Designer Finds Inspiration Everywhere

John Mahoney’s Art Could Hang In Your Home

Wallpaper’s got a bad rap. Long the home decor choice for overzealous grannies and tacky rich people, floor-to-ceiling paper products have nearly become a thing of the past: a throwback to the days of yore.

Luckily there’s a new breed of wallpaper creators intent on bringing interior coverings back to the forefront. New York City’s Studio Printworks specializes in fine accoutrement, offering the consumer dozens of unique creations.

John Mahoney’s just one of the Studio’s army of artists, but he’s also one of the best. We caught up with Mahoney recently to chat about his definition of home, kimonos, Frank Miller, the Quakers, art and, of course, wallpaper.

See what he has to say for himself – after the jump…

Andrew Belonsky: I’ll start with a question I’m asking almost everyone: what’s your definition of home?

John Mahoney: My definition of home – hmm, can you give me a minute to brainstorm out loud? Home is a sanctuary – whatever that means to different people, whether it’s comfort, security, family, health. Home is more of a concept for me than an actual place.

AB: Where are you from, originally?

JM: Minneapolis.

AB: What was that like?

JM: [Laughs] My home growing up was just a mishmash of difference. Cultures and time periods and histories. My father did a lot of traveling in Africa in the 60s and our home was filled with African artifacts and Zulu shields and African drums and – My parents both did a lot of traveling. We had paintings – sand paintings from American Indians, English antiques, French antiques. It was just such a jumble.

AB: That explains your varied inspirations: Ndebele wallpaintings and Frank Miller. I imagine your parents’ travels had a lot of influence on your own aesthetic.

JM: Exactly. Our home was always very eclectic. There would be a priceless antique next to a piece of folk art that had come from a yard sale. It was a wonderful mixture of high and low and old and new. I think that was the biggest defining factor for my ideas about home furnishings and design.

AB: A mixture of high and low?

JM: High and low, yeah. And a very eclectic approach and a very personal, artistic approach. I think that a really inspiring home for me is a reflection of the inhabitants’ pace and experiences and memories and dreams. They’re not perfectly matched. They’re not even necessarily comprehensible or linear. I think most of us have – our backgrounds are kind of a jumble and an inspiring home reflects that.

Frank Miller’s considered one of the greatest graphic artists and writers in history. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns belongs in every home.

AB: Do you always – you’ve always considered yourself an artist, right?

JM: Yeah, pretty much from an early age.

AB: And did you start with floor coverings and then –

JM: Gosh, I’ve worked in so many different media throughout the years and the line between art, design and craft has always been very fluid for me. I love drawing, I love construction projects, I love doing collage. I’ve done it all, but I’ve always loved textiles, so when I began producing this carpet collection a few years ago, it felt a little bit like coming home.

AB: What is so attractive about textiles to you?

JM: I love color. The color that you can get in silk and wool, I think they’re almost more beautiful than the ones you can get in oil or pigment. For me, textiles have a wonderful combination of two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. My sensibility is very flat and graphic, yet it comes with a strong structural element, as well. There’s a really strong textural element that I love in carpets and fabrics, but it also brings out the best of my own sensibilities.

AB: How did you make the transition to wall coverings?

JM: For many years I was showing in galleries in New York and for a couple shows I was doing paintings directly on the wall. Instead of getting a really large canvas, I was just painting on the wall and those turned into murals. I’ve always been very into pattern and repetition and decoration. When I met [Studio Printworks founder] Dennis Shah, it was almost a perfect match. I had been using stencils to create a lot of my murals, so I understood the whole concept of ground and figure. It’s just a very easy transition…

Mahoney isn’t into diamonds. He prefers silk.
AB: It must be unique for an artist to know that not only is their work so accessible – granted the papers and floor coverings are being bought by a specific economic class – but they’re readily available. It’s not as if it’s a $122 million skull covered in diamonds. That must be pretty unique as an artist, I would imagine. You’re putting your art into somebody’s house for them to live within, rather than creating something that one person could horde away.

JM: That’s one thing that really inspired me to make that transition. I strongly believe that art is not something you put in a gold frame and put behind glass. It’s something you should live with. It’s something that you should live with and it’s something that should be part of the fabric of everyday life. I love the fact that my carpets are getting used. I love the idea that puppies and children and toys are tearing them up, adding patina and history and stories to these textiles. I think that’s really important. I hate this idea of art as a sacrosanct object that is totally divorced from our everyday lives. Making carpets and wallpapers is a way to bring my ideas, my aesthetic and my vision to a much larger audience. Like you said, it’s not a precious, diamond covered skull that gets horded away. It’s something to live with and enjoy and use up. It bothered me when I was showing at galleries that a lot of my work was getting boxed and put into storage bins in New Jersey. I wanted people to really live with my work. And I also wanted access to a larger audience, too. There are only 250 prominent contemporary art collectors in the world. That’s it. I felt that if you really want to have an impact on American culture, you’ve got to find a larger audience and make your work a little more accessible. Granted, my work at the moment is limited to a high-end clientele, but it’s much larger than it was in the art world.

AB: So, Dennis wrote me an email which reads “Have John explain to how the Mota Shang stripes work”. So?
JM: [Laughs] Let me try to explain. There’s no horizontal repeat on that pattern, so each strip, when it connects with another, there’s no prescribed place for it to go. This is inspired by Japanese kimonos. The repeat patterns on a kimono were the same way, because they would take the kimonos apart to wash them, so anytime you sewed them back together, the seams would be in a slightly different place and they’d rotate the seams to shift the wear of the kimono. The fact that it didn’t match going from left to right was kind of the charm of the pattern, so I wanted to create this design because every time it falls, it looks different. The more variations when you hang that pattern, the better.

