On September 20th, the League will host the 2014 Beaux Arts Ball at Weylin B. Seymour’s, an event venue next to the Williamsburg Bridge that was the former headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. As part of an ongoing feature in anticipation of the event and in celebration of its theme of Craft, we spoke to Stephen Bauer of Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers on the design and production of wallpaper and his extensive knowledge of architect/designer P.B. Wight. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
I’m the owner and Art Director for Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers in California. We’re a 35-year-old company and started as a silkscreen hand printer of wallpapers for the Victorian restoration market. I started with B&B back in 1982 when I was 19 years old as an apprentice pattern designer. I’ve always been in some way associated with the company. My wife and I bought the company from the founder, Bruce Bradbury, in 2005. I still do much of the pattern design work, which includes some reproduction work as well as new work based on old period styles.
We came to the Williamsburgh Savings Bank project through a recommendation from a wallpaper colleague, Burt Kallander. I spoke with Federico Rozo, the graphic designer on the project who was my contact during the project. He mentioned that the architect P.B. Wight had been involved with the design of the building. I’ve been a big fan of P.B. Wight since the early 1980s, when I had seen a book written about him that’s now sadly out of print. Bruce Bradbury and I would just flip over the illustrations, especially Wight’s schemes for stenciled ceiling and walls he had designed for commissions. It was all so stunning, but we had no idea any of his work still existed!
One of our favorite illustrations in that book was the design Wight had done for the dome at the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. So, when Federico said that the Wight project was in Williamsburg, that rang a bell. I opened the old book and while flipping the pages thought, “That’s not the same Williamsburg…” I had never actually heard of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before. When I saw the photos Federico sent me, and I saw the dome, I couldn’t believe it! It was the same bank, and the same dome! I couldn’t believe that something that Wight had designed was executed on that scale and was still around. That just blew me away!
We never knew where this “Williamsburgh Bank” was, or if it had ever been built. If you look at the scheme he did for the project, it says “P.B. Wight Architect, Chicago” on it. So that threw me also. But in 1871, when Chicago burned to the ground, a lot of architects, including Wight, saw that there would be a huge need for architects to help rebuild, and they picked up and moved. Wight had lived in Brooklyn when the competition for the design of the bank building was going on. The story, as I’ve heard it, goes that George B. Post thought Wight was a shoe-in to win the competition, because Wight was related to one of the board members. So they struck a deal: whoever won would hire the other person to do some of the work. So when Post won, he hired Wight to design the interior. But it wasn’t until he had made his way to Chicago that he began working on the Bank’s interior.
When Bradbury officially came on board for the Bank project, we initially thought our work would only involve the vestibule ceiling, which is actually composed of seven little ceilings. Carlos’ team had scraped it down to what they thought was the original layer of painting and sent us pictures. Federico had already done some work to recreate what he thought it had originally looked like. He did an admirable job for a guy that is not a 19th century decorative arts guy, but it still had some missing parts. It made me curious because I had never seen that particular Wight ceiling before, so I did a little more investigating. I only know of one little painted concept, or scheme, that Wight created for the Williamsburgh Savings Bank that’s still around, and that’s the dome painting we had seen in the Wight book. There were no renderings left behind of any of the other rooms, which was really unusual for Wight. And this Bank was a huge project, so that remains a mystery to me. Anyway, we did our best to recreate that ceiling faithfully and I also drew from the book on P.B. Wight to assist me in that. There were certain little motifs that he would reuse often in his other designs, and I found some of those vaguely evident in this vestibule ceiling, so that helped me to recreate the parts that might otherwise have only been guesswork.
We came onto the project in June of 2012, and spent well over a year and a half on it. Federico would give us an idea of the direction the clients wanted to go in, what the rooms might be used for. We did a mix of custom work — most all of the P.B. Wight patterns are in that category — and designs based on our existing collection of wallpapers. The rooms where we used our existing collection were mostly designed by Heather Cole, from our Design Services department. I was responsible for the new P.B. Wight interpretations.
Everything was printed in our California factory. We hand-printed most of the wallpapers for the Bank, but almost all of the Wight-inspired designs were printed with a large format printer. We would have loved to silkscreen everything, but hand-printing posed some limitations with this project. For example, our screens are only 34 inches or so, square, and are printed by one individual. Wight’s designs required some very large open areas of solid color, which we couldn’t do well with silkscreens. Every join would show, every repeat. With digital printing, we could print larger areas of color, continuously, and use many colors, which can get expensive when you’re hand-printing. The other limitation was time. We just couldn’t have turned things around as quickly as the client wanted, with burning and registering all the necessary screens. So large format printing worked very well.
We wanted to recreate the original interior as much as possible. The walls in a couple of the Bank’s offices did have some very scant traces of original stenciling, but there just wasn’t much left of Wight’s schemes at all. I tried to persuade the client to use P.B. Wight’s designs as the guiding force for the whole interior, but their inclination was to use wallpapers from our existing collection. Though they did give me carte blanche to design the President’s Office in the way that P.B. Wight would have designed it, which I really enjoyed. I used the bright Victorian Gothic palette that Wight used in his other projects, and when I did some research on the original bank interiors, I found a New York newspaper article from 1875 that described “lavishly frescoed” offices. So I knew they had been elaborately painted even though they were all white when I saw them. They must have been really spectacular, knowing Wight’s other projects and what he was capable of.
Aside from the vestibule ceiling and the rooms adjoining the President’s Office, which are in the style of P.B. Wight, the wallpaper designs in the rest of the building are inspired by a number of other 19th century artists. One room has designs by the Herter Brothers, who were eminent decorators in New York in the 1860s and ‘70s. They were responsible for decorating the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue, and had many other high profile clients around the country. Other papers were designed by or inspired by the work of William Burges, William Morris, and Christopher Dresser, among others. Another room by Bruce Talbert, another really great British designer, hasn’t yet been installed. We’re hoping that goes in on the fourth floor. So really the wallpapers in the building now represent a whole variety of different designers and design approaches, which is what the client wanted.
The building’s Landmark status didn’t affect our work directly. Most of the spaces we worked on — the offices, for example — weren’t under the constraints imposed by those guidelines. Regardless, we tried, for the sake of the building, to be as faithful as we could to the period. It’s really such a beautiful building. Honestly, I think that if Wight had won the competition to design the Bank, it might have ended up being one of Wight’s High Victorian Gothic fantasies. And, like all of P.B. Wight’s buildings, it probably would have been torn down long ago. That wasn’t a very popular style.
I made a trip to Chicago last month, and I visited the Art Institute’s archives, which has hundreds of Wight’s drawings and paintings. I went through every single one. In the end, I found precious little on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank project. The archives did have some of his competition drawings for the exterior, but there was nothing from his original interior schemes — except for the original painting for the dome. And that was spectacular! It also happens to be the largest painted composition that Wight left behind, and it is just breathtaking. To see it, to have been able to see it, was really a treat.
Stephen Bauer is the Owner and Art Director of Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers in Benicia, California. Having worked at the company as a designer since 1982, he took it over in 2005.