Made by hand - Louise Altman Wallpapers

We spoke to Louise Altman about starting her traditional hand-printed wallpaper business over the pandemic. Find out where Louise gets her inspiration, discover how wallpaper is made, and learn why Victorian wallpaper could make you sick!

Q. I-Construct: Why did you start your business Louise Altman Wallpapers?

A. Louise Altman:

“I have my own art studio, which I built on the side of my house. I have an art degree. My studio was thriving with creative activities, art, bookbinding, printmaking, and other things. I used to teach printmaking in my studio. Running small classes and selling a few little things that I'd made. I also had a day job to keep my hand in business and industry.
“In the pandemic, I got furloughed from my day job. I had always wanted to handprint some wallpaper for my home. I printed my first wallpaper, hung it in my bedroom, and put a photo on Instagram. From there it really evolved. My art studio has now turned into the wallpaper printing studio because it's taken over so much and I still have the same wallpaper on my walls."

Q. I-Construct: What inspires your handmade wallpaper?

A. Louise Altman:

“You can buy wallpaper at B&Q for £14 a roll, and it’s absolutely fine. It's perfect for what it is. But my wallpapers are £145 per roll. There’re a few reasons why mine are special and command that price bracket. Every roll of wallpaper I make, is slightly different, a work of art. Each roll is handprinted and each roll might have between 50 and 100 hand-printed impressions. The level of hard work and unique design is reflected in the price. I know it’s not for everyone but for some of my clients, the value is in the uniqueness and longevity of the design.
“I create the designs. They’re usually botanical designs inspired by nature. Flowers, plants, and trees – the natural world. That’s my biggest inspiration. I go out in nature to get inspiration, taking my sketchbook, visiting gardens, and taking walks in the country.
“Sometimes I'm going for a feeling, not a look. There's an atmosphere to a room I want to draw upon, a nostalgia and a resting place. My wallpaper can contribute to that. I might want a room to feel more closed in, or more open and plan my designs accordingly.
“Lately I’ve been looking at seaweed as I have been swimming in the estuary every day. My favourite types of reference books are scientific and botanical. I have some lovely old ones. I recently bought an old book about British seaweed on eBay. Seaweed’s fascinating, but I couldn't tell you the first fact about seaweed because that's not what I'm interested in. It's the visuals that inspire me.”

Q. I-Construct: How do you make wallpaper?

A. Louise Altman:

“First, I sketch and plan, then I draw and hand-carve my designs onto blocks. They become the printing blocks that I use for my process. The wallpaper is prepared with ground, then each block is hand-printed onto this. It's a time-consuming, and particular process.
“It takes about three and a half hours to make a roll of wallpaper, but that doesn't include all of the design work that goes into it. That’s just prepping, printing a roll of wallpaper, leaving it to dry, packing it up, and getting it ready to go with labels and instructions.
“I’ve wallpapered three of my own rooms and my family are also my guinea pigs. Once I create a design, I like to go and practice hanging it somewhere. I can't expect a professional decorator to hang one of my rolls of wallpaper up if I've never hung it myself. I put my phone number on every roll in case the person hanging it thinks, ‘I just can't work out why it isn’t matching?’. I make sure that I know it hangs well, so I can write the instructions. I might have spent six months perfecting the design, through trial and error. Sometimes I'll try something and it's just not what I imagined. There's an ongoing process and dialogue between myself and my work. Sometimes I have to give up on a pattern and come back to it later.
“If someone buys my wallpaper it looks just like a regular roll of wallpaper with instructions and the info that you need. I usually pop in a packet of wallpaper paste with the order as well as a thank you card. A thank you, to my clients to show my appreciation. I don’t hang the wallpaper myself, but if somebody says they need a decorator, I have a network of people around the country. I’ve found myself to be part of a really lovely community."

Q. I-Construct: Who buys handprinted wallpaper?

A. Louise Altman:

“Anybody can buy handprinted wallpaper. My clients might be renovating an old house, or they've got an interiors theme that they're working with or they want something completely different from a high street offering. And my papers would be a solid solution for them. In larger, older houses owners tend not to decorate every couple of years, so it represents good value as my wallpapers are durable and have longevity. At the other end of the spectrum of home dwellers, if you’re renting you wouldn't necessarily wallpaper a room when you don’t have an assured tenancy. There is a product on the market which can solve some of the issues renters have. It’s a solution that you can paint on a wall and then hang a wallpaper which will just peel off when it’s time to leave.
“I have met a lot of my clients through Instagram. Although Instagram's a brilliant way of putting yourself out there, my customers aren't necessarily all on social media or haven’t found me yet. That’s why I came to I-Construct. I wanted to meet people that might be building or renovating shops, hospitality venues, or houses. When I talk to people in construction, it needs to be in the pre-build phase. The decorating choice is a decision that’s usually made before a single brick is laid.”

