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.
As an interior designer, Suellen Gregory knows the importance of using a house’s space thoughtfully and well. But even for her – a design professional – it can take time to take action.
She lived in her former house for a decade before turning a critical eye on a closet tucked under the stairs in the front hallway. In some homes, this space is used for a powder room. In Gregory’s, it was a basic closet.
“It was a catch-all and awful,” Gregory says. “But it was a good size, and I thought it could be a little jewel.”
Gregory reached out to H.J. Holtz & Son, with whom she had partnered on many projects (including painting her house’s floors) and Steven O’York of Closets of Virginia. After she gutted the closet, Holtz’s Jeff Ragland hung wallpaper left over from another of Gregory’s projects and painted the floor in a chevron pattern. O’York fashioned a design for the space that provided specific areas for scarves, bags, hats and coats. The redesign also included an area for storage of serving pieces, convenient to the kitchen.
Gregory says the attention made the space welcoming and more useful.
“Doing a small space [like this] is something fun to do; it’s kind of a lark,” she says.
Ragland, who had worked with Gregory on painting and staining other floors in her house, said the two collaborated on the scale of the pattern, keeping in mind how it would work with the wallpaper. “You adjust the pattern to the space, within an incremental, to suit the customer,” he says.
Small projects have other benefits, too, he says: “You can do it yourself; you don’t need another pair of hands. That’s less people, less labor, less time, less material, so a lower cost for the customer.”
In the end, Ragland said, “She turned that closet into more than a closet.”
Owner Rick Holtz says he’s happy to contribute to RFM because of its broad appeal and readership.
“We’ve written for RFM before, and we always hear from people in the community how much they appreciate our ideas,” he says. “It’s another way for us to reach out and educate people about what’s possible in their homes.”
James Draine’s simple wish for a job has led to a whole lot more: a career.
Starting with H.J. Holtz & Son in 2002 at the age of 19, Draine became a full-time employee in 2003 and just celebrated his 15th anniversary with the company. Along the way, he has worked in the carpentry, paint and wallpaper divisions, learning new skills at every opportunity.
“I always want to do the next step,” he says. “They find a way to get me there.” While Draine’s path began in carpentry, he moved on to prep work and then painting, eventually becoming a painting foreman. Even though he appreciated the progress, he knew he wanted to transition to paper hanging.“I like the transformation you make in a quick time,” he says. “When you’re painting a room, it’s gradual. When you hang paper, it’s like you snap your fingers” and see the difference.
Developing the skill set needed to be a good paper hanger doesn’t happen overnight, Draine notes. “I’ve only been with wallpaper for five years,” he says. “I’m just getting to the point where I’m hanging by myself. The more you do, the better you get.”
Draine credits Holtz & Son with providing training opportunities – both in-house and beyond – that benefit both employees and customers. “They teach us the proper way to do things,” he says, adding he especially appreciates how the company sends employees to national wallpaper conferences, where they can experience, first-hand, new techniques and materials.
“There aren’t that many people in Virginia who do high-end residential wallpaper,” he notes. “At the conference, you can talk about a problem you have, and five other people have dealt with that problem.”
Those challenges are what make the job fun, Draine says. For example, he recently worked on a project where he was hanging hand-painted, scenic Gracie wallpaper. The paper is so delicate, Draine says, that he has to be careful to keep his hands completely dry. He can’t wear gloves, because they would disturb the “feel” as he applies the paper to the wall. Yet, he enjoys working with that particular kind of wallpaper.
“There are a lot of people who work for a long time who never get to touch these [high-end papers],” he says.
Draine says he’s eager to continue to grow with Holtz & Son. “Everything’s different from job to job. Each paper dictates how you start it, how you stop it, how you do it,” he says. “I can only go up with productivity and quality.”