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Wouter Dolk is not offended when people refer to his work as wallpaper. The 43-year-old Dutch artist's paintings are, in fact, far more remarkable than that; he creates one-of-a-kind installations for some of the most important rooms in the world, using a labor-intensive technique that hasn't been in vogue since the 18th century. "I guess I should call them egg tempera paintings on paper made for walls," says Dolk, who is based in Cologne, Germany, "but that's long-winded and sounds pretentious." Dolk is neither of those things—even though his process has more in common with fine art than with decorating: the paintings, mostly fantastical floral motifs done on paper and then backed with fabric and mounted on a frame, take months to complete and run upwards of $600 a square foot (not including installation). Still, you won't see them in any art galleries; Dolk says "empty white walls" are not his thing. "I do rooms as personalized containers of artworks and objects. It's not important that my walls be the center of attention."
Nonetheless, commissions have begun piling up from those who want to put Dolk's wall art in the spotlight. He is making installations for companies such as Volkswagen, for collectors looking to create special environments, and, of course, for residential architects and designers. Parisian decorator Alberto Pinto commissioned Dolk to do a client's bedroom in New York. Jacques Garcia hired him for the penthouse of the Hotel Victor, in Miami. Dolk's latest paintings will grace a dining room in Cologne, a lakeside mansion in Geneva, and an ultramodern apartment in Hong Kong. In his spare moments, usually late at night, Dolk also dabbles in smaller-scale projects: He's designed ceramic tiles for the Italian firm Gabbianelli and porcelain tableware for Bernardaud. Lately he has been sketching some youthful, colorful porcelain ideas for the rigorously traditional Royal Copenhagen. "I can say no more—many of my clients demand absolute discretion, and I respect that."
Dolk looks a bit like Van Gogh might have if he'd kept his beard trimmed. He studied painting and fabric design at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, where he was born, then in 1983 left for Rome to attend the Accademia di Belle Arti (which he didn't care for). Three years later he settled in Cologne and started experimenting with ways to combine his interests in painting, fabric, and wallpaper ("I always wanted to paint on paper, not canvas," he says). It took Dolk 11 years to land a commission for his first "wallpaper paintings." In the meantime he held a number of odd jobs, including a stint with Pierre Frey designing fabrics and a gig in New York creating typography for the cult favorite—and now defunct—interiors magazine Nest. In 2000 Dolk returned to Cologne and got his first big painting commission, for a sprawling mansion in the suburbs of the city. "I haven't really had a day off since," he says.
Dolk works in the outskirts of Cologne, in a converted printing plant filled with much that you would expect in a traditional painter's studio—easel, pigments, splatter, blobs—plus machinery and equipment more suited to industry: high-tech spray guns, industrial plastic sheeting, huge stainless-steel tables, and less familiar apparatuses from the textile and art-restoration trades. His paintings of giant blossoms and winding vines often have a surreal quality; they also require an astonishing amount of skill to create. At one end of his workshop are the panels for the Lake Geneva mansion. They feature 11-and-a-half-foot-tall russet ferns with copper-leaf highlights, made to look as if they're unfurling across the house's grand salons. "The copper leaf will pick up the light of the sconces," he remarks. For the Hong Kong apartment he has painted a series of giant mauve irises in iridescent Art Nouveau style that rise floor to ceiling at the other end of the studio. In the music room of the suburban Cologne villa he shows me his big-break commission: dozens of variegated tulips, each at least four feet high, emerging from a dappled green background. The installation is so seamless and the texture so perfect that the panels at first resemble sheets of industrially produced wallpaper. It is a devilish inversion of trompe l'oeil, a method Dolk cites as a major inspiration. "I intentionally mimic mechanical processes and materials," he explains, "and then I have fun with them by adding imperfections—a nibbled leaf, something mismatched, a jagged line."
Seventeenth-century painting is only one of Dolk's influences; he's spent a lifetime gazing at the work of the masters. At age ten he visited the Popes' Palace in Avignon, France. He was stunned. "Everything fit together," he recalls, "the paintings, paneling, ceiling. I could have looked at them forever." What impressed him most, he remembers, was the way the frescoes and murals were the stars of the show. "They were walls, yes, but everything—the furniture, the choir stalls—seemed to be designed to fit within them." Dolk spent the next decades studying the Dutch old masters, particularly Van Eyck, and the Italian Mannerists (Giulio Romano's frescoes at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy, were a revelation). He also learned the technique of egg tempera painting, which goes back to ancient Egypt. He studied the history of painted and woven wallcoverings all the way to the Middle Ages. When Dolk started working on his own, he realized just how dissatisfied he was with contemporary methods of making paintings on paper. So, he says, "I started putting together everything I had learned both in and out of school." But not until Dolk met the person he calls his spiritual master did his current technique start to mature. Diek Zweegman, a textile designer, taught him to work with color. After that, Dolk says, "I was finally able to piece together all the things I had absorbed while growing up. Even as a child I knew I wanted to be an artist."
