- Associated Press - Monday, February 6, 2017

WITTER, Ark. (AP) - In a converted seed mill off of Arkansas 23 in the Ozarks, Heidi and Christian Batteau are at work hand-making luxury wallpaper and shipping it around the world to the likes of Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, the Koch Brothers and Chanel.

In 2011, the couple left successful careers in textile design and sculpture in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Heidi’s native Witter to pursue their dream of living off of their farm and developing a unique way to make custom wallpaper.

Their work, which can cost anywhere from $60 to $400 a yard, now hangs on the walls of homes, hotels, offices and stores across five continents, including in four of the world’s top 10 tallest buildings. And their company, Assemblage Art & Craft Manufacturing, shows no signs of slowing down, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2l2ehuS ) reported.

After Chanel asked whether it was possible to replicate a piece of fabric in wallpaper form in 2004, Christian Batteau, 42, set to work trying to find a way to do it. The Los Angeles-native studied sculpture and spent time working for contemporary artist Jeff Koons but said he has been working with plaster and painting “to support my sculpture hobby” since age 17.

Most handmade wallpaper is applied directly to the wall, which requires paying expensive crews for weeks to install on-site. With that process it is also impossible to produce the kinds of designs like the Batteaus now make, because gravity causes them to drip.

He tweaked paint formulas and experimented with different kinds of paper until he found the perfect formula that would be able to handle heavy products like layers of marble dust plaster, precious metals, beeswax and lacquer and not crack when rolled up for transport.

They eventually ended up with the perfect recipe that has allowed the Batteaus’ business to take off on a global scale. Unlike traditional bespoke — or made-to-order - wallpaper, their product can be shipped anywhere and takes just a day to put up.

Their adopted home in Arkansas has made the business and their current lives possible, they said. “We could not be doing this in New York,” said Heidi Batteau, 35.

“It’s a competitive industry, and we would have to charge more to pay our artists a livable wage. If somebody is coming to work for us on contract, it’s got to be worth it for them to be flexible with the production schedule. In New York we were paying people $20-$25 an hour. The profit margin was low, and you can’t even live well on that wage in the city.”

They have had two children since they moved, something they say they couldn’t find a way to do in New York, given the costs and space constraints.

Batteau grew up in Witter, an unincorporated community in Madison County. Her mother, Betty Blackwood, still owns and operates a hand-crafted textile company, Dogwood Designs, in Witter.

“I knew there was a large craft movement here. There are a lot of people here supporting themselves by making things,” Batteau said. “You see that and think, OK, we can do this. We can go out there and make a living.”

“Although,” she qualified, “it was a lot scarier once we actually got here.”

While their best year so far has yielded $850,000 in revenue, it took time to see numbers like that.

“Brand equity is way harder to generate than I realized,” Christian Batteau said. “When you have a new brand, big architecture firms are reticent to place purchases from you, because they’re trying to see whether you survive.”

“We had to wait that out. It took two years. And in the meantime, we were doing anything to make a living,” he said. “I was chopping wood on the side to pay the people working for us.”

“You constantly wonder, should we just say it’s done and go back?” Heidi Batteau recalled. “But you’ve got to try and keep your positive attitude.”

As to why he stuck it out, Christian Batteau said, “I believed in the dream. It sounds ridiculous. But I believed in being able to have our sustainable life, grow our own food, hire people for a livable wage and make beautiful work.”

Recently, with help from international sales representation, the Batteaus’ business has expanded beyond exclusively custom orders to existing designs people order specifically. “It has made the business steadier,” Heidi Batteau said.

Another component of their customer service is “value engineering,” Christian Batteau said. “By removing some of the more expensive layers like marble dust plaster, someone like Banana Republic can afford to buy a design, instead of just a Chanel,” he said.

“We are an art studio,” Heidi Batteau said. “We’ll do anything. If someone comes to us and says, ‘Can you do it?’ We will do it.”

Their flexibility and willingness to customize has proved one of their strongest selling points. They have taken things like fabrics, tortoiseshell and leathers and interpreted them into complex wallpaper design, and they have taken complicated and expensive designs down a notch for smaller budgets.

“They’re so approachable even though they’re producing this really beautiful, luxurious art,” said Nancy Winston, general manager for the Texas showrooms of Holly Hunt, a company that designs and manufactures home furnishings and also represents Assemblage.

“They’ve done installations for the likes of Louis Vuitton, but you can create your own little jewel in your powder room or bathroom. For example, they use a lot of precious metals, but there are alternatives if budgets don’t allow for that.”

“Assemblage is one of my favorites to work with because they are so hands-on and passionate,” she said. “It makes it fun. You can feel how committed and detail-oriented they are, and you just know it’s going to work for a client. Mistakes don’t happen, because they are so detail-oriented.”

There are almost no other businesses around the world producing work like the Batteaus. Most wallpaper is printed nowadays. Christian Batteau said that even when he tried to outsource orders when it was particularly busy, he could not find a competitor willing to do the same work at the same price.

“It’s a lost craft,” he said.

The more the Batteaus are doing this, the more orders they have received — more than 400 as of now. These early weeks of 2017 were supposed to be quiet for them, but they suddenly have five rush orders on their hands.

“It’s finally started to really take off in the last six to eight months,” Heidi Batteau said.

They’ve had to hire artists from around the area to help, but they have long-term dreams to bring on even more. They are interested in someday exploring furniture and lighting design and expanding their production studio into a co-working space for other craftsmen.

In the meantime, they continue to run their global company from Arkansas 23, but they hope to increase engagement with architects and interior designers closer to home.

“We interact with the world constantly. This morning I was interacting with Chanel in France,” Heidi Batteau said.

However, she said, “I would love to be able to have more local support and work.”

“I think people don’t know that we’re here,” Christian Batteau said. “We really are engaged globally, but the local thing is a piece of the puzzle we’ve just been starting to cultivate.”


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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