De Gournay – the London-based wallpaper firm known for its exquisite hand-painted creations – trusts fewer than three dozen companies in the United States to hang its wallpapers.
And H.J. Holtz & Son is among that select group.
Late in 2022, Emily Wicks, who works in de Gournay’s Logistics and Installation division, came across online images of Holtz installations of de Gournay wallpaper. She contacted company president Rick Holtz and invited him to prepare an application packet.
“That was no small packet,” Holtz says, noting that the company provided a list of projects involving de Gournay wallpaper, photo documentation, and client letters. After the Holtz & Son application packet was reviewed by Wicks and de Gournay Co-founder and Director Dominic Evans-Freke, the Holtz team responded to questions about specific techniques and strategies used from Evans-Freke himself.
The recommendation is worth the effort, Holtz says.
“We wanted to pursue the designation because de Gournay wallpaper is so highly regarded internationally,” Holtz says. “Our clients who have used it in their homes could not be happier with the quality of the designs and workmanship.”
Wicks says applicants are evaluated individually because every setting is unique and presents its own challenges.
“Each installer will have their own ways of creating the perfect finish,” she says. “[Those] who have worked with our papers over the years have discovered that there is not a standard way to hang them, as each ground is so uniquely different from the other.”
Founded in 1986 by Claud Cecil Gurney and his nephew, Evans-Freke, de Gournay began as a firm dedicated to re-introducing the ancient Chinese tradition of hand-painted wallcoverings for a modern era. Now the firm has six collections ranging from classic Asian to panoramas and geometrics. Additional offerings include textured wallcoverings and special collaborations with other design partners.
Customers wishing to have de Gournay creations gracing their homes may select from in-stock offerings that include wallpapers, lampshades, decorative porcelain pieces, mirrors, screens, and framed wallpaper mounted on canvas. Another option is to personalize an existing wallpaper design by specifying flowers or animals depicted to suit taste or geographic location. De Gournay artists will also work with clients wishing to create a one-of-a-kind design.
The Holtz & Son wallpaper team recognizes the significance of being named a de Gournay recommended installer – the only company in Virginia to hold the designation.
“Our team is dedicated to providing professional and thorough service to every customer, no matter what the project involves,” Holtz says. “But they love it when they can hang fine wallpaper such as de Gournay – it really is a work of art. There are few people in the world who can say they’ve had that experience.”
H.J. Holtz & Son Production Manager Kelly Kutchey recalls a recent project in which the Holtz team was hired to correct painting problems in a brand-new house.
“The builder hired a painter for cost-efficiency, and we were called later to fix all sorts of issues,” he said. “The painter hadn’t properly prepared the trim for painting by filling in nail holes and caulking; some areas also clearly weren’t primed. Trim work should always be [painted] using a nice brush; this house trim was painted with a thick roller … it looked like it had 40 coats of paint. The homeowner wasn’t happy.”
The Holtz decorative arts team had worked on a project in the house, so the designer suggested the homeowner contact H.J. Holtz & Son to resolve the problems. One benefit of hiring a larger company, Kutchey says, is readily available expertise.
“Smaller companies sometimes want to take on bigger jobs and will cut corners or hire people who don’t really know what they’re doing,” he says. “They don’t always have the proper skills to do a job. We get calls all the time from folks who have something that needs to be fixed. They come to us because we have a reputation for being able to solve painting problems and wallpaper problems.”
Every job has its own specific set of considerations and challenges, Kutchey says, because every wall is different. There might be cracks caused by a settling foundation, nail pops from when the house was built, excessive moisture in the home, and dings and dents caused by everyday life. If surfaces aren’t prepared properly, there’s an increased likelihood that difficulties will develop later.
Common dilemmas with painted walls and ceilings include cracking, bubbling or blistering, and flaking or peeling. Wallpaper can be curling at the edges, separating at the seams, and showing dips or bumps under the surface.
“Customers will call, and we’ll send someone to assess,” he says. “Some situations can be repaired – like if paper is falling off a wall – but sticky paint just has to be redone.”
