White X-rayed skulls stare out from filigree frames on a black background. Swirling strands of turquoise hair frame a sea of sultry models' faces. And what looks like traditional French ornamentation turns out to be stylized black flies.
This is not your grandmother's floral wallpaper, which is exactly the point. Two local entrepreneur-artists are resurrecting a once-dead décor item, injecting it with a little indie spirit, and making it hip again. Through custom designs and stock prints by local and international artists, Rollout Custom Wallpaper's graphics are popping up everywhere from Vancouver restaurants to New York design houses to Australian museums. And the duo behind it say they're only beginning to upend the art form.
“Especially when you look at wallpaper in the '80s, it was all flowers, but now there's this whole area of subversive wallpapers,” explains CEO and cofounder Anita Modha. She and fellow founder and creative director Jonathan Nodrick are taking a rare break on the rooftop deck of the Railtown artists' building where Rollout has its studio. “People are seeing that you can choose something more graphic—they're seeing that it doesn't have to be a simple repeat pattern. It's a whole different way of looking at home space.”
That fresh approach has put Rollout, well, on a roll. In February, a glam pink version of the fly wallpaper provided the backdrop for the VIP Star Lounge at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week New York. Here in Vancouver, the new Joeys restaurant in the Bentall Centre features gigantic gold and white scrollwork on an elegant grey background across the wall behind its long bar. All the while, Rollout has been working on a massive project that tells the history of democracy in Australia through graphics for a multiroom museum in Canberra's historic Old Parliament House.
Partial credit for the company's multifaceted success goes to Nodrick and Modha's unique mix of expertise. He studied at what was then Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design; she has an undergrad degree in psychology and a master's in environmental design, and is fascinated by emotional responses to graphics. They've also been blessed with excellent timing: after years of sparse minimalism, trends are turning toward statement wallpaper again.
But technology has been one of the biggest factors in starting Rollout. A few years ago, when the couple was still living in their hometown of Calgary, artist Nodrick was given a large-format printer. “It was a good way to get your hands dirty and see what's possible,” he explains. “So we got the technical aspects down, and then we found a material that worked really well.” He's referring to the thick, high-quality paper the company uses.
The result was the Rollout show in November 2005 at the Alibi Room, an exhibit of 25 wallpaper patterns by 30 artists.
With the technology and art down, the creative pair entered the 2006 Telus New Ventures B.C. Competition, which gave them mentorship and resulted in the development of a serious business plan.
By the spring of 2007, they had won a spot in the New Design Canada showcase at New York's cutting-edge International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Rollout continues to have a high profile at ICFF: when this year's event kicks off on Saturday (May 16), they'll have a booth there.
Because they make their wallpaper in small batches, Modha and Nodrick can continue to work out of their Railtown studio even as their business grows. Without the ties of a retail space or a large-production warehouse, they can experiment with scale and colour on the fly. That means they can collaborate closely with clients to develop creative ideas. In creating the skull wallpaper for Calgary boutique Worth, they translated the owner's style themes—“punk, granny, brothel”—into a meld of classic ornamentation and skulls. “It's really fun to get keywords from clients,” Nodrick says.
Modha and Nodrick's experiments are pushing them to look beyond wallpaper. At this week's ICFF, the company will debut new floor and wall tiles, developed with Burnaby ceramic-and-glass design house Interstyle.
As for wallpaper, Rollout is going far beyond traditional repeat patterns. Artist Series papers range from the illustration-based to the photo-conceptual. Check out Chloe Perron's sea of cartoony empty speech bubbles (“Words Spoken Quieter Than Actions”), Lee Hutzulak's scrawled dreamscape of animals and ghostlike creatures (“The Infidel's Pantry”), or Peng Creative's abstract landscape of angular trees and stylized birds (“Forest Paper”).
Clients can personalize paper by offering up photos to use as murals or collages. (Info on prices is via www.rollout.ca/.) “You can scan grass, twigs, anything,” Modha says. “It's limitless what you can do.”
Perhaps Rollout's most revolutionary role has been in collaborating with both artists and clients to find out how many different, creative ways wallpaper can be used. Or as Nodrick says before heading back to work, “That's what we're trying to show—you can have your whole room be a one-of-a-kind piece of art.”