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California's Getting the Hang of It : Wall-Covering Industry Traces Its Roots to Europe, but Here in West, a Style All Its Own Emerges

November 16, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles attorney Kristin Belko sought to duplicate century-old wallpapers used in her restored Victorian house near USC, she found what she needed at Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers, a tiny, 6-year-old firm in Benicia, Calif., that specializes in meeting just such 19th-Century challenges.

"I was very lucky," Belko said. "They had some paper that was very similar."

So pleased was she, that Bradbury & Bradbury duplicated the colorful hand-printed papers throughout her home, which was built in wallpaper's heyday, according to Bruce Bradbury, whose eight-employee company sells directly through its own catalogue ($6, Box 155, Benicia, CA 94510).

Belko's needs were special. And special describes California's relatively recent contribution to the nation's wall-covering industry.

The national industry traces its roots to Europe and thence, from Colonial times, to the Northeastern United States, where it remains implanted to this day. California's modest industry includes a handful of Bradbury-like studios in the San Francisco Bay Area, all begun within this decade. Two older and larger hand-print mills produce nationally distributed wall coverings from Los Angeles.

The largest of these is Mitchell Designs, established 25 years ago in a North Hollywood garage. The company today employs 45 craftsmen and salespeople deployed in an 80,000-square-foot mill opposite San Gabriel Mission. This makes it one of the nation's leading producers of hand-printed wall coverings, screen-printing original designs on not only papers but burlap, jute, suede, cork, linen and imported woven grasses.

Seven years after Mitchell Design's founding, Kenneth and Margaret McDonald, trained in England, entered the custom-design wall-covering business with a small rented studio, also in North Hollywood. One of Kenneth McDonald Design's specialties is to produce custom fabrics and wall coverings to meet the last-minute needs of Southern California's entertainment industry. A current credit claimed is television's weekly "Murder, She Wrote."

Growing Market

More generally, however, McDonald's production is available to interior decorators and their customers--"to the trade"--through a studio in the big blue Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. (Mitchell Designs, on the other hand, leaves sales to such national distributors, also represented in the PDC, as Schumacher, Seabrook and Sinclair.)

Traditionally, California and the Western states generally have not been strong markets for wall coverings. These find their greatest use, in terms of households, in the Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. But that appears to be changing, at least in the upper end of the market, said Anthony G. Davenport, Mitchell Designs' director of marketing. He attributed the change to the increased availability of contemporary designs "that fit the life style" of the West.

While more households use wall coverings in the country's older and colder regions than in the more recently settled Sun Belt states, Davenport called the figures "somewhat misleading." Easterners, he said, tend to use less expensive paper "and plaster it on every wall," and Westerners pay more for top-of-the-line coverings that they use sparingly.

"That's the market we're after: the art-on-the-wall market," he said.

According to the National Decorating Products Assn., wall-covering sales in the Western United States are showing strong annual growth across the board, with an additional 9% increase anticipated this year. "This would create a market in the Western region for wall covering, sold through decorating centers, of nearly $400 million," said Ernest W. Stewart, director of marketing research. (That figure does not account for the lower volume and higher value sales "to the trade" by California's hand-printing mills.)

While most of the mass-produced papers bought in the United States are made by Northeastern mills or imported from Europe, Mitchell's design director June Yeager believes that California is emerging as a distinctive production center with "a style all its own." She described it as freer, more informal and more open than the more formally conceived and tightly drawn patterns of the industry as a whole. The colors, too, tend to be lighter, Davenport added, reflecting the increased sunlight available and larger rooms and greater window space in Western homes, as well as throughout the Sun Belt. Pastels are particularly popular.

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