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Working Hollywood: Tony Roche

The designer finds wallpaper design fascinating, and he's created a special one for 'X-Men: First Class.'

June 12, 2011|By Cristy Lytal, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Wallpaper designer Tony Roche learned his craft from his father, who had a decorating firm, and his grandfather, who used to make patterns.
Wallpaper designer Tony Roche learned his craft from his father, who had… (Patricia Monahan )

For some, staring at wallpaper is as much fun as watching paint dry, but not for designer Tony Roche, who created a handmade silver leaf wallpaper on display in the 1960s-set mutant superhero saga "X-Men: First Class."

"I have to say, sometimes when you mention to people wallpaper, they glaze over slightly," he said. "It's a bit like saying you're interested in spotting trains. But it surprises me how beautiful wallpaper is, when a lot of people think of it as being rather domestic and boring. It's often seen as one of the lesser arts, but there's some great skill and creativity within it."

Roche learned his craft from his father, who had a decorating firm, and his grandfather, who used to make patterns. From Roche's earliest days, he was drawn to Art Deco and Art Nouveau designs.

"Most kids used to cover their schoolbooks in brown paper, but because my dad was in the decorating business, I used to cover mine with wallpaper," he said. "And I actually think that was an influence on me in a strange way. I quite liked the mathematics of pattern and repeat. And also the precision appealed to me — the fact that it could be loose but precise."

At age 22, Roche left his hometown of Waterford, Ireland, for London, where he published the book "Decorating With Stencils" and worked as a scene painter for the BBC. When it closed its design department, he took the opportunity to go back to school and earn a degree in theater design from the Wimbledon School of Art.

Since then, he's applied his eye for pattern to films including 2003's "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," 2005's "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and "X-Men: First Class." He also serves as vice chair of the Wallpaper History Society.

"I've worked in quite established, well-known houses, but not many people are going to see that work," he said. "There's something exciting about making a wallpaper or a pattern for film or TV that's going to be seen by millions of people. It's permanent in some way."

Glitterati: Mutants can have expensive tastes. "For 'X-Men: First Class,' they wanted something reflective, and I suggested silver transfer leaf," Roche said. "It comes in 9-inch squares. You have to put acrylic size on it. It's like a glue, almost. It goes clear and makes the surface a little bit sticky, and the silver adheres onto that. And then you have to seal the silver with shellac, which is a spirit-based clear varnish, because otherwise the silver can turn black quite quickly if it's exposed to oxygen."

Curve appeal: Since "X-Men: First Class" is set in the 1960s, Roche chose a bold, graphic design for the wallpaper. "I printed a pattern over the silver," he said. "It's loosely based on the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, who's a Brazilian architect. He built Brasília, which I went to look at, not particularly for this project, but because he's somebody whose work I really admire. And the drawing in my sketchbook that the filmmakers chose was loosely based on his work, that kind of pattern. So it's quite sculptural, really. It's got a '60s flowing feel to it."

Between the lines: While Roche has a range of techniques — including silkscreen, digital and block printing — he used old-fashioned stencils for "X-Men: First Class." "I cut shapes out of a very thin plastic, and I made the template," he said. "I positioned the plastic on top of the silver, and with a roller, I rolled the paint onto the silver. I took the plastic off after I finished to reveal the silver underneath, so it was almost a negative effect. It was a stencil, but a reverse stencil. I use a lot of stencils, actually. You have control, they're easy and quick to make, and there's something handmade about a stencil. Some of the other techniques can sometimes look a bit too mechanical."

Pattern recognition: "I really like Christopher Dresser," Roche said. "He was a modern Victorian. I love Augustus Pugin as well. He worked in the 1940s, and he was quite Gothic. I live in Ramsgate, which is on the southeast coast of England, and he lived here as well. He designed all the wallpapers for the houses in Parliament in London. In recent years, he's been recognized more and more for how important a designer he was. We're going through a period now where there are many more designer makers coming into the industry. People are doing unique and individual things with wallpaper. It's becoming an art form again, and it's amazing how it's much more accepted as a creative means of expression."

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