Calico Wallpaper’s Envy-Inducing Airy Red Hook Loft
In hindsight, it feels almost like fate that Nick and Rachel Cope would end up in the sprawling, historic Red Hook loft they now call home. After all, where else in New York City could they have found the room to showcase not one but six of the wallpaper collections they’ve created since 2012 as partners in the Brooklyn-based Calico? But in fact, the couple moved in years before they began working together, meaning that the walls were once white despite now seeming as if they’ve been adorned with marbled metallics, soothing ombrés, and dripping gold leaf for practically ever.
In a way, that feeling — that something has been there for long before it actually was — could apply to Calico itself. Since launching four years ago, Calico has become so tightly knit into the American design scene that it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t there. This is in part because of the grueling show schedule they’ve kept up, creating installations everywhere from ICFF and Collective Design to The Future Perfect, Rossana Orlandi, Christofle in Paris and Mallett Antiques in London. But it’s also because so many of those shows have involved a collaboration with another beloved designer or brand — Lex Pott, Ladies & Gentlemen, John Hogan, Print All Over Me, and more — creating a multiplication effect that extends far beyond their own reach. Their ubiquity might almost be too much if not for their very chameleon-like nature — at Sight Unseen OFFSITE alone they’ve cast themselves in three different contexts, from backdropping a build-your-own-still-life photo booth in 2014 to collaborating on a series of salt-resist chocolate wrappers with Mast at this year’s show.
That the wallpapers themselves are beautiful goes without saying, but it was fascinating to step inside Calico’s Brooklyn home to see the collections through the eyes of their creators. For our series with SONOS on the homes of New York’s most fascinating creatives, we recently spent the morning in Red Hook talking about marbling, metallics, and how they’ve channeled ancient practices into something so thoroughly modern.
PHOTOS BY BRIAN W. FERRY
This space is kind of insane — you don’t usually come across 2,200-square-foot apartments with beamed ceilings and arched windows in New York. How did you find it?
Rachel: We had met a year prior to finding the apartment; I was in a small one-bedroom in Union Square, and Nick was on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. I was working as an art therapist at Metropolitan Hospital, and Nick had a design/build firm. I knew that I needed a studio space, and we knew we wanted to live together, so I went on Craigslist, as we all do, and I found this spot. We came down. We saw it. We fell in love with it at first glance. What’s so nice about the building is it’s mixed use — commercial and residential. We knew in the back of our minds that maybe someday we’d want to do something together, so it was a huge benefit.
Nick: Rachel shared the listing, and I thought it was a con. I was living in a tiny two-bedroom, functioning as a three-bedroom, with a bunch of roommates, and I was right on Atlantic Avenue, so ambulances would come by at five in the morning. There was this perpetually leaky radiator upstairs that the landlord would never fix. The plaster was coming down. Then, I saw this place, and once we came here, we realized this was just the right place for us.
What was it like when you moved in?
Nick: The building, as I understand it, was one of several buildings built by William Beard. This was a storage facility, so a lot of these beams, you can see, have numbers on them. They were storing coffee here. You can see the scales in the hallway, too, where they were weighing stuff. Red Hook’s a big shipping hub, and over time, these buildings had totally deteriorated. I think it was in 1991 that the landlord bought this building, the one across the street, the building across the pier. There are five or six buildings similar to this one, but this is the biggest one. But these buildings were basically shells. There were no floors, no piping — nothing. He pulled together investors, brought Fairway in, and I think in 2006, this building opened. We moved in 2008.
For a while, we actually turned the front area into a collective amongst friends. We had three people in there — an architect, a painter, and Rachel. They were all making work in there, and this was the main living space. Other than the kitchen and the bathrooms — the tiles and the fixtures and everything — it was kind of a big white space. Over time, we’ve styled it. Those are old costume jewelry molds above the kitchen cabinets; they’re from a weird shop in Providence. (I’m from Providence, and it’s like the costume jewelry capital of the world.) We also added these Ladies & Gentleman pendants, and over time we’ve gotten a lot of work from our friends. We have a Plant-In City in our bedroom — it’s one of Huy’s first pieces, and he purchased one of our first murals as well, so that’s kind of cool.
Nick: We trade, and we negotiate. We did a big trade with Apparatus recently for our upstate house. We did a trade with Lindsey Adelman. We’re constantly accumulating points for barter. Because the fact of the matter is a lot of this stuff is so expensive, it would be out of our price range. But, for example, we got the Fort Standard coffee table at Field & Supply last year. It was the end of the day. They didn’t want to haul it back, and they gave us a great price on it.
