Section: Features

Wallpaper business provides backdrop to movies, museums

Wallpaper business provides backdrop to movies, museums

by Julie France

People get caught up in things they never imagined — an impulsive buy, doing a favor for someone or even a career. Mount Vernon resident and Mount Vernon News Advertising Manager Corby Wise accidentally took over a business all because he wanted some wallpaper to adorn his home.

Ten years ago, Wise contacted Jeff Gabric, Dixie Gabric and Nancy Johnson, founders and former owners of Mount Vernon’s Wolff House Wallpapers, for some wallpaper that would suit his historic home, built in 1855. The Gabrics and Johnson had other prospects in mind. Hoping Wise would buy more than just their wallpaper, they asked him if he’d like to take over their business. “I majored in art in college and thought, ‘Well, you know, at the very least I’ll get some wallpaper for myself,’” Wise said. “So, I bought the company and have been at it ever since.”

Located on 133 South Main Street, Wolff House Wallpapers, established as Wolff House Art Papers in 2001, reprints historical wallpapers for private customers, museums and antique homes throughout the U.S., Canada and England. Manning the business by himself, Wise uses Wolff House as a means to contribute to the historic preservation of architecture, give back to his hometown and also have a little fun.

Currently, Wise is working on reprinting paper for the City of Toronto, the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum in Rockford, Ill. and the Berwick Historical Society of Berwick, Pa. Yet, his clientele is not restricted to the antique collector or museum curator.

“I’ve been asked to print some things for a rock video and a movie and Downtown Disney [of Disney World],” Wise said. “But one that kind of stands out is this movie that they were doing with Joaquin Phoenix … about a pimp from the turn of the century,” Wise said. “My wallpaper was going to be in the background of that. And after I sent it off, I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh God, I hope some customers that bought this don’t see their wallpaper in this horrible, horrible setting.”

That movie was The Immigrant and though, to Wise’s relief, it only showed in 150 theaters in the U.S., it was nominated for the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.

Wise was able to do a project that hit closer to home, at the Woodward Opera House in downtown Mount Vernon. The opera house, built no later than 1851, is the second-oldest theater still standing in the U.S. after the Walnut Theater in Philadelphia. Wise was honored to reprint its historic wallpapers given that he has admired the opera house his whole life. The restoration process brought about an element of wonder. “One of the [wallpapers] that I think is the coolest that I did for Woodward was this Egyptian paper, which has hieroglyphics and a silver metallic on a green field,” Wise said.

Bringing the past to life, however, comes at a cost. Wise hand-screens all of Wolff House’s wall coverings, in order to render details and to use materials such as metallic ink. After receiving a sample of original wallpaper, Wise scans the print onto a computer, on which he redraws the pattern in layers so that each design on the print that is of a distinct color gets its own redraw. Wise must draw outlines of certain color designs because each color of ink used on a wallpaper requires its own silk screen — a stencil made of silk or fine mesh. After each silk screen is made, Wise runs a squeegee over it to create the image on the paper.

Once the ink has dried, the paper is ready to send off to customers. Wolff House patrons can either send in a sample of old wallpaper to be reprinted or they may buy from Wolff House’s stock of historical wallpapers, with prints spanning from the 1800s to the 1930s, ranging from $50 to $95 a roll.

Occasionally, the wallpaper samples customers send in were discovered not on a wall but instead in more peculiar places. Wise’s favorite print began as a covering for a book, The History of a Bible, which was printed in 1814; the wallpaper is called “The Cone Wallpaper” and features cyclone-like shapes with flowers on a golden-tan background.

Despite Wise’s appreciation for antique wall coverings, Wise still hasn’t mounted any of Wolff House’s wallpapers in his home after buying the company for that very reason.

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