Wallpaper’s on a roll

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Hub caps. Pill capsules. The Heidelberg Project. What do all three have in common?

If you guessed they have all inspired off-the-wall wallpaper designs, pat yourself on the back. “Not your grandma’s wallpaper,” reads the Detroit Wallpaper Co.’s advertising. Even that is an understatement.

Today, eye-catching options exist at all price points, with designs and an ease of application only dreamed about in the past. If your experience with wallpaper is limited to hours of backbreaking labor scraping off dated prints to make way for a fresh coat of paint, it’s time to reconsider the medium’s modern possibilities, says Birmingham based designer Corey Damen Jenkins.

“I think wallpaper has really come a long way in recent years in terms of creative scope, quality and costs,” he says. “There are selections out there that are so visually breathtaking that you don’t even need artwork on the walls.” National trends include papers that look like minerals and semi-precious stones, travel-inspired prints, and using paper on “feature walls” to create a focal point. With new designs and new ways to use them, wallpaper offers more options than ever before. We checked in with some local fans.


The groundbreaking Detroit Wallpaper Co. is among the many firms trying to change consumers’ minds about wallpaper. “We offer a lot of things no one else would dare to,” says Andi Kubacki, who, along with Josh Young, owns the Ferndale-based company. “In the beginning we started with fun things to make sure people would remember us.” Josh agrees. “We’re known for products that have a real uniqueness that can veer into quirky or humorous.”

That beginning came in 2004, when the partners launched the Great Wall Custom Coverings, a boutique mural company. Detroit Wallpaper Co. followed in 2012 and quickly attracted national attention for its custom color options and unusual designs. Expanding the company from purely custom to semi-custom wall coverings was a natural progression, they say and allowed them to maximize their skills — Andi does the designs, Josh is responsible for business and sales.

While Detroit-influenced motifs are popular subjects, neither grew up within the city limits. Andi is from Bay City and Josh from Midland — but both have embraced the Motor City. Josh remembers a field trip to Detroit in 11th grade, the first time he saw the Heidelberg Project. “I was blown away by it … so it was a real thrill to be able to collaborate.”

Their Detroit-inspired designs are among the most popular, and not just with locals. “House of Soul,” “Dotty Wotty” “Shoe Tree” and “Penny” pay homage to Heidelberg. “Detroit Damask,” “Tire Nation” and “Downtown Hub” — made of hubcaps — are auto-centric patterns popular not just in the Motor City, but with car aficionados across the country. “They’re great for garages, boy’s rooms, man caves,” says Josh. “Wallpaper is traditionally thought of more as something women like, but we’ve really tried to bridge the gap with some of our designs.”

Wander Walls are inspired by their travels, including “NY, NY” with ghosts of the Chrysler building; “Shanghai,” made up of Chinese apartment buildings and the ornate gates of New Orleans in “French Quarter.” “You can’t help but be a bit of a sponge,” Andi says. “Anything can be an inspiration, even a puddle.” Hot new designs include “Ombre,” a standout that Andi describes as “almost like a wall that’s been dip dyed,” “Stumped” which, like it sounds, is cut wood; “Geo Fish,” “Aboriginal” and the avian-inspired “Birdz.”

Nothing is out of their realm of inspiration. “Paper Weave” was inspired by Lichtenberg Figures, the pattern made on your skin if you’re hit by lighting. “Deep Field” reflects images seen through the Hubble telescope.

What sets them apart, they say, is not only their unusual designs, but also the fact that customers are encouraged to get involved, choosing their own colors and even designing their own custom paper, should they feel like it.

The pair is especially proud that last year one of their designs — “Peepers,” part of their whimsical children’s Sprout line — was accepted into the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, part of Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution. “It was such a thrill,” says Josh.

This year, they’ll launch Westfall & Kitson, named after their mothers’ maiden names, which is a trade-only company with more traditional applications. Available in four color options, designs recall watercolor paintings or photography, they explain. “They’re designed to appeal to designers looking for something different,” says Andi. “They’re more ethereal, more gossamer, more high-end.”

Both designers and manufacturers see a bright future for wallpaper. This spring, Detroit Wallpaper will move to larger digs, increasing their square footage from 3,000 to 8,000 and their ability to work in silk screen and 3-D. “I really think the future will be about even larger-scale designs,” says Andi. “People are doing more graphic murals and I think we’ll see textural, tonal and tech-inspired designs. We’re excited to see where things go from here.”

“We’ll have a lot more space to play,” adds Josh of the company’s larger home. “Who knows where it will lead. Our goal is to get people excited about wallpaper, maybe for the first time in their lives.”

Go for bold

With so many new choices, area designers are also turning to wall coverings more and more, says Birmingham’s Corey Damen Jenkins. “Because I believe that great interior design is a fashion-forward medium, I always use wallpaper in some way. In fact, I can’t think of a project our firm has done in the last eight years where we didn’t feature some sort of wall covering. It’s always in vogue with us.”

“I employ wallpaper whenever I need to make a powerful visual impact,” he says. “Sometimes paint can’t accomplish enough. I believe that wallpaper brings a layer of interest to my designs, especially when I utilize it in unique ways, like ceilings. I also believe in wrapping powder rooms with large-scale patterned wallpapers. The smaller the bathroom, the bigger the personality.”

Mary Tennant, of the Michigan Design Center’s Tennant & Associates, represents six national wall covering companies. She has also seen travel-inspired designs, with a new chevron Phillip Jeffries design, “St. Barts Serenity,” influenced by palms, shoreline strolls and boardwalk. “Tidal Stripe” recalls the sea-weathered South of France.

“We have seen a strong resurgence in wall coverings,” she says. “They give a room or just a specific wall an identity and can be done so many ways.” Besides travel-inspired, she’s seen a rise in papers that incorporate or reference natural products such as grass cloth, silk, bark, seagrass and jute. She says that strides have been made even in the realm of vinyl wall coverings, with new options incorporating the look of silk, bark or wovens but are washable for use in bathrooms, pool rooms or home gyms.

Designers Gail Urso and Corey Damen Jenkins admit to being fans of grass cloth. “It’s now available in many colors and textures,” says Urso, of Grosse Pointe Park. “There is also a wonderful vinyl faux grass cloth that I have used in kitchens, hallways, libraries and bathrooms.”

“Grass cloth has become a serious contender again with all of the shimmery, metallic options out there,” adds Jenkins. With so many updated options in all price points, wall coverings are a wonderful way to up a room’s “fun factor,” and add an element of surprise, he says. You might be surprised at all of the paper’s new possibilities. “I recently did a dressing room with a pink flocked leopard print,” he says. “The sky really is the limit.”