How did the idea for Calico develop?
Nick: I was working at a design/build firm and I had worked with Farrow & Ball for several years at the AD Home Show, building out their space and working with their team, doing color concepting and wallpaper styles. It kind of introduced me to the world of New York design. Then, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, we were upended: Rachel’s unit was closed for six months, so she had to take a paid leave from work. I was continuing to do contracting jobs, but those jobs were on hold. We started playing around in Rachel’s studio with marbleizing concepts based on some papers that we’d found at an antique shop.
Rachel: Initially, everything was created in the front room. I used the shower and the sink in the guest bathroom to rinse out the marbleized paper. It gets really messy. But we became more and more confident with our designs and our concepts and we decided to go for it. With our experience with the Architectural Digest Show and some connections there, we were able to build a really beautiful space. We went up to Hudson, found a credenza at an antique shop, painted it blue.
Nick: It was leftover Hague Blue from Farrow & Ball [laughs].
Rachel: That was the only thing we had in our booth — this one credenza. I hand-stamped our marketing materials. We had friends photograph a vignette for us. This was our first installation, and we went for it. Within five or ten minutes, NY1 interviewed us.
And this was when?
Nick: 2013. We got going at the end of the year in 2012. It was a short timeline from the creation of the first work. We started playing around with paper marbling, and the results were amazing. So we put this kind of deadline in the calendar, and we furiously raced to put something together.
After the AD Show, you grew quite quickly. From our point of view, it seemed very smart and intentional, because Nick, you were commenting a lot on Sight Unseen’s Instagram and I went looking to find out who you were.
Rachel: Yeah, in the beginning, we were very conscious of social media and Instagram. We tried to reach out to companies that inspired us. We did a lot of photography in house. We definitely used Irie, our cat, to our advantage.
Nick: We also showed a lot. We showed at ICFF two months later, which we were only dimly aware of at the time. We’d had such a positive response at the Arch Digest show that we sort of went out on a limb. We shared a space with Patrick Weder to save on the cost of putting together a second show so quickly, and we made a lot of trade contacts through that show.
Rachel: And one our first big projects was with Paul Smith. We did a rollout of five or six stores, using Lunaris.
Nick: I think the big challenge for any sort of interior product is that it has to be set in the right context and then photographed. We pursued those partnerships pretty early on to meet people and connect with the community, but also to get our wallpaper in interesting spaces. We would never have enough walls in our apartment.
The metallic tones are what initially set your work apart and made the wallpapers super recognizable. How did you guys land upon that look?
Rachel: When I was first doing the original marbleized paintings, I was testing a variety of color palettes. I added a metallic because it was not something I’d ever seen before — using metallic in a marbleized motif, recreating something that’s very traditional but making it more contemporary. It looked beautiful together. We saw quite quickly that it separated the type of paintings we were doing from what was being done for hundreds of years.
Nick: The approach was initially a marriage of our two respective backgrounds. Rachel has a background in sculpture, and after finishing school, she did a lot of painting and drawing. For me, I studied photography and digital imaging, so I brought the design technology side. When we launched, we saw that people were interested by the fact that it was an artwork that was made by hand at a small scale that we then custom printed for a space. All of these patterns or designs are fit, specifically, to the wall dimensions. There’s no repeating element; they’re rather supposed to be an immersive mural concept.
Did you feel pigeonholed by the first collection? After the marble concepts, you launched an ombré collection, which was very out of left field.
Nick: Definitely. I think the idea behind Aurora was that we didn’t want to be this one-trick pony. We thought about it, because the paper marbling was doing well. We could have said let’s do many more styles of this, or let’s do it in repeating pattern, because it’s easier to sell. But we didn’t do that very intentionally. We thought let’s take this idea of making a small-scale artwork and custom printing with it. We started exploring other styles, and the things that came afterwards — like Aurora was inspired by fabric dyeing. It’s more conceptual than the craft of paper marbling.
Rachel: We focused more on the idea of creating a space rather than just a wallpaper. With my background in sculpture and his background in photography, we didn’t necessarily want to just design a product; we wanted to design an installation.
Where’s the strangest or most surprising place your wallpaper has ended up?