Most wallpaper issues require removing a wallpaper panel so the underlying issue can be remedied, whether that involves the surface of the wall or reapplying adhesive. Because wallpapers vary in weight and texture, the right adhesive is essential, as is a careful application.
Kutchey says the Holtz team was called recently to investigate why paint wasn’t adhering well to a wall. He discovered three layers of wallpaper underneath the painted surface. “Usually, the reason why [people] paint over wallpaper is because it was too hard to take off in the first place,” he says. “We take whatever we need to take off the walls; sometimes that means going down to drywall or plaster.”
Problems usually can be fixed, but that remedy comes with a cost. “It’s always better to take the time at the beginning to do it right,” he says. “It’s going to double your cost to call us in to fix something that could have been managed at the start of a project.”
When Sarah* and her husband first visited the Goochland property they now call home, they were drawn to the expansive views of the James River. The view of the nearly 100-year-old Tudor house – vacant for five years – wasn’t as striking.
“The house felt dingy and dated – every wall was a pinky peach – and the rooms were intimidating, with high, curved ceilings and dark wood trim,” Sarah says. “Plus, we went into this project with historical easements in place. We couldn’t do structural changes without a deep dive into a historical process.”
Working with Lizzie Cox Interiors and H.J. Holtz & Son, the homeowners found ways to modernize the home while maintaining its integrity. Holtz & Son craftspeople sanded layer after layer of black paint from the original arched front door, revealing the hardwood below. After a window opening was cut, the Holtz team stained and sealed the three-inches-thick door.
“I have a wonderful 100-year-old door, but it was cramping the style of the house,” Sarah says. “It would cost a fortune to replace, but [the Holtz team] worked meticulously to get it perfect. It’s a very small thing in the scope of all the work [that was done], but it means so much to me.”
Inside the house, every wall was refreshed with paint or wallpaper. The dining room’s lacquered ceiling reflects the light that pours in from two sets of glass doors. To conceal vents that couldn’t be relocated, a Holtz & Son decorative artist hand-painted the grillwork to match the surrounding paper.
“Rick told me we couldn’t put paper on the vents because it wouldn’t line up properly,” Sarah says. “For someone to come in and freehand paint … is just amazing. That box on the wall literally disappears.”
The second-floor landing, which opens to a balcony overlooking the front drive, is also dramatically changed. Company president Rick Holtz and designer Lizzie Cox suggested removing the curve at the base of the ceiling, which added nearly two feet in height. Floor-to-ceiling curtains and wallpaper with vertical stripes make the nook feel even larger.
“It was this awful dark space, and now it’s the most beautiful, happy, light-filled spot,” Sarah says. “They did such a great job.”
Having worked with Holtz & Son previously, Sarah knew she could trust them with this project. “Lizzie [Cox] has always said they’re the ones to use, and we knew this house needed everything,” Sarah says. “You know [Holtz] is going to do it right; it’s not going to chip, it’s not going to peel. They’re such good guys.”
On Friday, Sept. 3 Rick Holtz read a direct message in the company’s Instagram account from an unexpected source: Jennifer Gracie, creative director of Gracie Studio, a company whose hand-painted wallpapers are world-renowned for their craftsmanship, detail, and beauty.
The message was simple: “You obviously do a great job with our wallpaper. Thank you,” she said, adding she had placed H.J. Holtz & Son on the list of recommended paper installers that designers and showrooms provide to customers.
“I stalk people’s Instagram accounts,” Jennifer Gracie says, laughing. She had seen a post from Richmond designer Avery Sefcik that tagged H.J. Holtz & Son in photos of Sefcik’s sitting room. Earlier in the year, Holtz craftspeople had installed “Winter Garden” for Sefcik, principal of Avery Frank Designs.
“I can look carefully at an image and make sure I feel [the installer] has done a great job,” she says. “I could see [Holtz] took great care with our wallpaper.”
Because every Gracie wallpaper is hand-painted to the specifications of the customer and to the room itself, the installation process is specific and must be followed.