Dolk takes me to see an installation he has completed in the banquet hall of Schloss Benrath, a pink-hued 1770s château on leafy grounds along the Rhine River near Düsseldorf. Four years ago regional authorities converted part of the house into the Museum for European Garden Art and asked him to do the walls. The Rococo architecture, sinuous ironwork, and orderly flower gardens led Dolk to the idea of replicating 18th-century chinoiserie, the silk fabrics often used to decorate châteaux. With his architect brother David, Dolk built a scale model of the hall, then made sketches. "I often start that way," he says. "Color comes later."
Once the initial sketches are approved, Dolk explains, he projects them onto heavy acid-free sheets of paper about four feet wide. He redraws the outlines with charcoal, next brushing on coat after coat of translucent gesso and tempera. Some of his compositions require up to 30 layers of gesso and pigment ("It's a little like watercolor," he tells me. "You can't make a mistake"). Then each coat must dry for three days. It is hard to imagine many painters—let alone their patrons—willing to wait several months for wallcoverings (the Schloss Benrath job took him seven), but Dolk insists that the layers are what give his pieces their extraordinary depth. "There is no other way to achieve the nuances of line and color I want," he says. "Painting is only the tip of the iceberg."
For the château project, Dolk wanted the stylized plant tendrils in his composition to stand out like bas-reliefs. To achieve this he created a background of gesso and blue-gray pigment, using sponges to simulate water stains. As a result, the curlicued tendrils and the menagerie of figures in charcoal look almost three-dimensional. There are monkeys, masked songbirds, butterflies, rabbits, seashells, fish bones, bears holding penguins, boars atop birds reading books. "I was thinking of Hieronymus Bosch," Dolk says with a laugh. "A few of the vignettes are quite naughty!" He points to a monkey holding a magazine and hiding an erection with a towel on his lap.
After completing the painting on each sheet of paper, Dolk and his team mount each one onto a textile backing, using a process he learned from a group of painting restorers. First he sprays a coat of glue on the back of the paper and lets it dry. Then he slides each sheet faceup onto a length of nonflammable polyester cloth stretched out on an industrial-size steel table. Over and around the paper and cloth goes heavy-duty plastic wrap, while heating elements in the table remelt the dried glue. At the same time a vacuum pump under the table evenly sucks down both the paper and plastic wrap, bonding paper to cloth.
And that's just the first challenge. "Next we have to mount the paintings on pine frames and make them fit the room," he notes, adding that the installation itself sometimes turns out to be the hardest job of all. "No matter how carefully you measure a wall and build the frames, there is always something unexpected, especially in old buildings, where nothing is really straight." Dolk sighs. "I guess you could say it's a Herculean task. But then think of those Mannerist frescoes. They took a lot of hard work. But weren't they worth the effort?"
Wouter Dolk's wall panels start at around $1,800 per square meter (just over ten square feet), plus installation costs. Studio Wouter Dolk, 45 Bonner Wall, Cologne; 49-221/317-490.
A Sampling of Wall-art Wonders
The London-based firm De Gournay specializes in 18th- and 19th-century chinoiserie and neoclassical French designs. The Papiers Peints Panoramiques are particularly remarkable. These are made of block-printed sheets with panoramic landscapes and historical and mythical scenes meant to re-create the spectacle in a wraparound fashion. Some designs are more than 200 years old. Prices vary widely. $ By appointment only. At 143 W. 29th St., New York; 212-564-9750; www.degournay.com.
Last year Tim Butcher, the former creative director of De Gournay, partnered up with artists David Jones and Lizzie Deshayes to start Fromental, a line of custom-colored and -size wallpapers, including 18th-century-style silk chinoiserie and a dozen striking abstract designs on either paper or silk. An embroidered silk panel about a yard wide and six feet long costs $300 to $500. $ At 1 Elgin Mansions, Elgin Ave., London; 44-207/286-0106; www.fromental.co.uk.
Founded by Chris Isles and Edward Rollins, Pintura Studio uses hand-cut stencils to transfer designs—ranging from Venetian latticework to faux limestone and terra-cotta friezes— onto walls, floors, ceilings, wallpaper, and fabric. Floor and wall decorations start at $35 per square foot; custom hand-stenciled, hand-glazed wallpapers start at $500 per yard. Bespoke designs are additional. At 207 E. 4th St., New York; 212-995-8655; www.pinturastudio.com.
British artist Hugo Dalton graduated from Goldsmiths College in London only four years ago but has already drawn on the walls of the Saatchi, Conrad, and Forsyth houses. Working mostly with black paint and a single brush, Dalton creates quirky line drawings of things like cherry trees with blossoms painted in silver or gold and a surreal giant fern reaching through a window. His drawings start at around $1,700 per wall. 144-797/643-2526; www.hugodalton.com.
DAVID DOWNIE PUBLISHED PARIS, PARIS: JOURNEY INTO THE CITY OF LIGHT IN 2005.