Where They've Been
Calico Wallpaper at Villa Lena

This week, we’re featuring a series of designers, brands, and exhibitors participating in Sight Unseen OFFSITE, our brand new design fair taking place in New York City this weekend, May 16-20. Click here for more information.

A couple before they were partners in design, Nick Cope and Rachel Mosler founded Calico Wallpaper together two years ago in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Mosler was an art therapist on paid leave from NYU’s temporarily shuttered hospital; Cope ran a design/build firm whose projects had all been put on hold. “We’d always wanted to do a project that touched on both of our backgrounds — something for the home that had an art-like quality,” says Cope. “Rachel studied sculpture at RISD and has a Master’s in art therapy, and I went to NYU for photo and digital design.” On a lazy afternoon in the East Village, Cope found an image of obscure types of paper marbling in an antique shop and brought it home. Mosler loved it and immediately began delving into the history and process of the ancient technique. “We realized quickly we had something interesting on our hands,” says Cope.

That’s something of an understatement. Calico’s delicate, shimmery organic wallpapers feel like nothing you’ve ever seen before, because in truth you haven’t. For Calico’s original edition, Cope and Mosler worked with a paper art center in New York called Dieu Donné to create a limited set of 100 percent cotton fiber papers that measured 40×60 inches — some of the largest marbled paintings that have ever existed. In Cope’s hands those turn into a large-scale graphics for interior applications — massive, moody unrepeated papers whose patterns seem to tumble gorgeously across the wall.

When we heard Cope and Mosler had been selected for a residency program at Villa Lena — a centuries’ old villa nestled in the hills of Tuscany, where they’d have a week to refine and explore their paper marbling process — we knew we had to get them to document their journey. See their trip and learn more about the process in the slideshow at right, then visit the duo at ICFF and Sight Unseen OFFSITE to view the new collection and the next chapter in their story.

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“We were introduced to Villa Lena by our friend Julie Ho from Confettisystem, who had done a residency there,” says Nick. “She was like, ‘You have to go.’ We had wanted to go to Milan anyway to get an understanding of design week, so I emailed a woman named Olga who coordinates Villa Lena’s art programming. She loved our wallpaper, and she offered us studio space to work on a collection of marbled papers in this centuries-old villa.”

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“After Milan, we went to Florence for three days where we met with a Tuscan paper marbler who introduced us to some more traditional techniques. We are fairly self-taught, and we wanted to see what a proper Italian studio using old-school methods looked like.”

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“Villa Lena is a big compound; there are like seven buildings including a beautifully renovated stable where we were staying. The rooms are sparse but they have these hand-painted mural ceilings and trompe l’oeil walls and crazy beautiful interiors."

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“It’s a hotel, so there are people who come with their families and walk the grounds and swim in the pool, but they also have a two-month residency program, where artists are given dedicated studio space in these barns in the fruit tree area. We did an abridged version of that; we did 7 days.”

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Other than a couple of day trips in Tuscany we were mostly relaxing and hunkering down in the studio to do work on new marbling techniques. We also discovered this ghost town, which we would walk to at sunset," says Rachel.

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“The food is incredible; they have a Michelin-starred chef. And one of the co-founders of Le Baron co-owns Villa Lena so there’s kind of a crazy party scene as well, with impromptu performances and people popping in, like Devendra Banhart. It’s a revolving door of interesting people and artists and designers.”

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"As you know, with the Italians, you’re eating for nine hours a day, so we had a lot of time to converse with people and talk about art, and to show people what we were working on. It was a very community-minded atmosphere."

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“We took a day trip to Pisa because we had to get art supplies there,” says Rachel. “The gold we use is an acrylic paint, and the blues are chalk-based mineral pigments — essentially house paint.”

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“The first thing I do when making a painting is I make the bath,” says Rachel. “I mix methylcellulose with water at different temperatures, from ice to boiling, to get a certain consistency. It was actually quite chilly in the Villa, so the temperature in the bath got very cold and a lot of those natural conditions changed the way the paintings looked.”

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“Unlike painting where you’re directly applying paint to a canvas,” says Nick, “here you’re creating a gelatin bath that you then float a painting on top of.” “I take my hands and I tap the brush and the paint falls from it — it’s almost like raining down,” says Rachel.

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“You coat the paper in Alum, which is a mordant you use so that the paint will stick. Then you place the paper on top of the bath and peel it off, and you have your perfect impression of the painting," says Rachel.

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“Now that I’ve been doing it for a year I have more and more control,” says Rachel. “I like to start with the gold and then go right into a pigment. The look of each painting depends on the order in which the paint goes down, or the height at which I hold my hand and the rate at which I tap the tool. It kind of looks like star constellations as it’s falling down, it’s very beautiful to watch.”

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“But though I have a lot of control it’s still very spontaneous and nuanced. You never really know what you’re going to get, but you kind of have an idea,” says Rachel.

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"This is the ceiling in our studio; we were trying to match the colors," says Nick. "We were very inspired by the architecture, the murals, and the frescoes and it created a different palette."

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“This weaving was collaboration between Ana Kras and Confettisystem. All over Villa Lena, there were remnants of art projects that people had done here and there.”

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"We left a selection of ours behind as well."

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To apply for a residency at Villa Lena, go here.

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And to see Calico Wallpaper's brand new collection, visit their prop-styling photo booth at Sight Unseen OFFSITE, taking place in New York City's Soho neighborhood from May 16 to 20, 2014, at 200 Lafayette Street. The event is free and open to the public during the hours of 12PM to 7PM on Friday, and 11AM to 7PM Saturday through Tuesday. For more information, please visit offsite.sightunseen.com.