Viewed from across the room, Markella Mildenberger's wallpaper design looks like an antique filigree pattern from an Old World salon.
Move closer, though, and you’ll see the delicately scrolling print is actually skulls, mirrored and repeated in Victorian funeral-home shades of sepia and grey on ivory.
This is the beauty of the Vancouverite-by-way-of-Vernon’s work: originating as paintings, it has a richness, textural brushwork, and hand-created feel that you could never mimic digitally. Sitting in the West End studio where she’s launched her ever-growing design business, surrounded by both paintings and long panels of wallpaper, she points to a canvas with a raspberry-red-feathered hummingbird, and then shows a 12-foot-long swath that depicts it, repeated, in a swirling pattern. Dahlias, magnolias, faces, octopuses, brick walls: all of them, and more, get abstracted kaleidoscopically in her customizable wallpapers. Each painting can lead to infinite possibilities, through not just repetition, but colour combinations: the skull print finds a different mood in electric pink, and the hummingbirds look sleek and contemporary in black on white.
“I like that you have to spend a little more time looking at it,” says the artist, considering the mirrored, undulating lines of bold red flowers. “People get involved in it. When they realize it’s actually hand-done, then the piece becomes an art object. They say, ‘She didn’t do this all digitally.’
“At IDSwest,” she adds of the popular Vancouver trade show where she staged a display in September, “we were swamped for the whole week. People wouldn’t walk by, they would full-on stop to look at the wallpaper. That’s what art’s supposed to do.”
Only three-and-a-half years ago, Mildenberger was living in Vernon and selling her paintings at farmers markets around the Okanagan, sitting on the boards of galleries, and teaching business and marketing to artists. Her message to students in her workshops? “You don’t have to be a starving artist,” she says.
It wasn’t till recently that she took her own advice, finding myriad ways—starting with wallpaper—that she could turn her expressive canvases into home décor under the label the Red Palette.
Much market and fabrication research later, she won a business grant and moved to Vancouver to connect with interior designers and bring her prints to home décor. The response has been quick, probably because Red Palette designs stand out in a market where trends come and go. As Mildenberger points out, because her work originates as art, it can’t be copied. “This is what I want to do: play with colours and textures,” the self-taught artist enthuses. “If I follow a trend, then it’s just going to die out.
“I really like when you see brush strokes or if I spill a drop of water: it’s human,” she continues. “I refuse to go down the path of just drawing on an iPad. I like to feel the paint on my hands. And I like to sit in the dark with a glass of wine and just paint.”
Her timing has also turned out to be perfect. “If you’d flipped open a magazine two years ago you’d see a blurb about wallpaper, but not much else,” she says. “But now in L.A. and New York, everybody is all over wallpaper.” The products are much easier to put up—and take down—these days. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to paste the walls!’ But now there’s no paste, and it’s fully removable.”
Working with interior designers and homeowners, Mildenberger has come up with countless ways to feature her wallpaper. She’s spread pink cherry blossoms on a turquoise background across a ceiling. And she’s done a lot of powder rooms in her bold prints, and she recommends that people give the wallpaper a quick gloss coat to seal it. Sometimes, the prints find their way to a larger feature wall, or along the lower part of dining-room walls, under a plate rail or moulding.
Interestingly, the wallpaper prints are being showcased like art as well: at the recent Vancouver Home + Design Show, designer Jamie Banfield framed three rectangles of her skull print and put them over the sink in a bathroom in the B.C. Hydro Power Smart home. Four-by-eight-foot panels have also been selling well; picture one sitting long and low over a modular sofa.
Mildenberger is only now starting to realize the limitless applications her patterns have. She’s moving into textiles and upholstery, planning to launch pillows and duvet covers by the time she hosts a pop-up shop next March at the Playground space on Columbia Street. She shows a rich abstract silk in jewel tones and a thick cotton twill emblazoned with a delicate blue-and-pink bird pattern.
Next up? She’s investigating tile work and transferring her designs to mosaics.
“There are a million uses for it that I haven’t even thought of yet,” she remarks.
Eager to collaborate with tile manufacturers, furniture designers, and home decorators, Mildenberger is clearly unafraid to put her work out there in as many forms as possible.
“I say if you can’t let it go, don’t paint it,” she emphasizes. “It’s meant to be shared.”