Who do people in-the-know call to hang their wallpaper?
Say you want to freshen up your home or office, maybe this time with wallpaper. You look online and then, wanting to get up close and tactile, drop into a design store to burrow into big, fat wallpaper books, sliding your fingers across the pages, feeling those blends of fabric, linen and grass. Finally, faint from lack of food and water, you make a choice. Then comes the next challenge: Who hangs wallpaper?
Someone recommends Bob Kelly in Lee—lots of experience, a love of design and detail work, you’re told. Forget the self-adhesive stuff. He uses what has worked since the 1650s: a secret mix that includes wheat paste. Unless you check his website, or run into Hillary Clinton, you might never know who you just hired. At the White House, Kelly installed wallpaper in the Blue Room in 1995—an oval room, no corners, no mistakes allowed, and Clinton loved the final result. During the George W. Bush years, Kelly was summoned to install new wallpaper in the Lincoln Bedroom and an adjacent sitting room. Earlier, at historic Lindenwald in Kinderhook, New York, Kelly installed reproductions of historic wallpaper dating back to the 1840s and 1850s. (Martin Van Buren retired there after losing his 1840 presidential re-election bid.)
Other sites he has worked at include Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee; the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, New York; Naumkeag in Stockbridge; and the William Cullen Bryant House in Cummington. He traveled to the Virgin Islands and hung wallpaper at the Governor’s Mansion in St. Thomas. And he wallpapered Edith Wharton’s bedroom at the Mount.
“Bob is definitely in the forefront of period wallpapers; he’s the go-to guy,” says Bill Flynt, architectural conservator of the nonprofit Historic Deerfield.
Flynt needed an expert to write an article about a French scenic wallpaper installation that was removed from the walls of a home in Maine in the late-1950s and reinstalled in a Historic Deerfield property. He turned to Kelly, who penned “The Voyage of Captain Cook,” about the elaborate, non-repeating panels originally installed in the Maine house in the mid-1800s. Scenic, storytelling wallpaper décor was evidence of a homeowner’s worldliness back in the day; Historic New England, a preservation organization, has memorialized these and other styles by creating an online wallpaper library.
Kelly is from one of those big, hard-working Irish families that helped to comprise Lee: His dad was a butcher, and his mom raised ten children. Kelly came to wallpaper through some left turns: He attended seminary school but opted to take a youthful trip to Germany to paint houses and earn a leaving, later returning home to the Berkshires to do the same. When customers started asking if he could also hang wallpaper, he spent 11 weeks at a Vermont trade school learning the craft.
He fell by geographical happenstance into the world of complex historic wallpaper projects, where flat walls with tidy, 90-degree angles are hardly the norm. In the early 1990s, the National Park Service cast a 50-mile-wide net for bids for the Lindenwald project, and Kelly got the job. He was told he submitted the only bid with a decent written description of his plan.
When the National Park Service sought bids for the Blue Room at the White House, Kelly’s name was known. Then the Trustees of Reservations, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and others discovered him. Still, straightforward residential or commercial jobs around the Berkshire region have been his bread and butter. Kelly installed the wallpaper on the ceiling of the Canyon Ranch Lenox dining room and recently finished a job at a Greek Revival home in Connecticut.
“They are trying to be sensitive to the 1850s Greek revival style,” Kelly says of his Connecticut clients. “They wanted the paper to look like it belongs there, very traditional. That’s the kind of job I like.”
Kelly has written dozens of articles for wallpaper journals and has authored The Backstory of Wallpaper Paper-Hangings: 1650-1750. His wallpaperscholar.com is a treasure-trove for his fellow craftspeople: “Toward a History of Canadian Wallpaper Use: Mechanization 1860-1935” and “Historic Paperhanging Techniques: A Bibliographic Essay” are among his bylined pieces. He reviews writings by others as well.
“These fibers tell a story.”
He’s now writing a book on the history of American wallpaper from 1800 to 1875, after it overtook imported papers from Europe. “It hasn’t been appreciated like it should be,” he says. Bob will see to that.