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Ben Masters with his new “Kākāpō” wallpaper print.

The Wairarapa couple who design and print wallpaper by hand

The fine art of designing and hand-printing wallpaper.

They might appear as simple botanical prints, but look a little closer and you’ll notice cocaine, tobacco and hops plants dotted amongst them. And that pretty patterned wallpaper? Lean in and you’ll see the pattern is actually women reclining languidly on daybeds. This is the quirky world of PaperHands, the only company in New Zealand to design and print wallpaper by hand.

Martinborough couple Ben and Helen Masters came up with the concept in 2009, after their search for an “interesting” wallpaper to decorate their own home reached a dead end. During the week, Helen is busy as head winemaker at nearby Ata Rangi vineyard, so the bulk of the design and printing falls to Ben; he used to work as an interior designer and has also followed in the footsteps of his artist mother, Wendy Masters, having had several exhibitions of his paintings.

Handprinting the paper is a far more labour-intensive process than digital printing, says Ben, who painstakingly creates the designs in a relocated workshop next to the home he and Helen share with their two children, Stella, 14, and Harvey, 12. Water-based, solvent-free inks, and paper made using natural wood fibre and mesh screens, produce a more authentic result. “There’s more variation in the print, and the odd slight imperfection, which makes it look and feel more natural.”

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Most of the designs include distinctly New Zealand elements, such as flax, native birds, deer and fish. He’s also been asked to recreate wallpaper for the West Coast’s Ōkārito general store from a piece of salvaged 1900s wallpaper, and has designed and printed 30 rolls of wallpaper for a cottage in Foxton where the owners had unearthed a scrap of the original 1872 paper.   

New Zealanders are moving away from painted white interiors, says Masters. “People have been focused on adding more depth, character and layering into their homes, and letting their spaces reflect their own personality, which is something wallpaper does.”

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.