Zuber Installed in Columbia, S.C.

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The room and the paper presented significant challenges. First, the scenic itself (retail cost: $30,000): it was printed by hand with 742 woodblocks carved in 1843, and 85 hand-mixed distemper inks. Zuber uses a thick wood pulp paper, and it comes untrimmed. The inks are extremely sensitive, as any moisture or paste will mar the face (one trick is to not think about how much it costs, because sweaty fingers or palms will leave indelible marks). The old woodblocks never did match exactly, and after 160 years of use, the registration of the print varies. The top consists of a fade (degrade¢) in bands of colors, like a sunset, to a signature Zuber blue ‘sky’ ground. The design itself is just over six-foot high and has thick, overlaid layers of inks from the printing process. The printed area does not expand as much when pasted as the sky, presenting trimming problems.

The room itself was shaped like a teacup on its side: the center was flat for a few feet, and then both sides flared out in radius (curved) corners to a flat back wall (no paper there). Maybe an old-time plasterer could get smooth curves in a room of this shape, but not with the 4’X8’ panels of sheetrock that were used on this project. Hung horizontally on that 12’ high wall, there were three tiers of sheetrock kerfed (sliced vertically) on the backside so that they could conform to the rounded shape. The sheetrockers and finishers did their best, but every joint of the panels threw it out of round. I figured on this going in, so I was very appreciative that K.L. Conner, a Guild member from Bogart, Ga., agreed to assist me.
One thing I couldn’t convince the clients to do was to hang muslin under the scenic, so that it would be removeable. A time constraint on the project was that the clients wanted to move in two days after Christmas, and the 16th of December was the earliest we could start. I figured it would take up to five days to complete, which would leave us time for our own holiday.

Having left instructions that the room should be finished and clear, we arrived to find that the painter had put the matching wall paint where the scenic was going, and the rest of the walls were not finished. I advised him that whatever theory was behind his reasoning, he had better hurry up and paint up to the scenic area, as it would be chancey after it was hung. That set in motion, K.L. and I sanded the walls and cleaned up. Then in turn we applied a coat of Zinsser’s Gardz, and then their Bulls Eye 1-2-3; each coat was helped to dry by three fans. The Gardz ensures a sealed surface and a tight bond over what ever the painter used. The 1-2-3 produces a great surface for the paper (I call this combination my “$40 insurance.”).

The next day we lined the walls with the blankstock. This absorbent material soaks up extra paste, and sets the finished paper quickly so there are no split seams. However, due to the inconsistent shape of the walls, we often had to double-cut the seams. These seams were engineered so that they wouldn’t fall under the seams of the finish paper. I used a mix of well-rounded wheat paste with 25% clay added; the same mix (but not the same batch) was used on the scenic also. The blankstock was sized with that mix diluted by 50% water. Fans again hastened the drying process.

I had come up with a strategy to deal with the uneven expansion of the 12’ sheets, and the shape of the walls, and I was very anxious to see if we could pull it off. We started with the center panel, so we could work both directions after and keep ‘fresh’ seams. The sheet was carefully pasted and left open for 2-3 minutes on the two adjoining six-foot tables. Then the paper was ‘dry rolled,’ that is, no paste was added. The sheet was folded so that the crease was above the design, as the thick inks will crack and flake off. The narrower printed end would not have its edge overlaid evenly on the wider sky, but set in the middle. The straight edge would be lined up on the innermost part of the design, and the selvedge cut off. The other edge would be trimmed on the wall, a risky procedure, but necessary on those walls. A three-inch wide pasted piece of blankstock was put on the wall where the untrimmed edge would fall. This ‘cushion’ would help keep us from scoring the liner when we cut that selvedge. I would let the panel unfold from my position on the six-foot scaffold; K.L. would set the bottom, placing the trimmed edge on a plumb line. After quickly sweeping out the sheet, we’d trim at base and ceiling. Next , we’d put the straight edge on the innermost part of the design on the ‘raw’ edge, and adjust it for plumb with a level. After the bottom portion was cut, we’d repeat this at the top six feet. The proof of how necessary this procedure was, was shown by the curvy, uneven selvedge that was cut off. Repeating this for each sheet, the result was plumb, straight, and parallel butt seams.
We quickly got into a rhythm, and the bellies and humps of the wall were overcome by our trimming method. A first for me, we did not need to touch up any of the surface, no runs, no drips, no errors. Things went well enough that we finished a day early. I can’t thank K.L. enough for his assistance, as he is a pleasure to work with and a great craftsman. Twelve feet of a Zuber panel is not something that most hangers would ever be asked, or want to, handle. And a curved wall is problematic with ‘normal’ papers. But with K.L.’s help we completed the job that I’m most proud of in my career.

