Sarah Merenda’s wallpaper obsession

As a former wallpaper installer who designs and prints her own wallcoverings, Sarah Merenda knows her medium like few others.

“I love how quickly wallpaper can transform a space. You can change the color, the mood, the tone, the entire design of a room by putting paper on the wall,” says Merenda, founder and creative director for Merenda Wallpaper, based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Design News Now caught up with Merenda after the recent ICFF show, where she debuted her latest collection, Ensemble, to good reviews. We chatted about her creative process, why her firm is a good resource for interior designers, wallpaper trends she loves, what’s ahead for her company and more.

Getting it on the wall

Merenda started out as a wallpaper installer, getting instruction from an uncle in Atlanta after graduating from high school in her home state of Maryland. She immediately loved everything about wallpaper installation: The geometry and math involved in configuring the best way to apply strips of paper to the walls, the physicality of the work, the beauty of the patterns.

Nature has been inspiring Merenda since a move to New Jersey a few years ago. She spotted banana palm leaves at a botanical garden.

She opened her own wallpaper business in New York in 2006, primarily doing installation but also offering murals and handprinted papers. The business was a success. “I became a lot of designers’ go-to installer, and I was making great money and slammed with business,” she says. “I wanted to design my own paper, but my art kept getting put on the back burner.”

In 2011, she went back to school to study textile design, building on an earlier associate’s degree to earn a bachelor’s degree. “Those two years, I forced myself to focus on my art. I was getting so much good feedback from my professors and my peers,” she says. With her degree in hand, she switched the focus of her business to wallpaper design.

Merenda’s in the process of building on her education in textile design and expanding her business by also offering her customers jacquards for pillows, window treatments and upholstery. She recently received her first samples from a contract weaver. “I’m really excited about it,” she said. “… “I like being able to translate a design onto something tactile.”

She moved her family and business from New York to Cherry Hill in 2020, shuttering a storefront she had in the city. But she thinks it’s time to open another space and is considering locations.

The art of design

Until this spring, all Merenda’s designs have been her own, but with her Ensemble collection, she translated works by 19th-century German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel and 20th-century French artist Emile-Allain Séguy to weave together “the natural complexity of marine life and artistic interpretation.” She showed the line at the ICFF show, May 18-20, in New York.

“I was so inspired by Haeckel’s work and just felt it was kind of crazy not to put it back out into the world. But I was a little nervous about it because up until this point, (Merenda Wallpaper) has all been my designs. But it was so well-received, and the show was unbelievable, so I feel really good about it.”

Merenda says the undulating Medusa is a current favorite of hers and is perfect for bathrooms.

Merenda’s designs are often inspired by nature, from undulating jellyfish that soothed her during an aquarium visit (and later made their way into the new Medusa design) to banana palms that demanded her attention during a trip to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania that lead to Banana Palm Dreams. “Especially since I’ve moved to New Jersey, I’ve been inspired by nature. There’s so much nature here,” she says. “When I was in New York, I was inspired by the city — the street, the walls, the graffiti, whatever I saw in everyday life.

“… But I’m starting to be more intentional about (seeking out inspiration). It’s about allowing the space and time to look. I think the more you look, the more you see.”

Merenda’s also devoting more time to painting: “It’s really important to me to get back to the raw elements of creativity and carving out time for the art.”

Merenda’s design process is old-school. She’ll often plop down to sketch when she sees something that inspires her. She takes reference photos and sometimes rubbings of textures and then draws or paints from them. Back in her studio, she’ll do full-scale wall drawings, tracing and retracing until she’s satisfied.

“I’ve found that once you draw and redraw it a couple of times, you really nail it. That was the case (for the Corn Rows design) and my Snake Party wallpaper, too. It’s my No. 1 seller, and I think most people love it,” she says.

Snake Party, also available in a Snake Party 2.0 version, was inspired by a trip to a New York library and a search for images of extinct animals. But other finds worked their way into the complex design, too. The corn from the Eastern Shore of Maryland makes an appearance in the pattern, as does a drawing inspired by a bee she found on her balcony one day.

Snake Party 2.0 is an update of the company’s most popular pattern.

“I drew all those elements separately and then cut them out and moved them around like a puzzle. It’s all about being loose and finding the final design. This was all done by hand,” Merenda says. “I think a lot of people design on the computer these days, but there’s something about moving objects around on your table that allows the beautiful negative space to appear.”

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Once she settles on a design, Merenda moves the pattern into Photoshop where she finesses it and creates various colorways.

About 10 years ago, Merenda invested in a large-scale latex HP printer that prints up to 60 inches wide on a variety of papers and fabrics, allowing her even greater control over her creative and production processes. It also gives her the ability to easily customize designs, paper widths and roll lengths. “It prints just beautifully, and I can print exactly what I or my customer needs,” she says.

Having a moment

It’s an exciting time for wallpaper, Merenda says. All those Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic made people hyperaware of the walls of their homes. And digital design and printing make wallpaper more affordable, accessible and customizable. “You can search for almost any type of wallpaper and find it,” she says.

The lush Hydrangea Garden pattern, introduced last year, is another favorite of Merenda.

The Merenda Wallpaper catalog itself is diverse, from spare black-and-white sketches (Fault Lines) and geometric repeats (Stars, Lighting) to urban-inspired graphics (Brooklyn Manhole, London Grate) and lush flowers (Hydrangea Garden, Dragon Flowers).

Her expertise

Merenda’s artistic passions and practical experience make her company a valuable resource for interior designers, who have been key to growing her business, starting back when it specialized in installation and designers would call her for advice.

“I have a lot of expertise in working with these materials. I know my products are going to hang beautifully because I make sure the material is going to do that,” she says. “… And designers know I can help them figure out exactly what they need in a space because I have so much experience with that. We can also do custom work for them. If they have a project and they need a certain green or they love Snake Party, but they need it for a really small space, I can help them with their vision.”

The Corn Rows design was inspired by farms along the Eastern Shore of Maryland where Merenda grew up.

Merenda loves to see customers go big with wallpaper. One recently papered a room, including ceiling, with her Stars pattern. “It’s amazing,” she says.

And she’s enjoying seeing customers mix patterns, say above and below a chair railing in a dining room.

One space where she’d like to see more use of wallpaper is bathrooms. “We have nonwovens now that don’t expand with moisture and are breathable. As long as you’re not splashing water directly on them, they’re great. I think my new collection is especially perfect for bathrooms.”

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