“Experience is the most important factor when it comes to installing hand-painted papers,” Gracie says. “When a client is beginning the process, I always ask them who their installer is. I always feel better when I hear a name that I recognize. If it’s not a name I recognize, I press for more details.
“This isn’t typical wallpaper,” she adds. “Someone may be extremely talented and have been in business for decades, but unless they have experience with hand-painted paper… .”
To create a Gracie room, meticulous measurements are taken, and panels are painted according to plan. When the panels go up, the plan has to be followed.
“Every single room is unique and designed to fit the architecture of the room,” Gracie says. “We have created a design sketch the client has approved to make sure every bird or flower is exactly where it’s supposed to be. I’ve seen situations where a panel is hung in the wrong place. [With other projects,] paper hangers usually order more than they need and have plenty of extra paper; that’s not the case here.”
The company was founded in 1898 by Jennifer Gracie’s great-grandfather Charles Gracie. Now, Jennifer Gracie and her brother are the fourth generation of the family in the business; Jennifer’s son Zach Gracie-Shea works in the firm’s New York office, the start of the fifth generation.
Earlier this year, as the company was preparing to revamp its New York studio, Jennifer Gracie had her son shoot video of her rolling a panel off a wall, demonstrating how easily Gracie wallpaper can be removed. Once posted to the company’s Instagram, the video was viewed by thousands. Soon after, it was picked up by House Beautiful magazine and viewed nearly a million times.
“It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Gracie says now. “I said to Zach, ‘Hey, let’s show people how to remove [wallpaper] when it’s on muslin.’ I had no idea it would go viral! Trust me: If I’d known, I would have spent more time that morning on my hair.”
One practical aspect of the video, Gracie says, is that it shows customers – both current and future – how durable the company’s hand-painted wallpaper can be.
“It makes me so happy to see our wallpapers cherished and handed down generation to generation. I hope they can continue to be loved and saved,” she says. “We’ve been around so long, some of our papers are antiques themselves.”
Dannon Featherston wants people to understand that wallpaper is always fashionable.
“The biggest misconception – and I hear it every week – is that wallpaper is coming back into style,” says Featherston, a member of the H.J. Holtz & Son paper hanging division. “Since there aren’t a lot of us [who install residential wallpaper], it’s rare for people to know an experienced paper hanger. I tell everyone: Wallpaper isn’t coming back in style; it’s always been in style.”
Featherston, who marks 15 years with the company in April, joined Holtz & Son because friends working in the faux finishes department encouraged him to apply. He came with a background in art, having worked as an illustrator, muralist, and fine art painter. After joining the company, he learned how to hang wallpaper, a pivot he welcomed.
“Art has always been in my life … but here I’m using a different set of artistic skills; it’s like playing Tetris® every day,” he laughs.
Featherston says he and his fellow paper hangers at Holtz & Son are fortunate to work with high-end wallpapers, some of which are one-of-a-kind. Those products are popular with interior designers and homeowners who value luxe finishes.
“We get exposed to so much,” he says. “Every day, I have an opportunity to do something new and on a scale that a lot of [other paper hangers] won’t come across. The relationship we have with designers is unique.”
Featherston says the company’s strong connection to design professionals and repeat customers demonstrates a dedication to service and quality.
“People know we have a certain standard, that reaches back to my very first day of working here with [former owner and president] Dickie Holtz and [longtime foreman] Charlie Herbert,” he says. “They told us to do it right the first time. We don’t take shortcuts, and that’s a very big thing in our industry – taking short cuts. We don’t do that.”
Featherston says another factor in the quality workmanship Holtz is known for comes from its training process.
“A lot of places will hire someone and say, ‘Just do your best,’” he says. “Here, after you are hired, you’re put with a mentor, and you have an apprenticeship that can last a couple of years. That [approach] builds a higher standard. You develop an appreciation for the work you do because you spend time learning it; it gives you ownership in what you’re doing.”
Featherston says he enjoys educating customers about wallpaper and the hanging process, so they know how to care for their investment. “If you buy a car, you want to know how to take care of it,” he notes. “I want them to know if they can wipe it down, how to store the scraps for the future. I want to give them as much information as I can, because I’m the professional. At the end of the day, they’ll know what they have and what do to with it… or when to call us.”
