Interior designer and influencer Kathy Kuo stands in a curving hallway with hand painted looking mural wallpaper.

Interview with Kathy Kuo of Kathy Kuo Home

Kathy Kuo X Susan Harter Muralpapers

I’m thrilled to share with you our collaboration with Kathy Kuo Home! After creating a custom grisaille mural wallpaper for her curved hallway, we exchanged our mutual admirations in an a Q&A, as well as discussed how my mural wallpaper business came to be – read on here, or see the original post on Kathy’s Blog, “The Kuotes”!

Kathy’s Susan Harter Muralpaper Reveal & a Chat with the Artist

Kathy Kuo: Hi there, cuties! I am so excited to give you a special reveal right here in my own home in New York City–and also introduce you to one of my favorite artists and entrepreneurs in the home space right now: the lovely Susan Harter! Susan is an insanely talented artist who specializes in muralpapers (basically an amazing fusion of wallpaper and a hand-painted mural). I recently had some of her muralpapers installed in my hallway and…just wow…I can’t say enough about how much I love how this project turned out. I caught up with Susan recently about work, art, and home! Read on and prepare to be inspired!

“As far as I know, we’re the only luxury mural wallpaper that features the original work of one artist, done to an archival standard.”

— Susan Harter
Interior designer and influencer Kathy Kuo stands in a curving hallway with hand painted looking mural wallpaper.
The lovely Kathy Kuo in her beautiful home. Panels of our Calmsden Grisaille mural wallpaper lines her curved hallway, framed by architectural moldings.

Art, Technology & Love for the Decorative Arts

Kathy Kuo: Hi Susan! First I have to say just how much I love my muralpaper installation! I’m so excited to share your work with our readers–tell me a bit about how you founded your company and developed your signature muralpapers!

Susan Harter: Decorative painting was something I sort of tumbled into, like everything else. I had studied art at Harvard, and as a broke young grad, lived with a group of girls, in a little cottage near Tory Row in Cambridge, surrounded by all these glorious old pre-Revolutionary houses.

“Our neighbors would toss perfectly good antiques into the trash if a knob fell off, or the finish chipped. So we scooped them up and started fixing and refinishing them.”

I read up about the antiques we found, which introduced me to the language of decoration. I fell in love with the  Swedish Gustavian style, and started hand-painting so much pale bluish-grayish furniture that we started having house sales, just to make more room. One day an interior designer from William Hodgins Inc. happened by, and asked if I painted furniture to order and I began working for them!

Painting furniture led naturally to painting textures on walls, which lead to painting murals. I was tremendously influenced by historic New England painter Rufus Porter, and the murals I saw at the Harvard faculty club by the late Robert Jackson. Those idealized landscapes and muted colors really appealed to me!

“I think one thing we share, Kathy, is a love for a restrained palette. That’s a very East Coast thing, the love of cool, calm, classicism.”

Muralist Susan Harter with her dog, Dapper, and her Rowlandson mural behind them.
Muralist Susan Harter with her dog, Dapper, and the hand-painted Rowlandson mural.

The printed murals came about because I began to have more hand-painted mural orders than I could possibly keep up with. My first thought was to do them in the studio, on canvas, then install on-site. That helped for a while. Then one night I walked out of my studio and literally collapsed on the grass, my legs refusing to work properly. I realized I’d painted for 63 days in a row, 12 hours a day.

So I hired other painters to help me. Yet even though those artists were highly skilled, clients spotted the difference straight away. They’d point out the spots other artists had done, saying they “didn’t look happy” like mine. That kind of amazed me, that they wanted it all to be in my hand.

So I still had the problem of how to make more murals. My tech-genius husband came up with the answer. He’d been helping replicate artworks for a museum. He designed a special rig to photograph my large-scale original artwork for reproduction. I won’t describe it, as it’s a trade secret, but it’s very cool.

“Now I can happily paint the large original artworks, and the team makes archival prints that look just like them. Designers are happy, clients are happy, and so am I.”

Watch & Learn: Susan Harter Muralpapers in Kathy’s Hallway

Kathy Kuo: Okay, let’s get technical. What is the difference between a muralpaper, wallpaper, and a mural painted directly on the wall?