This document is a response to concerns voiced by Chris Rose, AIA, ASID, and his clients, the Alessandrinis. I hope to educate all concerned and allay any complaints so that the Zuber mural can be appreciated for what it is: a hand-made work of art.

Zuber starts the process by hand-painting the background in a series of horizontal bands in distemper inks (i.e., water colors). Left alone, this looks like the colors of a sunrise/sunset, known as degrade`. The colors are all mixed by hand from ground pigments, and may vary if all are not made from the same batch, original recipes notwithstanding.

The scenes themselves are printed using the ancient process of wood-blocking, An artists drawing is broken up into vertical panels, and then each panel’s elements are separated by color. A laminated wood plank is then carved to replicate a part of the drawing, usually not more than one to two vertical feet; a separate block is needed for each color. For “Isola Bella,” they use the original 742 wood blocks carved in 1842, and mix 85 different colors. This laborious process takes about twelve weeks, as each block must dry before the next is applied. Registration of the print is maintained by pin holes on the selvedge. However, there is never a perfect match as the blocks were hand-cut and the y also move slightly as they are pressed onto the paper. In addition, the paper expands upon contact with the inks.

The installation of these papers requires an experienced professional paperhanger. The inks allow no contact with moisture as they will darken and permanently discolor. The paper is made of thick pulp, so it needs adequate moisture in the paste, but too much will ‘bleed’ through and mar the colors. The seams must be hand-trimmed prior to hanging: the existing selvedge must be cut straight to allow for a consistent seam. Proper technique is called for as the scene expands less than the ‘sky’ when pasted. The inks extend at an uneven width over the selvedge; a paperhanger must find the innermost part of the design and cut parallel edges for the best possible match. Since an exact match is not possible, the main design elements and the horizon take precedence in matching.

The assigned space at the clients’ added other challenges. The wall was over eleven feet tall, and it was curved. The height meant that a rapidly deteriorating wet paper had to be put into position quickly and deftly. The curved walls were uneven: made of wallboard panels, they didn’t curve in a perfect radius, and the plastered joints brought it further out of round (this is not abnormal for this type of wall). To compensate for the paper shifting as it conformed to the uneven surface, we trimmed the open edge on the wall; this ensured the next piece would line up straight, with no gaps or overlaps. On the underlying liner paper, which was manufactured with true pre-trimmed edges, we had to double-cut (edges overlapped and cut through, excess removed) each sheet to seam them. This would be impossible to do on the mural because of the delicate nature of the inks. The wall’s shape thus increased the mismatches.

Given all these circumstances, the job turned out beautifully. When viewed from an appropriate distance, three to five feet, it is not the mismatches that catch the eye. Rather, the painstakingly made and applied tropical scene excites the eye with other details. I have hung wallpaper since being trained at the accredited US School of Professional Paperhanging in 1979. As a member of the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers I have kept up with all the elements of my craft. I have successfully hung papers, and notably Zubers, for the clients of Travis & Associates since 1991. If I thought that the scenic or the walls were substandard, I would not have hung it. Any flaws found were common as to type, and we did the very best we could with the materials and conditions as we found them.

I was, and am, proud of the job.

Chris Murphy
(404) 622-2258
1152 Delaware Ave.
Atlanta, Ga. 30316