Monday, March 28th, 2011
When Jon Sherman talks about wallpaper he tends to speak in multiple senses—the feel, the texture, the smell, the flavor—like he’s experiencing some sort of visual synesthesia, a blurring of lines between sensory pathways. But the wallpaper he’s talking about does warrant special consideration. Its design is graphically and technically impressive, and its patterns range from unique to loud. There’s a reimagined version of Hokusai’s classic Japanese block print, The Great Wave, that pops on iridescent blue paper, a buxom babe posing amidst skulls and sharks in a wallpaper called Shore Leave, and Elysian Fields, a heavily patterned take on William Morris that replaces fleur du lys with bats and venus flytraps. Sherman’s claim, “I’ve never been a ‘white-wall’ guy,” only begins to describe his penchant for bold design.
Sherman runs Flavor Paper, a producer of high-end, screen-printed wallpaper geared toward a design-savvy consumer market. Over the course of its history, wallpaper has been treated as a trend exemplar of the decorative arts, touching on (and often falling victim to) its defining dichotomies. Can it be art or is it mere decoration? To what degree does its functional application limit its creative scope? Does it belong in the foreground or the background? Sherman concerns himself with only one answer: the right wallpaper can, and should, fill the foreground of a space.
I’ve never been a ‘white wall’ kind of guy
—Jon Sherman, owner
“It all came about because I didn’t know a single person who had wallpaper,” Sherman explains. “I didn’t know anyone who’d even thought about wallpaper.” That is, until he was living in New Orleans and saw a catalogue of screen-printed wallpapers by a deceased Oregon designer named Ted. Swinging metallics, bold geometrics and “some awful ’80s work” filled the pages of the book, and for Sherman, it was love at first sight. After years of bouncing from industry to industry, he had finally found something he could settle into that would simultaneously indulge his artistic- and business-minded impulses. Sherman committed to starting and maintaining a business in the name of a craft he admired, but had yet to learn.
Within hours of his revelation, Sherman was in Portland gathering the first pieces of the puzzle from the original designer’s family, which included a 48-foot-long, four-ton steel screen-printing table, an industrial vacuum and the decades-old silk screens of the original patterns. He loaded everything onto a semi-truck and shipped it to New Orleans while he raced back to find a suitable studio space to set up shop. He decided on a spot in the Bywater District, east of the French Quarter and across the levee from the Lower Ninth Ward.
That was in 2004, and just a year later Hurricane Katrina dropped down to wreak havoc on the city. Flavor Paper was spared from the flooding, but power outages, inconsistent mail service, and the city’s severely compromised infrastructure made for a particularly tough backdrop for a new business. Perhaps more critically, the high humidity of New Orleans made it an extremely challenging place to work with paper. “We use water-based inks that we print onto non-breathable materials like mylars,” Sherman explains. “The ink sits on the surface and needs to air dry. We were fanning the flames, basically, trying to make that happen.”
With most of Flavor Paper’s sales coming from New York, and with its paper and ink providers close by, Sherman began looking to relocate his young company from the Big Easy to the Big Apple.
Part of what sets Sherman apart from other entrepreneurs is not just his willingness to act on impulse, but also his confidence to do it wholeheartedly and with bravado. The evidence can be seen in Flavor Paper’s new headquarters in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
Sherman looked at more than 130 sites before deciding on the four-story 1929 brick and concrete building. He turned to his friend, Jeff Kovel, the founder of Skylab Architecture, to convert the building into a mixed-use space that would house the wallpaper production studio, office space and a showroom, as well as two employee apartments and his own residence on the top floor.
Kovel not only understood the challenges of the project—from navigating New York City’s complex zoning laws to devising a program that fit the various uses of the building—but he also saw it as an opportunity to showcase Flavor Paper’s stunning designs by applying Skylab’s approach to creating distinctive environments. “We flew down to New Orleans and spent three days trying to learn and understand [Sherman’s] process,” Kovel says. “It was important that we become experts in the stages of their process and the equipment required. A lot of the opportunity was to create a more efficient studio.”
After immersing himself into Flavor Paper’s culture, Kovel decided to make some unconventional moves in the new space. He located the silk-screening studio on the highly visible ground floor and the showroom on the second floor, reversing the traditional emphasis on retail. “Doing manufacturing as retail was a much more interesting and progressive concept,” says Kovel.
Flavor Paper is almost obnoxious in its flamboyance. It’s intended, and it’s awesome.
—Dan Funderburgh, artist
“Upstairs, we decided to create window displays, each with a different pattern and development, ” he continues. The Skylab team created the studio so that its design scheme changes in accordance with the color and pattern of what’s being printed at the time. “The idea [was] to take the building exterior and paint it matte black to create a more neutral environment for all these interior spaces to come forward.” Kovel explains. Sherman admits that some of Flavor Paper’s neighbors initially expressed concern at what might’ve turned out to be a big, black monolith in their midst, but the open layout of the studio eventually won over hearts and minds of the block, as passersby regularly stop to see new work in progress.
To emphasize the dramatic space, the ceiling was outfitted with an 80-foot-long mirrored soffit that cantilevers to reflect outward the contents of the twin printing tables.Doug Russell, who served as the lighting consultant for the project, suggested installing a pair of thin slots to house lights that run the entire length of the ceiling mirror. The mirror ends in a mirrored wall at the far end of the building, and the two resulting lines of light give the illusion of continuing on forever, pulling the viewer’s eye back into the studio. “Whatever lighting we did on the façade needed to be subtle and still respectful of the neighborhood,” Russell explains. “It makes you look through the cracks.”
At points in the building’s design, Flavor Paper and its space merge seamlessly. A large-scale neon installation inspired by the florals in the Sakura wallpaper runs the entire height of the building’s staircase, and the sculptural touches on the showroom ceiling are modeled on the pattern of Cycloid. “I went to Carnegie Hall for the first time the other day, and all I could think of was what a waste of wall space.” Sherman says. “I feel like they could engage people so much more by adding more to the space rather than just this white, massive, five-story field of blankness. It leaves you yearning for something to drive your eye towards. I guess they consider it to be ‘not distracting,’ but I consider it to be boring. Honestly.”
Flavor Paper now boasts more than 50 styles of wallpaper, with patterns from a variety of designers in a dizzying array of colorways. Some of their wallpapers are quite literally flavors—scratch-and-sniff. These designs carry familiar fragrances like banana, cherry and tutti frutti.
Brooklyn-based artist Dan Funderburgh has created some of Flavor Paper’s most interesting wallpapers, from City Park, which freshens a standard square-repeat pattern with its fire hydrants, parking meters, and pigeons to Sharp Descent, a stark, two-color paper with a cornucopia of murderous and pointed objects cascading downward. Funderburgh counts himself lucky for Flavor Paper’s existence. “I’d been designing wallpaper only with the vaguest sense that it could ever really get made. Flavor Paper’s level of exactitude and craftsmanship is something I can’t even do on my computer, and they’re screen-printing it by hand. It’s incredibly impressive.”
“I think that Jon [Sherman] and Flavor Paper—if you just look at the whole building—are almost obnoxious in their flamboyance,” Funderburgh adds with an affectionate chuckle. “Which is intended, and it’s awesome.”
Text: Ellen Knuti
Photographer: Noah Kalina
Model: Nadiya with Factor
Stylist: Lexyrose Boiardo
Hair & Makeup: Anna Marie Tendler
Stylist Assistant: Lexyrose Boiardo