Susan Harter: Murals painted on-site can be a great option if you have a trusted local muralist whose style you adore. The disadvantage is that it might be “unique” in ways you didn’t anticipate. That’s one reason we developed the muralpapers.

“With muralpapers, the estimates and samples are reliable, there are artwork approvals, you know just what you are going to get. Designers really appreciate that.”

Another great advantage of muralpapers is that they take 2-3 days to install, rather than 2-3 months to paint. Anyone who has ever lived in a home with scaffolding filling their foyer can appreciate that point! Muralpapers like ours combine the best of both worlds, the look and feel of work done by an artist, but with the ease of wallpaper.

Muralpapers like ours, that use modern digital techniques, are freed from many limitations that traditional chinoiserie or block printed wallpapers have when it comes to scale and size. We can scale the artwork itself to the space, making grand, tall trees in a sweeping foyer, or small delicate ones about a chair-rail.

“Once designed, the artwork is printed onto rolls of canvas, numbered for ease of installation. It has the look of a painted mural, with the ease of wallpaper.”

Kathy Kuo: Now for my favorite part of the Q&A–talking about the insanely gorgeous installation that is now in my hallway! I’m obsessed, and I’d love to hear about the project from your side.

Susan Harter: First of all, Kathy, you are so inspiring as a creative person and as an entrepreneur! And so glamorous–a quality of which I’m always in awe. So I was excited to see your name come into my inbox one morning, and then the photos of that gorgeous curved hallway, and the panels.

“This project wasn’t quite like anything we’ve done before so I pinned it up on our celebration board, hoping it might happen. When it did, there may have been a small victory lap around the studio! It’s always great to see the murals being used in a new way.”

I thought your use of them on that curved surface was very clever. The curve must make some great vistas as you walk up and down the hall, and different parts of the artwork are revealed. It makes the architectural panels, already lovely, seem like windows looking onto a landscape, creating a sense of spaciousness.

That’s the kind of moment great designers spot, and the rest of us miss! Now other clients with curved walls are sending us room shots, bright-eyed and hopeful with the possibilities your project showed them.

KK: As an artist and entrepreneur, what inspires you most?

Susan Harter: Murals are an idealized landscape, a sort of painted Eden. I feel happy, out in nature, walking around, surrounded by all that ever-changing beauty. I feel happy in my studio- sunlight pouring in the window, a couple of dogs snoring at my feet, and a monk-like stillness all around me. By some odd alchemy that I’ve never understood but am grateful for, that happiness shows up in the work.

“I wish often, especially in these years of the pandemic, that the world was a kinder, happier, more peaceful place. In my paintings, it is.”

The best compliment I ever got was from a young boy. He and a group of kids came tearing into the room where we were installing a mural, and threw themselves down on the floor, engrossed in some childhood game. After about 20 minutes, this kid looked up and said: “Oh, we aren’t outside!” The other kids laughed: “Of course not dummy, we’re in the living room.”

Then they all got up and started looking at the mural. And the first kid says: “Well, they don’t exactly look like trees, but they feel like trees.” So that’s our core mission. I want it to feel like trees. I want it to make people happy. I want to treat everyone, clients and employees alike, as ethically and kindly as possible. I want the whole thing to be a mini-Eden. We don’t always get there, of course, but that’s the plan.

Kathy Kuo: Is there anything new and exciting on the horizon for your business that you’d like to share with our Kuotes readers?

Susan Harter: Lately I’ve been fascinated with the concept of the Victorian Grand Tour. The idea that no-one was truly cultured, educated, or civilized until they’d developed a deep appreciation for the music, artwork, landscape, and architecture of cultures other than their own.

I have young creatives working with me, some of whom haven’t gotten the chance to travel nearly as much as they’d like. Just before the pandemic hit Italy, I’d booked a series of Italian villas, and planned to take the team over for several weeks, working in relays to keep production going back home. We had to cancel, so when the world opens up again, I want to take us all traveling.

“I’d like to visit a new country every year for a long, rich, in-depth visit, soaking up the landscape and people and art and all the beauty around us. And then making a mural of it, to share with the world.”

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