He also enjoys working with others who take what they do seriously.
“In our group, the standard is really high,” he says. “We consider ourselves not tradesmen but craftsmen, learning the old-school way.”
And the dedication seems to reap dividends.
“One of the things that attracted me to the company [initially] was that they didn’t advertise,” he says. “Everybody just knew of a certain standard [Holtz] had; you weren’t seeing that with other companies.
“I’m lucky I work with a company that works with … high-end projects because I never stop,” he adds. “I roll from one job to another.”
Residential wallpaper is enjoying a renaissance, thanks to artistic and technological advances that have created better materials – not just paper! – for the wall and better means by which to attach them. Homeowners who hesitate to have paper hung in their homes because they are afraid of creating a dated appearance or the challenges of removing it will be pleasantly surprised by current options. From murals to updated florals, and graphic patterns to monochromatic prints, new papers give the chance to create impact and a personal statement, even if only on a single wall.
At H.J. Holtz & Son, craftspeople receive extensive training before they are assigned to a wallcovering job. For those who haven’t experienced a wallpaper project, here’s what to expect, with comments from 15-year Holtz wallpaper craftsman Dannon Featherston.
> In-home consultation. A Holtz representative will come to your house, take measurements and photos, and discuss options. It’s important to have made your selection of wallcovering before the consultation, because the type of material used is a key element in the installation. For example, there’s a big difference between hanging a printed paper and a textured grasscloth. The estimator will examine the walls for uneven surfaces and damage, because, as Featherston says, “Whatever is on the wall will reflect 10 times,” once the paper is hung.
If existing wallpaper needs to be removed, this is the time to decide who handles that step. “If we’ve put it up, then we know what’s underneath it,” Featherston says. “It can be tricky if not.” Typical removal involves hot water. “It’s all about saturating it and letting it release itself,” he says. Walls will have to dry thoroughly after paper has been removed, a full 24 hours.
The initial consultation also includes a discussion of how the room will be emptied. It’s best if all furniture is taken out; depending on the size of the room, certain large pieces might be moved to the center and draped. Most homeowners will relocate small items, such as artwork and decorative items on shelves, and will leave moving the furniture to the Holtz team. The perimeter of the room has to allow for standing ladders. “When things are out of the way, the job goes faster,” Featherston says, noting that additional space also needs to be found for the 7’-by-3’ table that is used to cut the wallpaper into sections for hanging. This table can be in another, nearby space, if the room where the work is being done won’t accommodate it.
> The process really gets underway when the team comes with the cutting table. At this time, there will be a conversation about which holes in the walls should remain, for when artwork or light fixtures are replaced. After that, the floors will be draped, and the team will sand uneven areas, fix holes, and apply sizing – a primer with gloss that allows the wall covering to be released later, when a change of scenery is desired. “The primer is clear and actually soaks into the wall,” Featherston says.
> Before any paper is hung, expect the team leader to create a plan for the room. Featherston says paper is hung from a guest’s point of view: the primary focal point for someone stepping foot into a space. Starting from a central location, he takes measurements so he knows exactly how many pieces of paper to cut, and in what dimensions. “We lay off the room piece by piece and cut the paper in advance, which minimizes waste,” he says.
> The paper or covering itself is hung relatively quickly, but it won’t be finished until it has dried and cured fully. Depending on the material used, drying may take overnight or a couple of days. As it cures, the material will shrink and hug the wall. As paper is being hung, it might look mottled or have color variations, or appear to have bubbles underneath, due to the adhesive being used. This is not a concern, Featherston says. “The moisture throws people off,” Featherston says. “Those bubbles are sucked in as it dries, and the color will even out.”
> Once the paper is dried, the Holtz & Son team will help by returning the room’s contents to their places.
In terms of duration, wallpapering a small to normal-sized powder room can happen in a single day, not including the consultation. It’s not much time for a change that makes a big difference.