Texas’ Rusty Arena — the wizard of wall covering, the maestro of fabric — is toasting 25 years at the helm of a brilliant design practice. Catherine D. Anspon has a sit-down (on a settee upholstered in Arena’s Caligraph fabric, no less) with the famously low-key artist and artisan.
From HSPVA to Kips Bay
From the pages of Veranda to Architectural Digest, Rusty Arena has metamorphosed from the kid most likely to succeed in the inaugural class of 1973 at Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts to the darling of the national design firmament. This is a talent whose extraordinary hand-printed wallpaper and textiles are both timeless and contemporary. If we were to compare Arena to a modern master, it might be Cy Twombly, an artist whom he admires. Like Twombly, Arena is adept at channeling the beauty and resonance from times past to today. Even the monikers of his wall coverings and textiles hint at sources and inspirations from lost civilizations, other worlds, the ancients and the antique — Santorini, Cartouche, Valmont. In the two and a half decades since Arena Design launched, its protagonist has segued from trompe l’oeil and faux finishes to his signature creations: hand-painted wallpapers and fabrics. He forays successfully into both, and his work draws gasps for the subtle way that light plays on the hand-blocked bolts of velvet. He’s also earned accolades from Carolyne Roehm for the opulent wall covering he crafted for Susan Gutfreund’s library in the New York Kips Bay Show House (the hand-painted and hand-printed jute hereafter titled Avian Kips Bay).
Arena won’t reveal his secrets, but he was approached by Fortuny to create a wallpaper collection. Because Arena Design’s hand-screened processes are as proprietary as his inspirations, the project did not go forward. He did collaborate with Hermès to craft a collection of velvets for visual display in the fabled retailer’s Paris storefronts, and he has a dream of “one day designing a scarf for Hermès.” He’s also worked on collaborations with the legendary textile company Jim Thompson, which is headquartered in Bangkok.
Arena creations are hand-screened in Texas, using special papers (he will not divulge) for the wall coverings and jute, linen or velvet for the textiles. At any time, an arsenal of screens are in production for either wallpapers or fabrics, and many designs will appear in both. All this takes place in his showroom, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse where Arena and four studio assistants are the keepers of the screens — a total of 279 are available, some of which are highlight screens used in combination with others to produce the atelier’s prized output, to fulfill stocked patterns and custom orders.
Working on …
“I’m amidst a creation for a yacht that’s exciting! The owner is a dream client.”
Arena Design fabrics and wallcoverings available to the trade at ID Collection.