration of Eskayel: After a breakup with a live-in boyfriend prompted her to empty their apartment of all its furnishings, she decided, on a whim, to liven it up by transforming one of her paintings into her wallpaper. “Everyone liked it,” she says — so much so that she applied to exhibit at the tradeshow Bklyn Designs. “I decided that if I got in, I’d start a wallpaper company.” Since the day she was accepted three and a half years ago, it’s been her singular focus.

Unlike her career trajectory, her current practice is more about the journey than the destination — her kaleidoscopic wallpapers and fabrics start their lives as paintings that can take months to complete, whereas the task of digitally reinventing small sections of those works into Eskayel designs occupies only a fraction of her time. But in keeping with the problem-solving, science-loving side of her personality that’s never really gone away, she almost always follows the same steps throughout her process. We visited Campanaro in her studio this winter to document that approach, presented in the slideshow here.

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While Campanaro started Eskayel as an amateur t-shirt brand in 2003, her current wallpaper and textiles company began right here, nearly five years ago: After breaking up with a live-in boyfriend, she redecorated by turning one of her paintings into a Rorschach-like wallpaper design, which she self-produced and hung in her Williamsburg living room along with an ink painting by her mentor Tobie Giddio. And yet, “at the time time I wasn’t thinking about what designs I wanted to live with, just about what I thought might be cool, what people might like,” Campanaro admits. “Now I never put out anything I wouldn’t hang in my own house. I’ve learned so much since then about what sells.”

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Part of the appeal of her company is its niche status — she makes the kind of colorfully elaborate patterns most larger producers shy away from. “A lot of people like that my wallpaper comes from art and has a watercolor vibe,” she says. “It's like an art piece itself, but a lot cheaper. Eskayel is really about me making the most beautiful, most amazing, most awesome thing I can think of that hasn’t existed before, and we have a following for that.” Campanaro recently expanded the line to include textiles and pillows made from those textiles, and she’s also been experimenting with scarf designs as well (pictured). “A lot of crazier patterns that don’t sell as well in wallpaper sell as fabrics,” she says, a notion that’s doubly true for wearables.

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These days the Eskayel studio is situated in the apartment just below the one Campanaro lives in, and it’s where she does all of her painting and designing. Her process always starts with the former, and she typically follows the same steps. “I usually start by doing a quick gesture drawing with a big brush that’s very wet,” she says. “Then I draw on top of that using water-soluble ballpoint pens before getting the whole thing wet again, so the ink from the pens bleeds. I like getting my paintings messed up first before I zero in on the final thing you’re meant to look at, so there’s a lot going on. I splatter them with paint, or splat them with water, so that I’m forced to take them further.”

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Because she soaks and splatters her paintings with so much water and color that she often stacks extra sheets of paper underneath them to use as subsequent canvases — or even at times flips a nearly-finished painting over and proceeds to finish its backside instead — her workspace is covered in the remains of past works. Sometimes the residue even creeps back up into new pieces she’s immersed in, which she calls a “happy accident.” She’s quite comfortable with the elements of her process she can’t control. “I love to blow on my paintings or lift them up until the paint drips. If you make everything drip towards the top of the paper, it gives the image an uplifing feeling; downwards makes it look sad, and to the side makes it looks like the wind is blowing.”

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What most people who have only seen Campanaro’s wallpapers might not guess is that the majority of her designs are derived from her paintings of animals, and the relationship between the two is fairly nuanced. She creates the paintings for a side project she does with her friend Maria called Foolsgold, for which the pair round up fellow artists to participate in exhibitions whose proceeds benefit various ecological and wildlife preservation foundations — hence the zoological subject matter. The cow above was part of a show supporting The Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York. “I don’t really think about the wallpapers when I’m painting,” she says.

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Most of the time, the sliver of an original painting that might become one of her Eskayel designs is so small, and the results so unrecognizable, that there’s no reason for her to do so. (The wallpapers pictured here, for example, from her Era Collection, are taken from sections of the cow painting in the previous slide.) The only consideration she might make while creating her source material is color: Since each collection has a theme — like the Island collection, or the tribal vibe of her Frontier line — she’ll sometimes use a palette she knows will complement it. “I was painting a ram this weekend for another Farm Sanctuary show, and I used a lot of brown and purple inks because that’s the look I wanted for an upcoming series of rugs, even though they have nothing else to do with the ram.”

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When you are able recognize the artwork a given wallpaper comes from — odds are you can make out the polar-bear face used for the one above even before seeing it in the next slide — that’s because Campanaro doesn’t change whatever portion of a painting she chooses to work with. All she does is scan it, crop it, and tile it in four directions until it takes on her signature kaleidoscopic look. “When I put my art into Photoshop, suddenly all these patterns emerge without my even trying that hard," she explains. "That said, certain patterns end up being ugly, so a lot gets cut along the way.”

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The aforementioned polar bear, one quarter of whose face became the previous design.

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Another favorite subject is Campanaro’s dog Kaya, whom she shares with her boyfriend Nick and who’s unwittingly posed for many an Eskayel design.

