When it comes to getting a new business off the ground, it’s not unusual to look close to home for early supporters. Your mom, your best friend, and your friendliest next-door neighbor all provide relatively low-risk avenues for test-driving an early product—plus, they’re likely to accompany their purchase with some unsolicited but always appreciated words of encouragement. But London-based designer and illustrator Sian Zeng didn’t have the luxury of starting with friends and family when kickstarting her modern line of whimsical magnetic wallpaper. Her first customer? International superstar Hilary Duff.
Born in China and raised in Hungary, Sian developed an early appreciation for illustration. “In Hungary, books are really well illustrated, and I used to copy a lot of the designs,” she says. “My teachers were really encouraging of my art, but my parents always wanted me to do something a little bit more academic.” After moving once more to England, Sian followed her family’s advice and pursued a degree in economics. But art proved hard to shake, and after graduating, she enrolled in school once more—this time to study design at London’s Central Saint Martins.
Wallpaper entered the picture during her last year at CSM, when for her final project, Sian created a line of fairytale-inspired magnetic paper that encouraged viewers to create their own narratives by moving custom figures around the wall. Though the project garnered attention from press and bloggers, the costs of going into sustained production proved prohibitive. But three years later, everything changed when Hilary Duff’s interior designer reached out hoping to place a large order for her son’s nursery. With the upfront cost covered, “I really quickly put everything into production,” says Sian. “That’s how we started actually making the wallpaper.” It was the sign she needed to move forward. “We had enough funds and enough belief in the product, so we said: Okay.”
Read on for a glimpse into Sian’s design process and to discover her expert wallpaper decor tips—then shop the collection.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
I would say it’s quite poetic. It’s almost like you’ve walked onto a film set—it’s dreamlike and slightly romantic, but at the same time it’s also quite modern. There’s a fusion in my line between Asian and European designs.
In the most recent collections, the Asian aspect has surfaced even more—especially now that I’ve started taking Chinese painting classes. The technique and the ink brushes that I use are very Chinese, but I think the imagery that I find and the way that I grew up drawing are mostly influenced by European illustrations. So there’s kind of a mix between the two.
It’s so cool that you’re taking Chinese painting classes. What’s that like?
I enjoy it a lot. There’s a very big difference between Asian painting and the European way of painting. When you paint Asian illustrations, you have to have an idea in your head of what you’re going to paint before you put down the first brush stroke. It’s very planned and very strict, whereas in European designs, people like to see some creativity. I like to learn the technique, but then I like to break through it, so I tend not to show my designs to the teacher at the end of class.
Did it take you a while to develop your visual point of view, or have you always leaned towards a particular look?
In the very beginning you experiment a lot, and you get swayed by a lot of different influences. You see a lot of things on Pinterest, for example, and you think, “Oh, maybe I should do something geometric, or perhaps I should try a folk style.” But at the end of the day, after two years of art school, I started to gravitate towards a certain look, and even though I try to vary my technique a lot from one collection to another, there’s a style that I’ve developed that people identify with me.
You structure your work in collections. How are the different collections distinct from one another?
I tend to launch one collection at a time because it takes a very long time for me to feel like I’ve gotten it right—I paint everything by hand, and I’m very meticulous about the colors and how the pattern repeats. I also try to change up the way I paint because I get bored very easily. For example, the very first collection that we had was called Woodlands, and that just featured two or three colors. It was a pen drawing with charcoal, so it had a very linear and block design to it. Then, for the second collection we did, I tried to leave a little bit more space and used less of the charcoal and more block colors. When we did our third collection, Seasons, I used a completely different technique where I combined line drawing together with a painterly wash of watercolor mixed with aquarelle and gouache.
Our Trees collection took me the longest because I wanted to create a wallpaper in the biggest size possible—it’s an enormous repeating pattern that makes you feel like you’re outside in the forest. A lot of times when you buy wallpaper, the picture looks a little bit pixelated because people paint it small and then blow it up, but this was done at 100-percent scale. I want people to feel like they own a piece of artwork—when they go close, they can still see the individual paintbrushes.
Can you walk me through how a collection comes to be? How do you go from an idea to a finished piece?
Ideas tend to come really fast—I always have things in the back of my mind. So the problem is narrowing the ideas down and deciding what collection we really want to launch next. Usually I get inspired by something—it could be something like watching a ballet performance—and suddenly I think, “Wow, how great would it be if I created a Swan Lake backdrop wallpaper?” So, then I do a bit of research on Pinterest and create a mood board with a lot of different color installations and illustrations done by other artists, along with historical references.
