Paper: Off and On the Wall, a wallpaper-inspired exhibit at Florida Craftsmen

Florida Craftsmen unveils Paper, an exhibit of new wallpaper art.

click to enlarge Wallpaper design by Anthony Zollo - Courtesy Anthony Zollo
Courtesy Anthony Zollo
Wallpaper design by Anthony Zollo

For a couple of years now, Florida Craftsmen has been organizing a series of exhibitions that explore a single theme: living with art and fine craft. Despite their conceptual commonality, the exhibits couldn't be more diverse. At Home With Crafts, the inaugural effort in 2007, offered everything from artist-designed linens and a custom fireplace to one-of-a-kind flatware and a handmade wood crib, all presented in a model home-style layout inside the gallery.

Last year's Architectural Details and Other Decorative Crafts wowed with pieces like Alison Swann-Ingram and Carl Johnson's eco-minimalist coffee table, made of reclaimed wood topped with glass.

This year, Florida Craftsmen narrows its focus to one particular "medium" — an interior design staple that has enjoyed a recent upswing in mass market popularity: wallpaper. True to their mission ("empower artists, enrich the community, engage the next generation"), the nonprofit has partnered with about 20 artists — the vast majority of them local and "emerging" — to create close to 50 wallpaper designs that you can't find anywhere else.

Suspended from the ceiling of Florida Craftsmen's Klein Family Gallery, the wallpapers are displayed as single panels; visitors won't have the advantage of seeing them adorn a room-sized space or complement other décor. Nevertheless, it's relatively easy to imagine the prints in various contexts — Mary Klein's kid-friendly illustrations in a child's room, perhaps, or Julian Corvin's mod, abstract floral print (the black-and-white one) in a sleek living room. It's tempting indeed, in this setting, to play decorator.

To my thinking, the exhibit is at its best when the wallpapers buck expectations. Probably the biggest surprise will come to visitors who step in for a good look at Paul Smith's damask print (multicolored on a white background or white on a purple background). The blue-blooded pattern — evocative of ornate, traditional wallpaper and textiles — fools the eye from far away; up close, instead of scrolling lines, viewers will find cartoon-ish phalluses making up the elegant crown design. Install this wallpaper in your dining room, and dinner party conversation will always be lively. (Smith — a long time graphic designer and art director for magazines — may hang the design in the restrooms at the bar he's opening in the Grand Central District later this month: The Queen's Head. A corresponding female version was in the offing, but didn't make the exhibition deadline, he says.)

Another unexpected delights: Jenipher Chandley's lush, kaleidoscopic patterns, based on mirrored images of an orchid and an apple blossom; Daniel Mrgan, better known for his popular wood burnings, turns his considerable illustrative talents to a playful blue-and-green figurative design; and Wade Brickhouse, a sculptor-painter-jewelry artist and resident at ArtLofts above Florida Craftsmen, turns out also to be a crack wallpaper artist, offering a minimal black-and-white pattern that invokes his work with abstracted dog forms.

Hands down, though, my favorite of the bunch is Anthony Zollo's mash-up of whimsical, hand-drawn characters and found illustrations, sourced from old books — of which the artist is an avid collector — and digitally tweaked as necessary. A maze of random (yet charmingly weird) icons, floating balloon heads and not-quite-human figures, the design is like an immersive Moleskine — less wallpaper than wall drawing.

For visitors who wish to take any of the wallpapers home, printing can be completed locally at Grand Central Stained Glass and Graphics (where most of the exhibition papers were produced on a large-scale inkjet printer). Keeping both design and fabrication in the community furthers Florida Craftsmen's mission to support the state's artists and artisans, says executive director Maria Emilia. Since many of the show's participating artists are at the onset of their careers —Chandley is a current student at the International Academy of Design and Technology and aspiring interior designer; Zollo graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design last year with a degree in fine art — trying their hand at something new may encourage them to adopt early on a key strategy for surviving both good and bad economic times: diversification.

"We were looking for opportunities where artists could use the skills they already had to advance their revenue in areas they hadn't explored," Emilia explains.

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