Rachel: Richard Branson was starting a new non-profit in New York called the Carbon War Room. They wanted a space-themed party for the launch of this new company, so Lunaris was a perfect fit — it’s inspired by NASA photography, by outer space, by lunar landscapes. That was kind of unexpected.
Nick: Getting the opportunity to show last year at Rossana Orlandi — that was a major springboard for us, because it was a totally new world. We just met so many interesting people, and I think it helped our brand.
Rachel: I think what it did, too, is it started to move us in the direction we initially hoped to be in. We wanted to be more known for being artists, being designers, creating these beautiful spaces rather than just creating wallpaper. I think being at Rossana Orlandi’s gallery really helped to cement that in the design community.
Nick: I was part of a group of people who’d launched an arts lifestyle magazine a few years prior, and I wrote an article on them. I think I saw their work on a Tumblr or something. Anyway, they were at Rossana Orlandi’s space at Design Miami, so we met in person. They had never been to the United States, and Boaz — you know how open and chatty he is. We just started talking, and within two minutes, he was like, “Let’s do lunch tomorrow. Show us America!” We took him to Shake Shack (laughs). He was blown away. So, we had a lot of fun. He said, “Hey, come to Holland. Come to Amsterdam and visit us.” They had the early sketches of an idea, but we also loved the experience of spending time with them. Every night, the dinners — Boaz and Sayaka don’t cook, like, chicken breast and broccoli. It’ll be like a seven-course conceptual meal with some special seaweed.
Rachel: They each had a night, where they made things specific to their background.
Nick: On my night, I did a very New York thing, and I took us out to dinner. I couldn’t take the challenge.
Rachel: I have my mother’s feather collection in a cigar box; my mom was an artist, and when I was a kid, we bought a lot of boxes and collected different objects, so I keep everything in there.
Nick: My grandmother was an antique dealer, so there’s a stein from Germany, or two of them.
Rachel: My father carves alabaster and marble and creates little objects for us, so some of those are up there. We have an M. Crow cup and saucer.
Nick: There’s also a handmade book by Rachel, next to the Souda vase.
Rachel: I used to do a lot of bookbinding. I went to North Carolina to the Penland School of Crafts and we actually cut down a tree, used the bark to pulp our own paper, and then bound everything. It was kind of incredible. That’s also my drawing of the ship. I used to do a lot of very detailed drawings. When we first met, Nick came to visit. I had all of my drawings out in a flat file, and we were looking through them. He’s such a genius with marketing and branding. He’s like, “Oh, I should build a website for you,” so we’ve always been kind of working in that way. Like I love to make things, but I don’t know how to get them out there.
Nick: Once I was going to Rachel’s apartment when we were dating, and I’m walking up the stairs, and I find this giant piece that’s kind of a hand-carved music box. It’s like three feet tall and it’s in the garbage. It was obviously something Rachel made that probably took a hundred hours.
Rachel: It was my thesis project for RISD.
Nick: It was like salvaged pieces of wood with handles. It was extremely ornate. I saw it in the trash, so I grabbed it and brought it in like —
Rachel: “You can’t do this.”
Nick: “You can’t throw this away.”
Rachel: So, he had all of my work photographed, and he built a website for me.
Nick: With the drawing of the ship, we had a bunch of frames made for her pieces, and when that frame came back, it was too small. She just cut the artwork down. I’m like, “Nooooo!”
It’s funny that you guys make wallpaper now, then, because there’s that same push and pull — it’s permanent, but it can’t come with you.
Nick: It would be nice if it could.
You’ve both mentioned your parents. Were they a big influence?
Rachel: I grew up on Martha’s Vineyard. My mom was an artist, and my dad had a really big barn on our property. When I was young, he offered me a painting studio. He had a lot of wood tools, because he was doing a lot of building, so I always had access to that.
Nick: I have sort of weird parents. My mom is — it’s hard to even describe. She’s an astrologer, a yoga teacher —
Oh right, I knew this! She does readings.
Nick: Yeah, she’s good. She has a yoga school in Rhode Island. She does Reiki, massage —everything. That’s mom. And my dad was a financial advisor, so he’s more of a businessman.
So that’s where you get your business acumen.
Nick: It could be. My uncle also was sort of a mentor, a serial entrepreneur in technology and real estate. When the tech bubble burst, he got into buying and flipping houses. He was doing renovation and design/build in Silicon Valley, and in the summertime, I would go out and spend a couple of months with him and I learned how to dig ditches and paint houses. That was how I started. My first job was like, “Dig this trench.” I used all that money to travel, because I really wanted to travel and shoot photos.
