I first learned of the wallpaper and fabric company Robert Crowder many years ago when I was working at Kelly Wearstler in Los Angeles. Kelly used Crowder’s wallpapers in many of her projects and I was instantly taken with their lustrous textures and exotic murals. The designs always felt rooted in a glamorous oeuvre – a little bit Hollywood, a little bit Billy Baldwin, and always chic. I decided to visit the company’s studios and explore how it all started and how it continues to execute exquisitely crafted product.
Robert Crowder’s legacy as a premier source of hand painted wallpaper and handwoven textiles began in Asia. While working in Korea as a teacher in the 1930’s he travelled to Japan. Crowder fell in love with Japan and became fascinated with Japanese art. He studied under the master painter Shunko Mochizuki who taught him Nihonga, traditional Japanese style painting.
Crowder’s blissful time in Japan was abruptly ended at the start of Pearl Harbor. He was taken as a prisoner of war and placed in an internment camp for two years. He was returned to the United States as part of a prisoners exchange program in 1943.
Settling in Chicago, Crowder began working in flower shops using the floral arranging skills he learned in Japan. He continued his art, purchasing blank folding screens which he painted in traditional Japanese scenes. These proved to be quite successful, selling to department stores and decorators. The success of the folding screens expanded to Crowder painting murals on the walls of people’s homes. Crowder realized the next natural progression was to translate his paintings to wallpaper. Seeing the potential of his business, Crowder moved to Los Angeles to start the next phase of his career.
Crowder settled in Los Angeles with his partner Bernard Gelbort who was finding success as an interior decorator. They opened an antique shop with a painting studio in the back where Crowder continued his art. In the 1950’s they opened their first wallpaper printing studio in what is now West Hollywood. The wallpapers were printed by silk screen and were a huge success with interior designers and their Hollywood clients.
In his artwork, Crowder painted mostly nature and animals, so these were the foundation of his first wallpaper collections. Many of the wallpapers were large scale murals of scenic landscapes, gardens and chinoiserie, all still in production today.
Some of the most beautiful patterns from the archives are the Chinoiserie designs. Delicate vines, bamboo branches and graceful birds are exquisitely painted and the colors are divine. Robert Crowder’s hand printed papers proceeded those of De Gournay, and the exotic look couldn’t be more in style today. Every textile house has some version of these in their collection and every few years it shows up on the fashion runways as well. The romanticism and elegance is timeless.
The company also has some more contemporary designs including their very successful textures and their newest design “Swirl” seen below.
I personally love their Tortoise Shell pattern (below) which is an amazingly glamorous paper done in metallic gold and feels so vintage.
One thing I especially appreciate about companies like Robert Crowder is how they pass their craft down through the years and generations. Hand printed wallpaper is a legacy that deserves to be preserved and it is impressive that Robert Crowder has endured for over 50 years in business. Many of the people working at the factory have been there for over 10 years, learning how to mix colors, engrave the screens, etc. Co-owners Oscar Cardinas and Nery Rios have been part of the company for 25-30 years.
Of course technology has led to changes, most distinctly is the use of digital printing. The quality of the digital printing is astonishingly good and is especially useful for the large scale murals. It makes it much easier to customize colors as well as the size of the designs.
A major part of Crowder’s business has been in hospitality all over the world. Their papers have been used in luxury hotels in China, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Las Vegas. Steve Sellery, the company’s sales representative for many years first established the brand in the Design Center of Hawaii. Representing the collection on the West Coast and in Las Vegas he truly solidified the Robert Crowder name with interior designers and helped to raise its profile internationally.
In the 1950’s Robert Crowder set up a small weaving studio on his property. He soon added hand woven fabrics to his offerings, a business that still thrives today. The company also printed fabrics for many years: bold tropical florals, palm fronds and birds in flight. Unfortunately the prints are no longer in production but I found a few swatches from their archives during my visit. I love the fresh colors and Palm Beach feeling they had – I wish they were still available!
Part of the reason for the longevity of the company is the quality. The designs were embraced early on by high end designers who recognized their uniqueness and they had deep respect for the name. Robert Crowder’s wallpapers are represented in Los Angeles at the Harbinger showroom and the handwoven fabrics are at Keith McCoy & Associates.
Late in life Crowder began a series of screen paintings titled “Endangered Birds of Japan.” These paintings celebrated Crowder’s love and appreciation for nature and paid tribute to the disappearing flora and fauna of Japan. The screens are massive in size: 6 feet high and as wide as 12 feet. What he referred to as “his life’s work” has been passed along to Yasumasa Tanano, the artist who studied and worked under Crowder for over 20 years and continues on his tradition.
Robert Crowder’s hand painted folding screens are highly collectible now, being offered by antique dealers and auction houses.
Above is an advertisement from a 1954 issue of Architectural Digest promoting Robert Crowder’s offerings of wallpapers, fabrics and screens.
I would like to thank Steve Sellery, Oscar Cardinas, Nery Rios and Yasu Tanano for sharing their stories and memories of Robert Crowder with me.
Coming up: Part II of my look at Robert Crowder’s weaving studio owned by Yasu Tanano and the fine handwoven fabrics it creates: https://theeyehasit.com/2016/06/29/robert-crowder-weaving-studio/