Walls of fame

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 April, 2010, 12:00am

Wallware emperor Maya Romanoff may be best known for surfaces swathed in Swarovski crystals and tortoiseshell, but he has marked his brand's new milestone with a nod to simpler times, when he was largely known as the man who could tie-dye a wall.

Celebrating four decades, the brand's Anniversary Collection, available at Altfield Interiors in Hong Kong, brings back the psychedelic patterns of its 1970s debut, but camouflaged and made contemporary with colours by New York-based designer Amy Lau.

It is a nostalgia being indulged. New York's Museum of Arts and Design previewed the collection in early March with a retrospective of Romanoff and his work, while high-fashion yardstick Bergdorf Goodman has just rolled out the Anniversary series - the brand's first-ever retail collection - with fanfare in its Manhattan store. Their tributes are to a designer and artist who has expanded the toolbox of the high-end designer significantly.

And yet, says Joyce Romanoff, Maya's wife and the company president, 'He was a certified hippy.' In the late-60s, post-Woodstock, post-anthropology degree at the University of California-Berkeley and fresh from four years of world travel (in which he was dubbed 'Maya' by a guru in India), Romanoff and his first wife started to create tie-dyed couture.

'He learned to be a master dyer because he felt that textiles have a life force and he wanted to make things more beautiful,' she says. 'But he got tired of fashion - he's a slow worker and it turns on a dime - so he started moving in a different direction, to interiors.'

But the artistic temperament didn't translate easily into business acumen. 'He was what we call our renegade,' says Joyce.

She joined Romanoff in business in the late 1980s and has been coined 'midwife' to his vision. 'He had very strong feelings about what was wrong or right and, as an artist, nothing was ever perfect; he was always trying to refine. I'm the one who can say, 'Time to let go and move on.''

And with Romanoff now struggling with the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease, he now also depends on what Joyce calls her 'Duracell' levels of energy.

But perhaps it was also these qualities to Romanoff - resiliently stubborn, unapologetically slow - that gave body to his design ambitions. After his success with tie-dye in the 1970s he moved to Japan to train with a papermaker while running his eight-person business remotely. He was one of the first Americans to be let into a Japanese paper factory, says his wife. 'He found a beautiful piece of gift wrap at a Japanese craft fair and tracked down its source. Paper is an art, a civilising tool in Japan and he got a real sense of texture and depth there,' she says.

The young Japanese generation wasn't interested in his work then - they thought it too old fashioned. But in the West his experience helped the company compete as wall fashions shifted from bold prints to understated backdrops, and to paint. Romanoff designs developed a warm depth and a subtle reflective quality. And not too long ago the Japanese came back. 'The young ones love it now because it's historical,' Joyce says with a laugh.

Romanoff's zeal has led him into many experiments with glue. In 2003 he embarked on a mission with a US laboratory after a designer lamented the lack of high-end glass-beaded wall coverings on the market. The result, their handmade award-winning Beadazzled range, uses three sizes of beads that 'never' come unstuck. The brand's other successes with mother of pearl, bark and even gold leaf have relied on similar adventures into adhesive alchemy.

The brand has also thrived on Romanoff's readiness to blend art, design and marketing. He has draped the outsides of buildings in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Miami with textiles of his designs, developed interior installations and created high profile mosaic murals for clients such as Nieman Marcus.

Indeed, half of the brand's designs may go into homes, but its remaining business is in hotels, restaurants, stores and corporate buildings, thanks largely to the modern notion of branding.

'In the past 10 years corporate America has started to want quality in its surroundings; they want their hospitals, hotels and hotels to be more convivial,' says Joyce. 'People no longer want a cookie-cutter hotel; they're always looking for something to fit into their fantasy.'

In response to market demands - and Romanoff's anthropology interests - the firm sources material from across the world. One recent design range, Meditations, had senior staff travel to the Solukumbu region of Nepal to work with Sherpa craftsmen and women through a non-profit organisation called Aid to Artisans. The series uses the bark of the small woody Lokta plant, which Nepalis have used for at least 1,000 years to make paper for Buddhist mantras. Joyce's photos make up the catalogue: of wet paper pulp drying on grassy hillsides and local artisans wielding chopsticks as they create the honeycombed pattern of a design called Ohm.

The group has maintained a fittingly environmental approach across the years. It has experimented with sustainable materials such as grass cloth or hemp, and reports that it uses water-based dyes, adhesives and finishes. The only odour you will find in their factories, Joyce insists, is lunch. Although about 40 per cent of the brand's products are made outside the US, many are worked by hand.

'We're moving into natural wovens done on slow looms, which is unusual,' says Joyce. 'It means we're not limited by machines.'

That said, the brand has felt the pinch of the economic downturn, which has slowed profits and put many vendors it uses out of business. The greatest challenge, she says, has been resisting the urge to outsource more and maintaining the current level of artisanship and control. Even work done in other countries is sometimes completed in the US as a way of combating copycats.

However, expanding overseas is also the Romanoff survival strategy. The allure of its products gave it an easy route into Asia and the Middle East, and the brand hopes to work on these regions while America picks itself up. It had already started to use design partnerships to stay ahead of trends - rolling out a series with architect David Rockwell for example - and Joyce, who takes on most of the international travel, is keen for those relationships to take them through the tight times.

'It's all about collaboration right now. I'm speaking to designers all over the world and asking them, 'What's lacking? What turns you on? How do you use our products?''

So, is it tie-dye this season, block printed batik the next? You tell them.

Cover all the bases

Altfield Interiors: 1/F, 9 Queen's Road, Central, tel: 2524 4867.

Kinsan Collection: 59 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2526 2309.

Goodrich Global: 2/F, De Fenwick, 8 Fenwick Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2136 0577.

Tat Ming Wallpaper: 16/F, Kwan Chart Tower, 6 Tonnochy Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2910 2268.

New Waly: 12/F, East Town Building, 41 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 3112 6262.