Many of us either know of, or have experienced firsthand the abundant creativity in the Benicia Arsenal, where many artists live and work. If you’re a long-timer, own a vintage home or are just into that sort of thing, you may also be aware that there’s another kind of creativity in the Arsenal—one that combines artistry and industry—in high quality, handcrafted, silkscreened period wallpapers, borders, friezes and enrichments. Bradbury & Bradbury, located in one of the Lower Arsenal’s most impressive old brick buildings, commands an international audience for their opulent designs, the style of which ranges from the 1880’s to the 1960’s.
Bradbury & Bradbury (B&B) creates new designs and reproduces historic styles that include Victorian, Arts & Crafts and Modernism, using archival quality water-based inks. Reproducing old papers requires research, and lots of it. Hunting grounds include private homes, old wallpaper books, period literature, factory records, museums, libraries, and Persian manuscripts. The company’s owner and chief designer, Steve Bauer, says they have “hundreds of old papers in archive” at their Sacramento office.
Bauer started working at B&B in 1982, and eventually bought the company from its founder, Bruce Bradbury. They launched a website in the early 1990’s, which allowed them to connect with buyers near and far looking for period designs. The company no longer has a showroom but they sell directly to the public by mail order.
It’s easy to find B&B wallpapers in Benicia’s Victorian and Arts & Crafts style homes, and other buildings around town. Camellia Tea Room and the conference room at City Hall are two examples; there are many others. But the famous wallpapers have long since found their way outside of town. “In the early 1990’s, we were on This Old House, and that had a big impact on sales worldwide,” says Bauer. Abe Lincoln’s Home, the Henry Ford Museum, Governor’s Mansions, the California State Capitol and other impressive edifices include B&B wallpapers. Beverly Phillips, the company’s customer service manager, says, “We get international inquiries every day. Yesterday a woman called from Turkey asking about our Persian Series.”
The production facility is located upstairs in an imposing building with massive arched windows that let in the eastern light. The first thing one notices upon entering is how clean it is— dust control is a must when spreading the ink onto paper. The warehouse itself has considerable elegance with hardwood floors and brick walls forming the backdrop for the hundreds of screens they use to create the designs, and the long wooden tables that are used in the production.
The company’s website, bradbury.com, describes the silkscreen process in detail, but in short, the paper is laid across rows of narrow, 90 foot long tables fitted with metal rails for placing the screens, then one color at a time, the screens are hand-carried down the length of each table as the ink is applied at each pattern repeat. After the ink is dry, the next color is applied and the pattern begins to emerge. One of the more complex patterns has 17 different inks, which means the screens are carried 17 times down the length of each table, twice, as it takes two passes for each color. It is incredibly labor intensive, from the creation of the design to the final product, but the end result produces stunning works of art that have graced walls and ceilings around the globe.
Photos by Celine Damonte