Since 1999 Sarah Merenda has called NYC home though her travels have brought her all over the world. Growing up in Eastern Maryland and joining the family wall paper installation business as a young woman earned her an expert education in a trade that she later paired with a formal arts education in textile design. Sprinkle in a little grit and graffiti with a dash of Indian flair, stir together and you get MerendaWallpaper.
Having discovered her work initially at the Dobbin St. events space, I now realize I’ve seen Merenda’s custom wall paper in hotels, workspaces, and residences over New York City.
We were lucky enough to chat with her about her inspiration and process here in NYC, just before she left for another trip!
Greenpointers: You’ve traveled quite a bit… Even just in the USA: Baltimore, Atlanta, New York City… would you call NYC home? What makes NYC special?
Sarah Merenda: Yes, I feel like I have traveled more outside of the US then in it actually, but I would say New York City is my home. I’ve been living here since 1999.
I immediately felt at home in NYC the first time I visited when I was 15 and was inspired by the graffiti, the people, the ability to choose what you can do each day and be stimulated and learn from the cultures around me.
GP: In your travels, home or abroad, where would you say you’ve found the most inspiration?
SM: It’s hard to pick the place I found the most inspiring because I feel like Japan, Cuba, Colombia, Berlin, Sicily, London, Thailand have contributed to my work… But I think I found the most inspiration was in India. The colors, the vibrancy, the turmoil, the filth and resilience in the people makes me want to keep moving forward.
GP: It seems that early on in your career, hanging wallpaper was a trade that you did to pay the bills while graffiti and street art fed your creative side… at one point did you first put the two together, creating your own textiles and wallpaper, combining your artistic side with your practical trade side… was there an “ahh-ha!” moment when it just clicked together or was it more gradual or experimental?
SM: When street art came about, where people were doing wheat pastes, I realized I could put the two together. I also got asked to do a mural inside someone’s brownstone stairwell in Brooklyn, so I designed and created textiles, pasting and painting images onto the walls.
I once did a project on 6th Avenue where I wheat pasted my cornrows pattern on a 50-foot long plywood construction area, where is says -post no bills, I did it in broad day light with a friend and was stoked to see a huge cornfield on 6th Ave… I was lucky no one stopped me!
I naturally wanted to use spray paint and have a graffiti influence in my work. Aesthetically I find it pleasing to my eye and I realized that others may feel the same way.
I don’t do much street art or graffiti these days in the city… it’s a way for me to release that angst a little bit even though it’s still very different.
GP: Having earned your BFA in Textile Surface Design at FIT, with a semester abroad at Chelsea College of Art in London, did you find a big difference between how New Yorkers and Londoners engage with art and wallpaper design?
SM: Yes, I found a huge difference: London was way more open to experimentation, abstract ideas without an end result, doing things for the process, not the outcome… They love their craftsmans. It was great to be able to visit and see William Moris’ process in his home in London.
GP: Should aspiring designers stay in school or is it better to find a mentor or apprenticeship and just get to work?
SM: School is amazing… For me it was a vacation from my working life, it allowed me to be playful and to give myself permission to be creative. Sometimes work gets in the way of creativity, so, personally, I needed that time to remember that. I think working is always great. You learn to incorporate your skills into the real world. Both are just as important in my opinion.
GP: At the new Greenpoint events space, Dobbin St, you’ve installed both your NYC Alphabet custom wallpaper in the main room as well as the fault line pattern in the client suite. Both designs are unique and quite different from each other… can you tell us a bit about the inspiration and process there?
SM: NYC Alphabet was inspired by the graffiti handstyle. I love the way marker tag letters look. I wanted to create a paper that showed letters but wasn’t too serious. A paper that was versatile, that a baby New Yorker could look at to learn their abc’s or someone who is much older could look at and appreciate hand style.
At first I considered using someone else’s hand because I know many writers with dope handstyles, but I thought I should let my own influence and style shine through.
Fault lines was drawn in my studio and it was pure energy and movement. It is more about rhythm, moving with ebbs and flows, how we grow and can’t control where we are going or what the outcome will be. It reminded me of fault lines in the earth.
GP: It seems that Greenpoint is having a bit of a renaissance in regards to textile design and ceramics (see recent articles with Caroline Hurley, Matthew Ward). Do you find that there’s perhaps a deeper appreciation for this work in North Brooklyn and Queens than elsewhere?
SM: I think people who live in this area are doers and can appreciate others that do. Details are important, and I think culturally we have a lot of influence from many voices and people around us. There is so much information in New York we are trying to process so I think that textiles and ceramics are a way to be able to translate that. If we can just sit down for a moment!
GP: As a working artist and craftswoman, do you have any advice for a younger artist who’s looking to work professionally in his or her trade? Is it possible to live in New York City and support yourself as an artist or designer?
SM: You have to start doing it, to make it happen. It takes time and patience to hone in on a craft but I’ve seen people successfully do it. It is possible. For me, I had a wallpaper installation business that blew up over many years because I took care of my craft and my clients and created a good reputation through doing so. The money from that has supported the start up of my wallpaper design and manufacturing company. I think finding a trade is smart to have something to fall back on to keep yourself afloat.
It is a balancing act.