Q + A

the voice of batya stepelman

If these walls could talk, Batya Stepelman could be considered Denver’s champion interpreter. Friend to milehimodern and the founder of her own niche wallpaper company — aptly named WallTawk — Batya understands the language of homes, deciphering what she understands about spaces and the people who inhabit them to form a selection of curated patterns and textures.

What’s your story?

I’m a New Yorker (WallTawk is a nod to my hometown) who moved west and fell in love with the mountains and wide-open spaces. A friend once called me “painfully urban,” so instead of moving to a more rural part of the state, we settled in Denver — a growing and progressive city that also happens to have close proximity to the natural landscape we wanted in our lives.

Telecommuting for a PR firm in Brooklyn, I represented small companies who paid fair wages and believed in a living standard. The designs were made with integrity and environmental consciousness, all of which changed the way I thought about design. That experience impacted the way I made my own purchases and I was determined to use my dollars wisely.

In 2013, we bought an old historic home, which was built in 1895. The walls were all painted the same shade of “greige” – it was really a blank slate. I looked around at all the bare walls of our home and thought, “There are so many good spots for wallpaper.” I initially sourced my wallpaper from a local company on Santa Fe, but by the time I was ready to paper my fourth room, the company had shuttered their doors.

I saw an opportunity. I told my husband I was going to launch an independent wallpaper boutique; the only catch was that it was going to operate out of our home, specifically our dining room! I didn’t have any capital investment – and quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if market in Denver would support this enterprise. I opened up my doors in 2016 with just a handful of companies on board.

How has your business evolved since 2016?

Today, almost 4 years later, I’ve completed 750 projects, I represent 68 independent brands and I’ve even created Denver Damask with local artist, Meredith Feniak — so that’s a big change from WallTawk in its inception and nascent stages. I’ve established incredible relationships with interior design firms and Wallcovering Installers Association. As I’ve grown, I’ve had some unique opportunities to give back to the local community through non-profit partnerships. It’s been a dream come true!

Tell us more about your beautiful historic home in Congress Park.

If I could define my home’s style in two words, it’s pattern and color. My home is heavily — I mean, heavily — wallpapered. Many of the home’s original details were preserved; any updates we’ve done have taken the architectural language of the home into account and not stripped the space of its history. Each room has a story. I like to play around with papers, using our home as a living laboratory.

I find myself thinking about the people who resided here before us; the previous inhabitants lived through great uncertainty too, like World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, racial divide, social discontent and economic downturns. It reminds me that we will get through this together, and it’s my firm belief that we will be stronger, wiser and hopefully kinder on the other side of this pandemic. My home actually reminds me that human beings are resilient.

To what do you attribute your success?

A client once called me a “wallpaper whisperer” and I just loved that saying! I think part of my success is that I really love what I do. I’m extremely proud of the brands I get to represent. I think it also helps that I am focused on one specific thing. It’s a niche market that is quite popular right now as people are literally staring at their walls all day long.

In what ways do you manage a work/life balance?

It’s very much a work in progress. I could write a tome on the challenges of balancing work-business-life-motherhood during a pandemic, but I have a strong support team — my husband — and I’m grateful for it!

I am trying to get out of the habit of late night emailing. I’m working hard at keeping normal business hours. It’s a challenge for sure, because I care so deeply about my clients and projects, but since there’s no such thing as a wallpaper emergency, I need to get a handle on it.

How do you choose your roster of independent artists?

I must really appreciate their work. At first, I was going to trade shows to meet artists and exhibitors directly and make personal connections. Now, I only add brands that have a specific point of view; their aesthetic must be unique, and it can’t overlap with an artist I already represent. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of artists who do “floral” or “geometric” – but their interpretation of the style must be identifiable and stand alone.

Why wallpaper?

To me, modern wallpaper has two functions: it can either it can be used as a backdrop to add subtle warmth, pattern or texture; or it can be used as large format art — the focal design element in the space.

I really believe wallpaper is the only finish that can transform a space as thoroughly and as easily. It’s an exciting time to be in this design category. There’s so much innovation and whimsy, including scratch and sniff papers like cherries, bananas and yes, cannabis, along with magnetic options and 3D.

In your opinion, what makes a house a home?

A home should reflect the personalities of the people who live there. That is accomplished when you weave your story into your design, something that can be done by incorporating heirlooms or special mementos into your space.

The first thing I see when I walk through our doors is a painting my father made just before I was born. I have his nesting tables and my mother’s old typewriter too. I’ve collected tapestries and ceramics from travels we have taken as a family, as well as art made by friends and artists I admire. The wallpaper patterns I have used in our home all speak to the things we love and places we’ve been. I believe your house becomes a home when it feels comforting and enveloping, like a shelter in the storm.

A client comes to you with a custom wallpaper request. What’s your process to create the room/home of their visual dreams?

 Most of the custom requests come in the form of color, meaning the client likes a pattern but it needs to be modified in terms of the color, usually to match cabinetry or some other design element in the home.

Believe it or not, custom color is easy! All I need is a Benjamin Moore, Pantone or Sherwin William paint reference and then a strike off — a yard of the pattern printed in that custom color — can be run. There is typically no additional charge for custom orders. If the custom request is related to size (say, an open three-story wall by a glass staircase), then I work closely with art and digital teams to fine tune the pattern and make sure the scale is correct.

What project are you most proud of?

Can I say all of them? Each residential project has a special place in my heart. I’ve worked with people in all different stages of their lives; every project has a story behind it because it’s about the people and their homes. I like to think that I’m able to find something for everyone and that I listen attentively to what the client needs.

On the commercial side, I absolutely loved being a small part of Room for Milly, one of the most beautiful and visionary cocktail bars in Colorado. Being in close proximity to such talented visionaries like Fiona Arnold and Tamra Holton was a wonderful thing.

If you could recommend any pivotal books, podcasts, leaders, etc., what would you recommend?

On the design side, I listen to Design Matters with Debbie Millman and the Clever Podcast. I stream books all the time while I’m working and my next listen is Atomic Habits, which was recommended by a client. I also listen to Brene Brown and Esther Perel — self-help podcasts are all the rage over here right now!

The books I read are more political in nature or great works of fiction because I’m in quite a few books clubs. My favorite reads last year were The Underground Railroad, Convenience Store Woman, Little Failures and Americanah