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On one wall of her studio she also keeps an inspiration board, which when we visited contained a mixture of art, typography, and advertisements. “The top two images are paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, who’s my biggest inspiration,” she says. “I love her early work, before all the flowers, when she’d take images and abstract them. The blue and white thing is actually a painting of the sky looking through the eye of a skull, but you can’t tell. Or she would do a door in a wall, but it would look like a picture of a square on a stripe. Even the pink and grey images on the right are landscapes. The Alexander McQueen ads you see here help remind me to keep an edge in my work.” In the background on the kitchen counter is a blue kiln, for a line of ceramics Campanaro started but has since mostly discontinued due to time constraints.

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It’s here, at her desk, that Campanaro does her digital work. While the graphics tablet gets heavy usage as a mouse, almost all of her illustrations are done by hand and scanned in. The skull pillow was a gift from a friend visiting from London, a director in Ridley Scott’s agency. It’s from “a funny store down the street from my house that sells stuff like that," and it helps her avoid back pain during her hours spent in front of the computer screen.

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The ballpoint pens she uses in her paintings are all from Muji. “Before it came to New York, I went to Japan and bought a million of them, and now I have a bigger stash than I need,” she laughs. “The pens are controllable until you get them wet, and then the ink colors separate — brown becomes purple and pink, purple becomes blue and pink. Sometimes the pen lines disappear altogether, and I have to wait until the paper dries to put them on again.”

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Above her desk hangs this sign, which is actually the logo from an independent book and magazine shop in Berlin. “For awhile after I moved my studio downstairs, this was the only thing I had up on the walls,” Campanaro says. “I like that idea of, do you understand what I’m saying, do I understand what you’re saying? Especially in design, where you have to spend all this time figuring out what your clients want before you can go and design it, or else spend all this time on something that’s not actually what they had in mind. You have to be really good at asking the right questions.”

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In the corner of the studio, Campanaro’s own books and magazines are stacked beneath the line of pillows she launched last year, as well as a series of illustrations of the letters in “Eskayel” that she once used in a trade show booth. “I made them for the Architectural Digest show,” she says. “Everyone else’s booth signs always look so cheesy and corporate, so I tried to decorate mine like it was a home instead of a booth. First I wanted to make pillows out of the letters, so I painted the whole alphabet; then I wanted to design wallpaper made from the titles of all my favorite songs. I never did either, but it did lead to a new side project I'm working on where I use song lyrics to make patterns for a super-commercial market — it has nothing to do with Eskayel.”

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The day Sight Unseen visited, Campanaro was actually working on one of these projects, a pattern illustrating the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles. “Imagine little yellow submarines made out of typography, then all these little painted portholes with colorful sea life outside them,” she explains. “It’s going to be complicated, but that’s my specialty. The two portholes on the right in this photo are images I found on the internet. Whenever I want to draw something I usually just Google it.”

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Atop a stack of books near Campanaro’s desk is an antique batik stamp from Bali. “50 percent of the stuff in my house is given to me, and 50 percent is from my travels,” she says. “I try to go to a new country each year — Panama’s next.” The book on top is about Florence Broadhurst, while in the early days of Eskayel, Campanaro used Houses, Gardens, People “to figure out decorating. When I started my company I was like well, what do people really have in their homes? I played around with scanning images from this book and replacing the walls with my wallpaper. I did a lot of that with World of Interiors, too. My first website was pictures of Queen Elizabeth’s hunting lodge with the queen and her friends and my wallpaper in the background. I didn't have a photo shoot and wanted to do something interesting.”

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Upstairs in her living space, we found this amazing poster tacked to the wall. Campanaro’s boyfriend Nick Chacona makes new disco and house music, and this poster was for a show of his in St. Petersburg last year. It may or may not have been made by the party promoters, Fanick & Chance. “Nick and I live together and he works for Eskayel,” says Campanaro. “I trust his opinions on design — it’s hard to find people whose opinions you trust.”

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In Campanaro’s bedroom were these two images, the one on the right being a painting she made of a famous Edward Weston shell photograph and the one on the left being the paper that was below it. When she made it, she was reading a Weston biography while in Cartagena, Colombia, where she was spending a week recovering from a breakup. “Underneath the shell are words telling my ex-boyfriend to fuck off.”

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More Eskayel pillows, these being among the first samples Campanaro ever made. “Now the fabrics are manufactured in Pennsylvania, and the same people construct the pillows themselves — everything of mine in made in the Northeast,” she says.

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This painting is from an event held by the interior designer Fernando Santangelo, an Art Jamboree that happens every year around the holidays. “A big group of people get together and make things for under $50, so I bought this,” says Campanaro. “The yellow book is ‘Super Rich’ by Russell Simmons, which I gave to my boyfriend for his birthday, and it’s about meditation. This is a humorous way of getting into it, as long as you don’t think Russell Simmons is an asshole, which a lot of people do.”

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In the living room was an item that seemed especially fitting considering Campanaro’s oeuvre: A cross-stitch footstool with a jungle animal motif. A friend of hers found it on the street. “Her uncle has this company that’s made mother-of-the-bride clothes in Greenpoint for 50 years, and when she first moved here she lived in part of his building,” Campanaro says. “When she moved out she had to downsize, and this was one of the things she was going to get rid of. I was like, ‘Noooo way — I’m taking that!’”

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The last item we saw was also the earliest — a silkscreen from back in the days when Eskayel was still a fledgling New York streetwear brand rather than one of the highlights of ICFF each year. “It was my first test print, and it’s lots of little handwritten ‘e’s, for Eskayel,” Campanaro reminisces. “This is a couple prints layered on top of each other because we were testing the screen, but I thought it looked so cool.”