There’s a rhythm to it that’s hypnotic. Dab. Swoosh. Dab. Swoosh. Dab. Swoosh. With her paintbrush, she marks the shimmery yellow-gold paper with the darker brown-gold resin. With a quick flick of his blade (a Japanese razor I’m later told), he disperses her marks. She is Heidi Batteau, and he is Christian Batteau, and together they are the owners of Assemblage Art & Craft Manufacturing, the handmade-wall-covering firm out in the middle of Witter, Arkansas, (population 603) that caters to some of the biggest names in interiors.
As I watch the pattern come together, it starts to look vaguely familiar.
“It’s a tortoise-shell pattern,” explains Christian.
“It’s based on a traditional French tortoise-shell painting technique,” elaborates Heidi. These two make for a dashing couple of artists. He’s broad-shouldered with dark, short-cropped hair and beard, and she’s petite and fair-skinned with a face that bares an uncanny resemblance to that girl with the pearl earring that Vermeer painted. Heightening the effect, today her hair is completely covered by a soft blue knit cap.
As for the wallpaper in progress, it’s pretty, but a bit more, ahem, ostentatious than what I’d expected.
“It’s funny that this is the one we’re working on while you’re here,” Christian says, laughing as he reads my mind. “It’s not really our aesthetic.
“But the truth is, while it may not be reflective of our aesthetic, it is reflective of the business we’re in,” he adds after a moment’s thought. “At the end of the day, we’re a custom shop. Sometimes you do samples, and you’re like, there’s no way they really want this, but they do, and that’s the bread and butter.”
The tortoise-shell paper covers two impossibly long tables in this back room of the company’s studio—a vast, airy building that was once home to a seed mill. Next to the tables stands what, to me, looks like a gigantic baker’s rack waiting to accept cookies for cooling. And indeed, this is where the paper eventually goes to completely dry. A large shelf loaded down with different materials in aluminum buckets, large plastic buckets and bottles in various shapes and sizes stands against the far back wall of the room. On either side, two windows peer out to the budding greenery of the surrounding countryside.
Once it’s finished, explains Heidi, the tortoise-shell paper will be dried, rolled up and placed in 8-inch “indestructible” tubes to be shipped from this quiet pastoral setting out into the wide, wide world. Ultimately, the paper will end up in a residence in Washington, D.C., where it’ll adorn the study and the closet of—well, they can’t disclose the client’s identity, but from the few hints I manage to pull out of them, he’s no small potato.
“This is more in the vein of what we do,” Heidi says as we make our way back toward the outer part of the studio where I first entered. I follow her eye and see that, in the corner nearest to the entrance of the space, there are few cascading samples of wallpaper pinned to the wall.
She points to one called “Lamina,” which consists of undulating light blue, cream, tannish and white horizontal stripes. It has a lovely sheen to it. It’s modern and subtle, evoking the sky, calm water, distant horizons.
“This particular one is hanging in the Oculus of the World Trade Center in London Jewelers’ Manhattan location,” she tells me.
Heidi draws my attention to another version of the “Lamina” paper. It’s similar, but obviously different.
Oftentimes, what ends up happening, she explains, is that a custom job, like the original “Lamina” for London Jewelers, will inspire a spinoff that’ll then be added to the couple’s permanent collection. On the flip side, clients might ask that an offering in the permanent collection be modified, and customized for them.
“Can I touch it?” I ask, unable to resist.
“Of course!” says Heidi, her face erupting into a big jovial smile, something it does often.
“It’s very durable,” adds Christian good-naturedly. “Thanks to all the layering, it’s much tougher than it looks.”
It’s smooth and cool, but rough and textured at the same time.
“This one’s made of layers of marble plaster and mica plaster applied a layer at a time,” Christian says, eager to explain the thousands-of-years-old process that goes into making a piece of wallpaper such as this. In a way, the very bottom layer of the Lamina is marble, he points out. Here’s how: marble dust is mixed with slaked lime and quicklime, and when applied to the paper, that combination of heat, pressure and lime allows the mixture to become, molecularly speaking, marble once again.
