Walls of Fame

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 10 May 2010
For four decades Maya Romanoff has been leading interior fashion into realms both bizarre and beautiful

Brace yourselves: tie dye is back and it is trying to take your home by sneak assault.
Wall-ware 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 brings back the psychedelic patterns of its seventies debut, but contemporized and camouflaged with colours by New York-based designer Amy Lau.

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

And yet: “he was a certified hippy” acknowledges Joyce Romanoff, Maya’s wife and the company president, harking back to a time in the late sixties when, post-Woodstock, post- anthropology degree at the University of Berkley 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 said. “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 easily translate into business acumen. “He was what we call our renegade”, says Joyce fondly. She joined Romanoff in business in the late 80s 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 ‘okay, 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 seventies he moved to Japan for a few years to train with a paper maker 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’d found a beautiful piece of gift wrap at a Japanese craft fair and tracked down its source. Paper is an art, a civilizing tool in Japan and he got a real sense of texture and depth there,” she notes.

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 laughs. The company has maintained its links with Japan; even today the Romanoff’s Jewel collection – rayon and wood pulp crushed and stamped – is made there and then coloured in the US.

Romanoff’s zeal has led him into many an experiment 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 in the market. The result, their handmade ‘Beadazzled’ range, uses three different sizes of beads that ‘never’ come unstuck and it took multiple awards. The brand’s other successes with mother of pearl, various kinds of 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, LA and Miami with textiles of his designs, has developed interior installations and has created high profile mosaic murals for clients like Neiman Marcus; he made a series in black and white glass beads for its 100th anniversary a few years ago. 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 last ten years corporate America has started to want quality in its surroundings; they want their hospitals, hotels and hotels to be more convivial,” said Joyce. “That really works for us.  People no longer want a cookie cutter hotel, so 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 for Artisans. The series uses the bark of the small woody Lokta plant, which Nepalis have used for at least a thousand 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 like 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. Though about forty percent of the brand’s products are made outside of the States, many of them, as their figurehead prefers, are worked by hand and rather slowly. “We’re moving into natural wovens done on slow looms, which is very unusual,” says Joyce. “It means that we’re not limited by machines; we don’t have to make things in a certain width, don’t have to keep them running all night to make enough money.”

But that said, the brand has felt the pinch of the economic downturn, which has slowed profits and put a lot of the vendors it uses out of business. Its president is committed to presenting new series twice a year at the Hospitality Design expos in Las Vegas and Miami, and to holding up the creative level of the designs. 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 U.S as a way of combating copy cats.

However expanding overseas is also the Romanoff survival strategy. The luxe 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 eccentric 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 and keep them fashion forward. “It’s all about collaboration right now. I’m speaking to designers all over 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.