The work of William Mason, arguably the most important wallpaper designer and manufacturer in New Zealand history, is being brought back to life in a small Wairarapa wine village.

Boutique Wairarapa wallpaper producer PaperHands has been commissioned by the Resene company to recreate some of the work of the master with a new edition of his famous patterns.

Napier born, London trained textile designer Mason was living in Wellington in the 1950s, teaching art and exhibiting paintings at local galleries. He and his wife Maureen began producing hand-printed textiles, then wallpapers which were eagerly snapped up by home owners renovating old villas. By 1965, now working from Carterton, the Masons’ work adorned the walls of our embassies worldwide as well as the New Zealand suite in the Hong Kong Hilton hotel. Today, examples are held in prominent galleries and museums including the Alexander Turnbull Library and Te Papa.

Printing wallpaper is an ancient art. Originally printed by blocks made from fruit tree wood it superseded the previous means of decorating walls – hanging plain paper and illustrating it when in situ. The hand-block method lasted until the early 1800s when the mechanised ‘surface printing press’ was invented and used for large runs of a particular design. By the 1950s the ‘screen printing’ technique became more widespread which enabled small runs again and this is the process we are most familiar with today.

Wallpaper has been a part of the Resene story since the company bought Mason Prints in 1974. The business came complete with the Marion Street, Wellington building which housed the wallpaper showroom and which subsequently became the first Resene retail shop.

Martinborough based PaperHands was formed in 2009 by Ben and Helen Masters in the age-old Kiwi tradition of DIY. In this instance it was a case of not being able to find a suitable product for a renovation project at their own home and thinking “we can do this ourselves”. And by themselves they became, still the only commercial hand-screeners of wallpaper in New Zealand.

“We felt very much alone in the beginning, with no-one to fall back on,” Ben says. “It was a long process setting up and there was a fair bit of trial and error along the way.” But with the help of local trades, as well as specialists in other centres, they were soon producing distinctive decorative papers destined for specifiers, retailers and renovators far and wide.

When PaperHands was approached by Resene for the Mason project Ben could not have been more excited. “We based our original concept on the way the Masons worked so getting access to the old ‘positives’, which hadn’t been looked at for 25 years, was a real treat.” Around twenty of the positives were in good enough condition to consider using, from which eight formed the final selection. While the resulting sample book features Ben’s considered colour combinations, customers are welcome to specify their own preferences if they wish.

Using paints instead of inks has meant altering their production methods slightly but the process is fundamentally the same. Ben is quick to recognise the relationship PaperHands has with long-time Resene collaborator Aspiring Walls who import the specialist papers and, using Resene paints, apply the twelve background colours Ben has chosen. “Really, what we do is small change for them but I guess they see it as a positive way of getting wallpaper talked about again”.

The printing, trimming and distribution process then takes place back in Martinborough, just a few country miles from Carterton, full circle from where the Mason Prints wallpaper story really began half a century ago.