“So you have this incredibly soft and luscious, but also durable, base,” he says. On top of that marbled base goes a plaster containing a powder with flake mica in it, which gives the paper its luminosity, he says. “So much of the color you see comes directly from the natural material—the stone and the metal used in the process.”
This process serves as the foundation for other samples in the couple’s collection, Christian explains. Other common techniques involve stenciling and mark-making with different tools. And many of the materials Heidi and Christian use—gold leaf, sterling-silver leaf, abalone (sea snails)—are the same materials used for jewelry making.
“Is there a way for me to view the entire collection?” I ask, eager to see more.
Gamely, Heidi invites me to flip through a large book sitting on a nearby table, which holds not photographs, but actual samples of each of the nearly 30 patterns in the collection.
Each is as wow-inducing as the next. As I make my way through the book, it quickly becomes clear that fabrics and textiles and nature are major sources of inspiration for Heidi and Christian. Coco Chanel’s famous linen and bouclé suits, herringbone, the skin of a boa constrictor, the oxidation of copper, trees, abalone and lichen each in turn inspired a pattern.
And many of the samples (or iterations of them) are now hanging in all their glory somewhere out in the world, like in 30 different Tiffany’s locations, a handful of Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores, the swanky Doheny Room in West Hollywood and the Royal Automobile Club in London. Not to mention all the private residences where the paper can now be found, from Hollywood celebrity compounds to a palace in Dubai.
By the time I come to the end of the book, I’ve fully grasped that what the couple are doing at Assemblage is an art form. Be that as it may, it’s a medium that neither foresaw themselves becoming masters of when they began their respective journeys as artists. The couple met in art school at the Kansas City Art Institute back in the early aughts. Soon after graduation, they moved to New York City, and since neither was interested in taking the starving-artist route, they sought out paying gigs that would allow them to also focus on making their own creations. For her part, Heidi landed a job as an interiors textile designer, and Christian got a gig as an artist for a surfaces company. They lived in an apartment in Brooklyn, where they also kept a studio space for their art. Both of them exhibited their work on a regular basis.
A few small opportunities to make custom wallpaper came up here and there, but nothing that’d support a serious foray into the field. Then in 2011, after Christian sold a few paintings and sculptures, the couple decided it was time to leave the NYC rat race behind and move to a place where they could plant a garden and raise children without breaking the bank. For that plan, Christian’s hometown, Los Angeles, was not an option, but Heidi’s birthplace, Witter, Arkansas, was. (Heidi’s parents are originally from Detroit, but her mom now lives in Witter, where Heidi was born … in a tepee … in the snow, but that’s a whole ’nother story as they say.)
Shortly after the move, the custom wallpaper thing blew up in a big way, thanks in part to a major account with Tiffany’s. Shortly thereafter, the couple set up shop in the old seed mill. Today the business, which employs a staff of eight other local artists, is going through yet another growth spurt, Christian explains, as it becomes more internationally recognized. In fact, to date, the company’s wallpaper is featured in interiors in more than 20 countries around the world, including four of the 10 tallest buildings. Ironically, one market that hasn’t fully been cracked is right here in Arkansas.
Turns out that while folks around the globe love the Batteaus’ story of turning out bespoke wallpaper in rural America, some Arkansans are having a hard time dispensing with the “made in [insert giant metropolis here]” label. But they’re hoping this attitude will change and are thrilled to be working on their very first Arkansas-based project: a condo on Dickson Street in Fayetteville.
After my trip through the pattern collection, it’s time to “move the paper” onto the aforementioned drying rack. It’s a nail-biting task that I almost can’t stand to watch. After the tortoise-shell paper is safely on its shelf and I can draw a breath again, I ask Heidi and Christian to tell me what it is about what they do that gives them the most satisfaction—because it’s become quite obvious that these two are the antithesis of frustrated artists.
What they’ve found in this place is the best of both worlds: They now have a place for their garden and two kiddos, (a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old). They have a means of connecting with the world outside of Arkansas. And they’re making a mark on it all, one dab and swoosh at a time.