AB: What do you think of the art machine – I know you worked at the Guggenheim and you’d rather have your art hanging in a home than a gallery – so what’s your opinion of the art scene today?

JM: Oh, gosh, that’s a loaded question. Um, I’m very heartened to see the definition of art getting broadened a lot in my generation. If you look at the history of art – it’s been so amorphic up until the 20th century. Art was painting and sculptures and art was what you saw in a gallery – period. I’m very much inspired to see artists, designers and curators exploring the very fertile area between utilitarian and non-utilitarian objects that have been beautifully designed, artistically inspired and created by artisans.

Two examples of Mahoney’s “Kiku Shima” wallpaper. It’s glorious!
AB: Now, you said you have a house upstate. Where else do you live?

JM: I live upstate, actually. My main office is in Hudson, New York and I also have an old one-room school house near Hillsdale. It’s great. It’s a wonderful little getaway surrounded by 250 acres of forest.

AB: How did you find it?

JM: We kind of stumbled on it. My partner and I had been looking for a get-away for probably over a year-and-a-half and one day, when we were headed back to the city after seeing a horrible dump, the real estate agent called us and said she’d just gotten a new listing and thought it was perfect for us. And, sure enough, we went over and fell in love with it immediately.

AB: What about your house – your main office? How did you find that?

JM: We’d been going – we have a lot of friends in Hudson and we’d been going in and out for many years, so we knew the area pretty well and we knew the neighborhood that we wanted to be in – the house that we bought had been on the market for a while, but the price was unreachable for us. When we found out the owners were going to drop the price, we jumped on it, because it’s a beautiful, old Greek revival townhouse that had a Victorian makeover, an arts and crafts addition and a 1940s kitchen added on. It’s quite an almagamation of different times and styles and that appealed to me. I see it as a wonderful canvas for future explorations

AB: What do you want to do now with your career?

JM: I’m actually working with a national manufacture on a collection of carpets that’s a little more rooted in tradition. The designs in this collection are a play on traditional Persian, Oriental rugs, but they’ve been given a modern twist. Using color and scale – I’m creating a more transitional collection that will be available in showrooms across the country. So, that’s exciting – having a bridge line that will be available to more designers and architects. I’d love to design a collection of fabrics and I think perhaps tableware.

AB: How important is tradition to you? The concept of tradition – the things that we pass on to the next generation? The things that become familiar?

JM: I think can traditional is useful for inspiration, but not useful as a rule book. You shouldn’t be too beholden to tradition, but it’s also important to know the history of art.

A 1783 sketch of a Quaker meeting house.
AB: Were you brought up in a religious household?

JM: Yes.

AB: Very religious?

JM: No. My mother’s Catholic and my father was raised as a Christian Scientist. My brother and I were both raised Catholic, but the household was pretty progressive. You have to remember, this was Minneapolis in the 1970s. Thank God I didn’t go to Catholic school, because –

AB: It would mess you up?

JM: Yeah.

AB: I’ve heard it can have that affect on people.

JM: Let’s say that because I didn’t go to Catholic school, I have a healthy respect for the Catholic tradition, but I no longer practice Catholicism. I’ve been a Quaker for fourteen years.

AB: Really? Why?

JM: Well, after I came out, I had a hard time with the Church’s stance on homosexuality. There were a lot of double standards in the Church’s teaching that weren’t in line with my own. I don’t know. It took me so long to come out of the closet that I wasn’t going to go back in and to be a Catholic and gay, I felt that I had to be in the closet.

AB: How old were you?

JM: About twenty-one. A friend of mine in college was a Quaker and I had gone with her once to a Quaker meeting and around this time that I was distancing myself from the Church, I began to attend Quaker meetings more and more often. It was really interesting to me, because at the time that I started going to Quaker meetings, there was a lot of turmoil over whether to allow same-sex unions and most of the meeting was in favor of it, but there were a few people who had reservations about it. Through the Quaker process, everyone in the community had to come to a consensus before any decision was made. A lot of the gay men and women would come up to me and say, “Oh, you’ve got to rally behind us,” “We gotta push this through” and I said, “Honestly, I really don’t care. The fact that same-sex unions are even being discussed in the Religious Society of Friends is a victory to me!”.

AB: It’s interesting that you – considering this is The Home Issue – that you went from Catholicism, which has this omniscient, omnipotent, larger-than-life God and all this hierarchy and the congregation has no say – and then you go to the Quakers, who are very democratic and believe in the individual: they’re interested in the God in the individual. It’s a much more familiar religion, it seems to me…

JM: Yeah, in many ways it’s on the other end of the spectrum from Catholicism. My father’s religious beliefs were very Quaker – he went to Quaker meetings a couple of times. I wouldn’t say he’s religious. He’s spiritual. His spirituality revolved around a personal relationship with God and mediate by priests and bishops and clergy. So, studying Quakers felt familiar because of the spiritual beliefs my father shared with me.

Don't forget to share:

Help make sure LGBTQ+ stories are being told...

We can't rely on mainstream media to tell our stories. That's why we don't lock Queerty articles behind a paywall. Will you support our mission with a contribution today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated