Meet Yolande Milan Batteau, Wallpaper Atelier to the Elite

Batteau's Brooklyn-based studio Callidus Guild leverages ancient techniques from around the world to design sustainable surfaces and wallpapers. Clientele includes Chanel and Tiffany & Co.
November 10, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC
Yolande Milan Batteau at work during production of an installation at Salon Art + Design in 2018. Courtesy of Matthew Placek
Courtesy of Matthew Placek

The difference between wallpaper and fine art is paper thin at Callidus Guild in Brooklyn, New York, where Yolande Milan Batteau, an exhibited fine artist with more than 25 years of experience, partners with other artisans to give wallpaper installs the high-brow treatment. Batteau has traveled the world, studying and mastering ancient methods of wall treatment perfected by the Romans, Japanese, Germans, and others throughout history.

The result: Walls that are works of art on their own.

Batteau would tell you that Callidus Guild is much more than just wallpaper, however. The studio creates three kinds of artwork: hand-painted wallpaper, paintings for walls on canvas or board, and site-specific surface installations in a range of media. Essentially, it’s a decorative arts organization that makes implementing artwork easy, something that’s earned the studio such clients as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany & Co.

The process is imbued with intention down to the very materials themselves, foraged whenever possible by Callidus Guild’s artisans. Though no longer containing arsenic (as was en vogue during the Victorian era), today’s vinyl wall coverings come with their own host of health and environment concerns. So instead, Callidus Guild uses recycled cellulose, which not only suppresses mold and mildew but also doubles as insulation (it’s a favored substitute for fiberglass). Tints are done by hand; paints are made in house, and pigments come from historical recipes that might include camel urine or dried and crushed beetles; the materials used in every surface created are all natural, down to the marble plasters; and it’s all carried out by artists and artisans in New York City who are paid a living wage.

Inside the Tiffany and Co’s gallery panel made by Batteau.
Courtesy of Callidus Guild

Batteau’s Callidus Guild work is, in many cases, an anchor, connected both to the architecture of the space and to the earth itself, grounding through familiar textures and tones that allude to the natural phenomena that exists beyond the walls’ bounds. Here, Batteau waxes poetic on power: of the collaborative collective, of paint pigment, and of that within the person herself.

Fortune: Why found Callidus Guild?

Batteau: I started working as Callidus Guild in 1996 in San Francisco, but really founded the company as it is today in 2003. Painters often work in isolation, and after traveling through Africa for a year, I decided I want to work collectively. Creating a guild made it possible for me to work with experts in various media, in layers, to approach larger, more complex projects knowing I could pull them off by installing them with other artists and artisans, not just assistants.

Ancient techniques present throughout your work. How did that start?

When I studied painting at the Art Institute in San Francisco, the conversation of the day was that “painting is dead.” No one was teaching academic painting; no one knew much about the materials and methods of painting anymore, and especially not in contemporary art schools. I was truly in love with painting on canvas and desperate to acquire virtuosity to express myself. I sought out an autodidact path of reading books, doing experiments, and setting up exercises to teach myself the craft of art making. In the process, I learned that art should not be separated from life, that you must pay attention.

Many of the materials we use at Callidus Guild are historically used in the decorative arts, or architecture: renders of marble dust plaster, nacre, gilding. We experiment with new ways of using these materials, like water gilding on Selenite (instead of just glass), or putting plaster on hand-painted wallpaper and manipulating it as if it were a lacquer instead of a plaster.

Yolande Milan Batteau created the white three panels for Apparatus Studio and the opening of their new showroom in New York City.
Courtesy of Alberto Maria Colombo

How did you find your way to wallpaper?

I made wallpaper because that is what Chanel wanted. The direction of my work has been driven by the desires and needs of my patrons. That is how building a commercial arts business worked for me. I developed products that suited my clients’ constraints, informed by my unique hand and eye. I didn’t originally plan to make commercial art but was able to have access to the finest materials, methods, and collaborators on earth by staying open and willing. I think of it as forging because that hammering has made me stronger.

What medium did you work in previously?

My first love was artist’s oil paint, stumbled onto un-bleached Belgian linen, prepared with plaster of paris cakes—laid heavy, like frosting impasto, the peaks of the paint rising as you release the brush! I could barely afford these mediums when I started. Cobalt was too expensive to use with any abandon. They had stopped making paints with much pigment in the 1990s. Dense, pigment rich, handmade linseed oil and pigment, mulled by hand and knifed into old-fashioned, metal tubes—I died over that! Buttery oil paint and a springy badger-hair filbert brush. Most painters prefer sable, but it’s a little too soft for me. I spent thousands of hours painting that way, often alone in a basement studio, totally in love.

Beatteau’s gold mirrors were made using gold leafs applied via an ancient technique called verre-eglomise.
Courtesy of Lauren Coleman

How do you approach a blank wall or a new space?

I invent techniques with modified tools or switch out materials to arrive at new places. I enjoy experimenting with tooling and polishing, or sanding back layers to expose the path. Sometimes new techniques arrive from happy accidents! You can never underestimate the power of play or flow in discovering the new or beauty or joy. I feel truly blessed to be in a position to create culture. I encourage all young women to follow their passions, vision, dreams, whatever they are, because this is not a dress rehearsal—this is the real thing.

Now Callidus Guild offers a range of exquisite handmade wallpapers, so many people simply go to Elitis, our showroom in New York, and order a commission. Everything is sur-mesure (tailored). Our studio collaborates with clients on anything from tweaking a palette to hiring me to create complete works of art from scratch. The creative process can take years in development. If you simply purchase our wallpaper, you are tapping into decades of creative process to have arrived at my designs.

What are you currently working on?

Two thousand five hundred yards of custom paper for a project in China. It has been months! I am in a group show, The Stone Show, at Gallery TwentyTwenty Two, with Richard Hart, Noemi Langlois-Meurinne, and Avery Gregory, all friends, which is up through [November 30]. It has been a wonderful detour to make personal work again, and this show is especially intimate.

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