Q. I-Construct: Where is Louise Altman’s handmade wallpaper sold?

A. Louise Altman:

“Although I’m based in Rochford, Essex, my clients have come from all over the country. My original plan was to push wallpaper sales out to Europe. Especially to France with their rural aesthetic and renovating of homes. But with Brexit, I don't think it's going to be viable because of the extra charges that will have to be paid by the client and taxes. It's all a bit complicated.
“If there's going to be any benefit to Brexit, then maybe it’s that people will start looking more at the traditional stuff that's made in the UK. That they might stop opting for short-term solutions because the supply chain might be much more complex. You can buy a desk from Ikea, and it's a fabulous desk, but the chances are you won't want to leave it as a legacy to your children. I like thinking about the long-term and I like considering legacy and heritage. I think the value of things should be taught in schools, there could be so many examples, ‘This is a sweater that costs a pound, whereas this is a garment that is handmade and spun in the Orkneys. Feel the difference, which is going to last longer, and what’s the value to the consumer and society.' These are all questions we might have to consider more as we’ll be forced to step back from a throwaway culture.
“Recently I have been in touch with an international wallpaper company who'd really like to stock my designs. I’m working on how that could happen logistically and what kind of investment I would have to make. My wallpapers could be for sale in Canada and Australia and places like that. That was with the help of my I-Construct mentor Derek, who is amazing.”

Q. I-Construct: How sustainable is hand-printed wallpaper?

A. Louise Altman:

“My wallpaper is a local product made in the UK. I buy all my materials and equipment locally, supporting local small businesses; I rarely use shipping. I use local suppliers and then I make the wallpaper in my studio. The only footprint the wallpaper has is when it gets sent to a client. Then it stays where it is, hopefully for 10+ years.
“My wallpaper is really robust. It lasts a long time. If a client pays a considerable sum to decorate a room, I do hope they expect it to last 10+ years because it's part of the appeal. Plus, handprinted wallpaper is a gorgeous thing, and you want to live and grow with it.
“The paper I use comes from sustainable forests. The paints and inks I use are all-natural and mineral-based. I'm currently looking into a company whose paint absorbs CO2. I think I would be very proud if my wallpaper helped the environment and the atmosphere. That would feel like a personal achievement in a small useful way.
“Back in the Victorian days, they printed bright green wallpaper with arsenic-based pigments which created poisonous fumes. As the papers got disturbed, they were giving off toxic vapours that were killing people. If we jump forward 200 years and we find paint can now absorb CO2. We'll have come full circle and learned so much more about how we take care of the world.”

Q. I-Construct: Is handprinted wallpaper a trend or a tradition?

A. Louise Altman:

“I'm a member of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA). They exist to protect and promote makers of endangered crafts. There are many traditional crafts that are still being created in the UK, but there might only be one or two people continuing the traditional ways of making them. There are scissor makers, clog makers. tinsmiths, watchmakers. All those traditional handcrafts are seriously in decline. This includes wallpaper printing in the way I approach it through block printing. Wallpaper's quite fashionable now, that’s given it a little bit of a lift, but there are still not many people who make it.
“I think you shouldn't just think of it as a trend, although it is currently fashionable to wallpaper walls and ceilings. The way to think about making a choice such as hand-printed wallpaper is to think of it as a positive lifestyle choice. Neither trendy nor traditional. Choosing to surround yourself with a hand-printed pattern is a positive contribution to your well-being. It's so much better for your mental health to look at a patterned wall than to constantly be looking at a screen. Sometimes I can be watching TV and I'm on my phone at the same time and I'll just look up my wallpaper to rest my eyes and it grounds me. Hand-printed wallpaper can be very captivating.
“You'll often read about the HCA in the press. They're trying to build awareness around the fact that we mustn’t lose these crafts. The UK has a rich heritage built on craft. We've always had this reputation as skilled artisans and manufacturers and if we lose these skills, we won't get them back. The person who has the knowledge will die and then there'll be no one to teach it or pass it on. You can learn stuff online but there's nothing like learning from somebody who's showing you the intricacies of making.”

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