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  • Trish Kennedy-Howe

How I Became a Wallcovering Designer

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

When I tell people I design wallpaper and fabrics, they always comment that they never realize someone actually creates those designs, and they ask me how I happened to pursue that career. So, I thought I would explain how it all came about.

At seventeen, I had no idea what to do with my life. I started out as an art major in college, against my parents' wishes. They didn't want me to become "a starving artist selling paintings on the sidewalk." Eventually they convinced me to switch my major to journalism, in their minds, a more solid, potentially lucrative area of study. Upon graduation I quickly discovered that I was in immediate danger of becoming a starving journalist selling

paintings on the sidewalk. At that point in time, the job market was very weak and there were just no jobs to be had out there, in journalism or any other field.

I searched the wanted ads in the local newspaper (because that's how you found a job back then) and I found a small, printed ad for a "Girl Friday in a design studio." Again, Girl Friday was actually a job back then. It meant that you were a "go-fer" basically, a jill of all trades, a servant for the established employees. Girl Friday didn't excite me too much, but a Girl Friday in a design studio sounded like more fun than being a Girl Friday in a ball bearing plant. So, I applied for the position, and was interviewed and was hired on the spot. (I was told later that it was the last day before their current Girl Friday was leaving and they? were desperate.)

Fate had ostensibly directed me to my new job, which I found very pleasant and very interesting. Whenever my (very few) Girl Friday duties were finished, I would look at what the designers were doing, and started to be very intrigued. The company was WallTex wallcoverings, a subsidiary of the Borden Company, and at that time, a very prominent leader in the world of wallcoverings. (They called it wallcovering instead of wallpaper because it consisted of a washable surface with fabric backing, much sturdier than regular old wallpaper.)

I remember being fascinated with wallpaper as a child, always trying to find the repeating places in the pattern. It never entered my mind to be a person who actually created artwork that was turned into wallpaper. But here I was. Destiny had led me to this wallcovering studio, and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I started creating designs and putting them into the artwork Drawers. At design meetings for upcoming collections, the design directors would open the Drawers and select the designs to be included. My designs started going into the collections to be printed and sold in stores. It was exciting.

ed. My designs started going into the collections to be printed and sold in stores. It was exciting.

This went on for a few years. At one point, the company had to lay off a certain amount of people. There were two designers who actually slept a lot at work, with their heads buried on their drawing boards and they liked to take really long lunch hours. Or sometimes not show up at all. They were laid off, and for a while, I was the only designer in the studio. My boss started to give me more responsibilities, such as putting together collections, visiting distributors, giving speeches at sales meetings, and eventually I was sent to New York to create a wallcovering collection with fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.

(More about that later.)

I think a lot of people sort of just fall into their careers, as I did. I loved my job and was very happy that I had accidentally become a wallcovering designer. But . . . the Borden Company had strict rules. If you were hired at a certain pay range (Girl Friday pay was rock bottom), you could only creep up to a higher salary by tiny percentages every year. When new designers were hired, their salaries were much higher than mine, something I deeply resented. The company knew I was locked into living in Columbus, Ohio, and there were no other wallcovering companies in town. I was married by then and had a baby and my husband worked for a family firm in Columbus. So, Borden could really call the shots. They owned me.

So eventually I had to make a decision. I resigned my job after almost ten years with the company. I rented a small office in a quaint renovated vintage building and began making phone calls. I soon found freelance design work with a few different wallcovering companies, and I was on my way. My freelance work eventually went international when I began working for a company that had factories in France, Germany, and Italy. They hired me to Americanize their wallcovering designs, and to supervise the wallcovering ink colors as they were being printed in their factories.

It's been a continually interesting career. I didn't have to sell paintings on the sidewalk after all, although I am selling them online now. Residential wallcovering has fallen out of favor in the past few years, so I have migrated over to fabric design. My two sisters each have a room in their homes dedicated to quilt making, with closets bulging with fabrics, and to me that looks like fabrics and the need for their designs will be around for a while.

If there is any lesson here, it's the idea that one should be adaptable, flexible and open to the possibilities. You might have one career in mind, but you may be led in another direction, a better direction. My advice is to find the thing

that is most suited to what you really like to do and pursue it with passion.

books containing wallpaper patterns

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