Paper Trail

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By Arlene Hirst / Published by Dwell
A couple’s quest to reinvent wallcoverings takes them from New York to the Ozarks.

With their company Assemblage, the husband-and-wife team of Heidi and Christian Batteau have turned a quiet town in rural Arkansas into a small but thriving center for handcrafted wallpapers.

Although they met as students at the Kansas City Art Institute, it wasn’t until they took a course abroad in Europe that romance bloomed. To be together after graduation, Christian, a native Californian, moved with Heidi to Brooklyn, and for many years they both had thriving careers. He made sculptures and founded an art-for-architecture company with his sister, creating wallpapers for Peter Marino, Dior, and Axel Vervoordt, among others. Heidi found equal success as a textile designer, with a client list that included Carnegie, Knoll, Maharam, Starwood, and Starbucks. 

Paper Trail - Photo 1 of 16 - At Assemblage, a wallpaper producer working out of a former seed mill in Witter, Arkansas, it's all about the hand, with a minimum of two sets required to create each of the company's precisely detailed products.  

At Assemblage, a wallpaper producer working out of a former seed mill in Witter, Arkansas, it's all about the hand, with a minimum of two sets required to create each of the company's precisely detailed products.  

But after almost eight years, they began to tire of city living. "We were both doing well, but not seeing the life we wanted," says Christian. It was time to think about children, and raising a family in the city seemed impossible. They started looking at places nearby like Beacon, New York, a favorite for craftspeople. But the idea to move back to Heidi’s hometown of Witter, Arkansas, an unincorporated community in the Ozarks with a population of about 600, suddenly made sense when, after a trip to visit Heidi’s parents, they saw a vacant old seed mill. It looked like the perfect place to set up a workshop, even though it had no ready water source.

They decided to start a custom wallpaper business in the remote location, generating exquisite, art-like designs worthy of their world-class former clienteles. It was based on a crucial discovery: Christian had asked Heidi to find a paper from her industry sources that would not crack, even when embedded with layers of marble dust, plaster, metals, beeswax, and lacquer, when rolled. This made long-distance shipping possible, even from Arkansas to Tokyo.

Paper Trail - Photo 2 of 16 - An in-progress Gothic Leaf design lies on a worktable in the studio. Because the wallpaper must dry at several intervals during its production, each roll takes four full days to finish. 

An in-progress Gothic Leaf design lies on a worktable in the studio. Because the wallpaper must dry at several intervals during its production, each roll takes four full days to finish. 

Depending on the number of orders they have, the couple either do all the work themselves or hire up to six people to help. While the region is sparsely populated, finding skilled workers is not a problem. The Ozarks has a long crafts tradition: Heidi’s mother owns a handcrafted textile company, Dogwood Designs, based in Witter. "People here are different from those in the city," says Christian. "They have common-sense intelligence. Everyone knows how to fix his or her own car and plumbing. People here live off of what they make."

Every step from priming the paper to a final buffing is done by hand.

In the beginning, all of their work was custom, creating wallpapers to order for brands like Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, and Chanel. But in the past three years they have developed a collection of 30 designs, each available in a range of colors. Assemblage can also supply custom colorations at no additional charge. The wallpapers are $60 to $400 a yard and can be shipped globally and easily installed.

Paper Trail - Photo 3 of 16 - The stencils are designed on the computer, printed, and then hand-punched, here by Amos and Christina Blackwood and Christian and Heidi Batteau, seen from left to right. 

The stencils are designed on the computer, printed, and then hand-punched, here by Amos and Christina Blackwood and Christian and Heidi Batteau, seen from left to right. 

The couple explain that the work cannot be mechanized. Every step—sometimes 12 in total, from priming the paper to a final buffing—is done by hand. "We approach it as art," Christian says.

He admits that moving to Witter from New York was a culture shock at first. The town has no movie theater and no Chinese or Indian restaurants. Forget take-out and delivery. But the couple, now with two children ages three and two, happily raise their own livestock and vegetables and hope to take their 7,000-square-foot factory completely off the grid some day. Already they’ve added a rainwater catchment system.

