Designers make poetry on paper

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 13, 2012 - 11:37 AM

Homegrown wallpaper designers Jee Levin and Randall Buck enliven interiors with lyrical images of fluttering moths, flocks of blackbirds and cherry blossoms.

Nyx, which depicts the towering and forceful strength of a tree, is among Trove’s collection of large-scale wallpaper patterns.

Multimedia artists Jee Levin and Randall Buck got their big break while manning their booth at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York a few years ago. Their airy, motion-based patterns had caught the eye of designers from San Francisco's new W Hotel.

"They liked our aesthetic," said Levin, "and hired us to do custom elements in 300 guest rooms." The couple and their newly formed company, Trove, designed everything from wallpaper to fish silk-screened on the bottom of the glass sinks in the hotel bathrooms.

Since then, Trove's innovative, eco-friendly wallcoverings have been featured in Metropolis, Dwell, O at Home and many other shelter magazines. Last summer, Holly Hunt introduced Trove at its International Market Square showroom in Minneapolis. In May, Levin and Buck will come out with their sixth line, for a total of 25 original patterns.

We chatted with Levin about design inspiration, green wallpaper and birds flying upstairs.

Q You and Randall are graduates of the University of Minnesota and have fine-arts backgrounds. How did you become wallpaper designers?

A We had a clay studio together when we met and worked well together. Then we moved to New York and were wide open to any creative work. I'm a painter and worked in the photo industry, and my husband was studying time-based art using light, motion and photography. We wanted to do something that would combine our interests. We thought wallpaper would be fun and liked the idea of treating wallpaper as art and the wall as the canvas.

Q How do you create your designs?

A All of the designs are culled from our personal photographs, drawings and paintings. We spend a lot of time in the studio drawing and painting and in the summer going to gardens and taking pictures. In the beginning, the collections were nature-inspired. We live in the flower market in New York and were inspired by the flowers. Now we've broadened our scope. The Venetian Opera wallpaper is a historic photograph translated into a wallpaper pattern.

Q How's business?

A We launched our company in 2006 at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. So many people came up to us and said they've never seen wallpaper like this before. We started with six patterns and now have 25 in five colorways. We just moved to a larger space in Manhattan and we're working fast and furious to unveil our sixth collection in May.

Q Why does your wallpaper stand out in a crowded market?

A We like the idea of pushing the limits of scale and patterns. The butterfly pattern is a little chaotic, and we like that. They have organic imagery, visual chaos. People have a hard time identifying the repeats.

Q What are the most requested patterns?

A It changes all the time. A lot of our customers love the blackbirds [pattern] and hang it inside two-story stairwells so the birds are flocking upwards. The Auva pattern, an ink wash, is popular. The moths flitting around have an ethereal, soothing effect. Spas use it on ceilings.

Q My favorite is Io.

A That's actually our take on the cherry blossom, which was a pattern from the motion collection. It is a drawing, painting and photograph all layered together to create this sense of the cherry blossom being in bloom.

Q You grew up in Shoreview, and Randall in Minneapolis. How have your Minnesota roots shaped you?

A We are super proud of being from Minnesota. It's given us an incredibly strong work ethic. We work very hard, and you need to do that with a start-up company.

Q What are you working on?

A Randall is always pushing new materials and innovations to make the company as green as possible. We just launched StoneGround paper made of calcium carbonate and resin. It's our greenest material. Our first collections are on recyclable linen textured paper. It mimics canvas.

Q Can a DIY-er hang Trove wallpaper?

A It needs to be professionally hung. The paper is nice and thick, and an installer has to be super precise.

Q What are some high-profile places decorated with Trove?

A The W hotel in San Francisco has all different custom patterns in the rooms. It's also in the St. Regis Hotel in Aspen and a boutique hotel in Dubai.

Q You're living the dream of owning your own design house in the heart of Manhattan. Did you ever imagine this would happen?

A I can see Madison Square Garden from our office window. And the Empire State Building. When we moved to New York, we knew we wanted a creative life. We didn't have any clear idea of what that meant. We feel very fortunate that we've been successful. But who knows where we will be in a year or five years? Trove is its own entity and it has its own sort of motion like a river taking shape and flowing its own course. That's what makes it exciting and challenging.

Q Do you miss the Twin Cities?

A We've lived here [Manhattan] for 17 years. I miss the city lakes -- Calhoun and Harriet. It's so green there in the summer.

Q Do you and Randall have a family?

A Our 5-year-old son was born the same week we launched the company. We like to say we have two babies.

Trove wallpaper is available at the Holly Hunt showroom at International Market Square in Minneapolis (612-332-1900) and at www.troveline.com.

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619

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