Do you think your mother’s background influenced your aesthetic at all?
Nick: In a way. She’s a very emotional person — oh, she does feng shui also, that’s another thing to add to the list. But she has an eye for spaces. Her mother was, like I said, an antiques dealer, so she’s very conscious of the emotional effect of how the space functions. When we started Calico, we were thinking about that.
Do people talk about the wallpaper a lot in terms of how it makes the room feel?
Nick: One of the things that we get, fairly regularly, is people don’t know if they should decorate on top of it. They don’t know if they should hang a photograph because they’re making holes in the wallpaper, or because they don’t want to block it with a piece of furniture. It has a presence.
What are the various processes that have inspired the look of each collection? You said the Aurora collection was inspired by fabric dyeing.
Rachel: For each collection, we’re very inspired by some type of traditional craft process. So, obviously, for the Calico collection it was paper marbling. For Aurora, we’re inspired by dip dyeing, but also by travel, by landscape and nature, the world around us — trying to bring a bit of the outside inside, to really transform your experience in a space. You know, in the bedroom, we wake up every morning to a beautiful sunrise, and I think it definitely affects our mood for the positive. Even with the new Satori collection, it was an exercise in exploring the process of Kintsugi, or repairing ceramics using lacquer and gold. Being able to work with a third-generation lacquer artist to explore his process and his history, using something ancient and creating something entirely new and different — that’s pretty much our story and what we’re continuing to do with all of our collections. So, something old, something new.
That’s funny, because that’s kind of how this apartment reads as well. If it were a brand-new condo, it would have such a different feeling.
Rachel: Yes. I grew up in a post-and-beam house that my parents designed and built with their neighbor, who was actually an architect who went to RISD. They designed the interior, and every detail was very considered. There wasn’t one nail. It was all hand carved, post-and-beam construction. My dad carved our staircase, our mantel. My mother hand-painted tiles. The whole thing was essentially a piece of art. So, I grew up in that type of environment where everything was really considered, but also very based in some type of craft or handmade. That’s why I left RISD for a few semesters to study how to actually make things. But what Nick brings is this knowledge of digital design, things that are more of the now.
Wait, did you just say you left RISD to make things?
Rachel: I did (laughs). The sculpture department was very conceptual, and I really wanted to use my hands. So, yeah, I went to Haystack School of Crafts. I took an eight-week ceramics immersion. I went to Penland. It was important for me to get away.
Nick: You always tell this story about how in one of the crits, one of your fellow students just hung a leather jacket on a wall.
Rachel: He was like, “That’s my piece.” I mean I grew up on a small island, in a barn, painting. I didn’t really understand that world.
He just thought he was making a really cool readymade.
Rachel: Yeah, I didn’t get it.
Nick: But I’m sure he got an A for that, right?
Rachel: I think he got into the Biennial. But the design world’s such a nice fit, because you can actually make things, and it’s appreciated. It’s about the process. I think that’s definitely a big part of Calico.
Besides outfitting your apartment, how do you feel like the design community has changed or helped you?
Rachel: I feel like I finally found my people. I’ve met so many friends through this process. We share so much in common like a love for creating fine objects, a love for craft, for design, for interiors. I feel like for us now, it’s such a huge part of our lives.
Nick: Yeah, it’s funny. There’s definitely a lot of camaraderie in New York amongst designers. That people share ideas or share tips about travel or intel from some design fair like oh, you should show in London, for instance, or I had this experience. Even as far as contacts —like, “These architects are great to work with.” Maybe it’s also a New York phenomenon in that you spend so much time with people that are in your field or in your industry.
Rachel: It’s nice, because we all share a similar language, and we can build off of each other, inspire each other, travel together. It extends far beyond just our interior space.
Click on the player above to listen to the SONOS Listening Room podcast, hosted by Jonah Bayer, where Rachel and Nick reveals their personal soundtrack to New York City. Then, visit SONOS’ first-ever flagship at 101 Greene Street in New York for the full SONOS listening experience.
The last in our series on the homes of New York City creatives, this post was sponsored by SONOS, but all thoughts and editorial content are our own. Like everything at Sight Unseen, our partner content is carefully curated to make sure it’s of the utmost relevance to our readers.