Paper Trail - Photo 4 of 16 - Founded in 2013, Assemblage offers a bespoke alternative to mass-produced printed wall-papers. Everything begins in its Arkansas studio, but the designs can be found around the world.

Founded in 2013, Assemblage offers a bespoke alternative to mass-produced printed wall-papers. Everything begins in its Arkansas studio, but the designs can be found around the world.

They’d also like to open a collaborative artists’ studio, but only when the time is right. "We want to grow at a steady rate," says Christian. "We put beauty and quality before quantity."

                                          Hello, Walls

The Assemblage team shows the handcraft behind its charcoal-and-copper Gothic Leaf pattern.

Paper Trail - Photo 5 of 16 - Reveal:  The stencil is pulled off, revealing the copper crosses beneath. 

Reveal:  The stencil is pulled off, revealing the copper crosses beneath. 

Paper Trail - Photo 6 of 16 - Coat:  Using traditional Italian plaster trowels, the team applies a base coat of plaster that has been mixed with marble dust. 

Coat:  Using traditional Italian plaster trowels, the team applies a base coat of plaster that has been mixed with marble dust. 


Paper Trail - Photo 7 of 16 - Lay First Stencil:  The first stencil, a Gothic pattern, is positioned on the plaster base. A second coat of plaster is applied over the stencil with Japanese blades. 

Lay First Stencil:  The first stencil, a Gothic pattern, is positioned on the plaster base. A second coat of plaster is applied over the stencil with Japanese blades. 


Paper Trail - Photo 8 of 16 - Peel:  The stencil is removed and then spray-washed to use again and again. 

Peel:  The stencil is removed and then spray-washed to use again and again. 


Paper Trail - Photo 9 of 16 - Inspect:  After the stencil is removed, the team examines the surface with dental tools while the plaster is still wet to make sure that each cross is perfect.  

Inspect:  After the stencil is removed, the team examines the surface with dental tools while the plaster is still wet to make sure that each cross is perfect.  


Paper Trail - Photo 10 of 16 - Add topcoat:  A topcoat of marble-dust plaster is applied with Japanese blades, working horizontally and vertically to create a grid-like pattern instead of streaky lines. 

Add topcoat:  A topcoat of marble-dust plaster is applied with Japanese blades, working horizontally and vertically to create a grid-like pattern instead of streaky lines. 


Paper Trail - Photo 11 of 16 - Lay Second Stencil:  A second stencil with fewer openings is positioned. Sizing—a type of adhesive that retains its tack longer than glue—is applied with a dabbing motion using a stencil pouncer, which is like a foam stamp. 

Lay Second Stencil:  A second stencil with fewer openings is positioned. Sizing—a type of adhesive that retains its tack longer than glue—is applied with a dabbing motion using a stencil pouncer, which is like a foam stamp. 


Paper Trail - Photo 12 of 16 - Apply Copperleaf:  The team then uses cheesecloth to apply copperleaf squares to the areas where the sizing was administered.  

Apply Copperleaf:  The team then uses cheesecloth to apply copperleaf squares to the areas where the sizing was administered.  


Paper Trail - Photo 13 of 16 - Reveal:  The stencil is pulled off, revealing the copper crosses beneath.  

Reveal:  The stencil is pulled off, revealing the copper crosses beneath.  


Paper Trail - Photo 14 of 16 - Clean:  One person goes over the paper with a cheesecloth, another with a knife, working to remove any excess leaf bits, which are known as skewings.  

Clean:  One person goes over the paper with a cheesecloth, another with a knife, working to remove any excess leaf bits, which are known as skewings.  


Paper Trail - Photo 15 of 16 - Wax: Carnauba and beeswax are then carefully administered with a rag, making sure that the entire surface is evenly covered and avoiding excess wax.

Wax: Carnauba and beeswax are then carefully administered with a rag, making sure that the entire surface is evenly covered and avoiding excess wax.


Paper Trail - Photo 16 of 16 - Buff: The paper is hand-buffed to create a polished finish, a step that requires two hardworking sets of hands.

Buff: The paper is hand-buffed to create a polished finish, a step that requires two hardworking sets of hands.