For the next step, I use those references to paint with the mood in mind that I see for the collection. I tend to paint quite large these days, to full scale. Then I scan the paintings back into the computer and retouch them, and make it into a repeating pattern. Once that’s done, I send it to our wallpaper manufacturers who then send me back samples, and we go back and forth to make sure the design is absolutely perfect. Then they put it into digital sampling, at which point I usually travel down to the manufacturers to check that the color is correct.
Once the manufacturers start producing the wallpaper, I contact my stylist and photographer and it usually takes us about a month to plan the photo shoot. My stylist and I will discuss what my ideas are and then we source lots of different props, sometimes from other Etsy sellers. A collection is finished once when we’ve done our photo shoot.
It sounds like you have no shortage of ideas, but producing a collection takes serious time. Do you ever get frustrated that you can’t bring them all to life at once?
I do, but at the moment, our company is quite small: It’s just me and my assistant, and we’re lucky to have a very good supplier for the wallpaper. But because we’re so small, I have to do a lot of day-to-day running of the studio, and I have to think about things like marketing and finance. So I do hope that one day, when we get a little bit bigger, I can just focus on the painting and creating new collections so I can start getting rid of my backlog.
I’d love to hear a little more about the magnetic aspect of your work. Is all your wallpaper magnetic?
We allow people to choose whether they want it to be magnetic or not—it’s actually two separate layers of paper. We sell a special liner which makes the whole wall magnet-receptive, like a giant refrigerator, and then you paste the wallpaper on top of that. So what some people tend to do is to make one wall magnet-receptive, and then the other walls just classic wallpaper. This gives people flexibility budget-wise as well, because the magnetic wallpaper is two times or sometimes even three times as expensive as the classic paper.
Who would you say is your target audience? Is magnetic wallpaper just for kids?
When I started this project, I really didn’t think it was for children. I liked the magnetic paper myself and I thought it would be fun for adults to play with; I really wanted people to interact with the wall and see what stories they came up with. But later on when people saw the cute little magnets, they were like, “Wow, that would be great for my children!” And I used to be in denial, but so many people have bought it for their children that I’ve decided it’s great.
We sell mainly to parents—I think the parents want the wallpaper themselves, but it’s a good excuse to say their children want it. A lot of the time, adults spend so much time in their children’s room that it might as well be a shared room. So this way, adults can see something that looks pretty to them, and kids can have fun with it as well. It’s a very good compromise.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to a home? Is there such a thing as too much wallpaper?
I think it’s a very personal taste. For me personally, I prefer to have a feature wall versus having all the walls wallpapered. I love pattern, but I also feel that sometimes you want to look away and not think about it. And the kind of wallpaper I’ve been trying to create has so much detail, and there’s so much going on, that it’s almost a piece of artwork in and of itself. So having it as a feature wall makes perfect sense, and then the other walls can be a complementary solid color, to help make the wallpapered wall the focus.
But there are definitely some customers who really like to wallpaper. I had one customer who even tried to wallpaper the ceiling—some people go all out. We also had a customer who bought the wallpaper, as well as the matching bed linens, cushions, and prints—almost everything we had in the range—so everything matched within the room. I’d love to see a picture of it.
You have a seriously impressive Instagram following and your feed is so beautifully curated! What role does Instagram play in your business?
When I started off with Instagram many, many years ago, my husband used to think that I was wasting a lot of time. He would ask me, “How much is one post worth?” But over the years, it became almost like a visual diary. And customers really like to see how I’m developing a new collection—they get excited way before the launch.
Nowadays Instagram plays a vital role in the business. It’s been really good at spreading the word about our artwork, and also connecting us with our customers. We’re always surprised at what good photos customers take of our wallpapers in their homes. When they share a photo, we’ll repost it on our feed so other people can see what’s achievable.
Buying wallpaper is a really big decision—there’s so much thought that goes into selecting a pattern, the cost is non-trivial, and it’s something you look at every single day. An an artist, what does it feel like to be part of people’s lives in this way?
I think a lot of the time artists might have doubts as to why they are creating their work. It’s not like you’re a doctor and it’s a no-brainer that your work is beneficial to society. Being an artist, you always have this doubt in the back of your mind—thinking of creating another wallpaper when there’s already so much on the market, and wondering whether it’s going to somehow contribute to people’s lives and make them happier. So, to see that it actually makes a massive difference to customers and to hear someone say that they searched for years and finally found a wallpaper they want in their home—that’s what makes my mind go quieter.