Galbraith & Paul: High End and Helpful

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By Ellen Gilbert

Photography Courtesy of Galbraith & Paul

The studio is the soul of our business,” say Liz Galbraith and Ephraim Paul about their eponymous company, Galbraith & Paul, a studio workshop specializing in hand block printed textiles, handmade rugs, and studio printed wallpaper available to the trade. Everything about the enterprise – from Galbraith’s determination to “keep making it personal;” to the culture engendered by the all-female staff, to their idiosyncratic location (a high-ceilinged old stone building at 116 Shurs Lane in Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood), the place breathes originality.

Liz and “Ephi,” as he is called, are a long-married couple originally from Winnetka, Illinois. They came to Philadelphia after college, and seem to have neatly divvied things up: she’s an artist who designs new patterns and products, while he watches over the business end, minding on-site the office and taking their “show on the road” to places like California, Atlanta, and London several times a year. Of course it’s a lot more complicated than that, but they’ve been at it since 1986, and they are clearly a success. Asked if they ever get feedback about designs or products, Liz matter-of-factly reports that dealers are invariably delighted with their products.

MAGICAL FABRICS

“Galbraith’s magic is in making the fabric designs all her own,” observes reporter Mary Daniels and writer Eils Loto concurs. “Galbraith’s aesthetic is tough to pigeonhole,” she says, pointing out that Galbraith’s work has been likened to “the punchy designs of the Finnish company Marimekko, with touches of Arts and Crafts Movement visionary William Morris, and a dash of Fortuny.” Galbraith herself says that she likes “things that kind of bridge the gap between different styles.” Fabrics may end up in upholstered furniture and drapery in luxury resorts or in Starbucks’ lighting fixtures. Other clients include Wolfgang Puck’s chain of California Pizza Kitchen restaurants and Equinox, a high-end health club chain. Jay Jeffers, a California-based interior designer reported that “pretty much every project” he does “features a little bit of Galbraith & Paul,” including an apartment makeover he did that appeared in an issue of House Beautiful. Galbraith & Paul’s appeal is widespread: one year, their fabrics were used to make Roman shades and pillows for the library of the highly regarded Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club Decorator Showhouse in New York. Designer Nina Campbell, who represents Galbraith & Paul in the United Kingdom, was happy to use Galbraith’s “Donuts” pattern to upholster the Hepplewhite chairs she inherited from her grandmother. “If Mr. Hepplewhite were still alive today, he would approve,” she reportedly said.

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HAND-BLOCKING

“Because we print everything to order in our studio, creating custom fabrics and wallpapers is an easy and creative process,” say Galbraith & Paul. “Simply put, we can print any of our patterns in any color on any ground with standard minimums and no up charge except the cost of a strike off.” Besides providing beautiful images of their products, their website, galbraithandpaul.com, is a model of its kind, replete with lucid explanations of different processes (“we provide a set of tools”); encouragement (a “lookbook” for ideas and inspiration), and down-to-earth instructions for maintenance (their wallpaper, they assure customers, is “easy to apply and lightly spongeable”). Working in collaboration with Savile Row clothier Holland & Sherry, Galbraith & Paul rugs now include 16 designs available in 5 constructions, and wallpaper is printed to order on Class A Fire-Rated paper. A line of block printed pillows and lighting is carried exclusively by Room & Board. Other details about sourcing, including interior design showrooms, abound.

At the heart of it all, though, are the hands-on techniques they continue to champion. Galbraith is one of the few (some may claim the only) artisan in the United States still using hand-blocking, a method of producing patterns on cloth that goes back to biblical times (“like potato printing,” she suggests). Galbraith’s designs are realized in the 4,000 square foot studio as staff members work at eight-yard long printing tables, pressing woodblocks into fabric and hand printing to order. There’s wonderful symmetry in the repetitions as well as the totally unexpected, like the slight imperfections that occur when the human hand is at work. “Too-perfect” doesn’t cut it, says Paul. “We think one of the reasons people are drawn to our line is because of the ‘mistakes.’” “It really is like going back to another century in here,” says longtime employee Rachel Purcell.

Make no mistake, though: Galbraith and Paul is no mom-and-pop, “ye olde workshoppe” bastion of quaintness. State-of-the art, carefully calibrated paint mixing machines insure precision in filling color orders, and a digital printer in the studio is used for producing wallpaper. “Digital was a way we could expand but still keep control over our process,” Galbraith has said, and she and Paul are more than amenable to identifying ways in which new technology can support their mission of keeping things “as hand-printed as possible.”

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“IN IT TOGETHER”

Asked about the fact that all of the current employees in the studio are women, Galbraith says, “it just worked out that way,” and though that may sound kind of dispassionate, she and Paul take their presence very seriously.

“It’s a very community-like atmosphere,” says 28-year old textile printer Ashley Limes, who has been with the company for five years. “Unlike most work places, we prepare and eat our meals together.” By “we” Limes means Ephi, Liz, the 17-member regular staff, and part-timers – often college students who routinely return when they are on a break. Birthdays are celebrated with monthly parties and there’s a mandatory four-day workweek, although Galbraith & Paul is open five days a week. Schedules are staggered, and staffers, who are mostly also artists with skills and interests that go beyond their workplace stations, are encouraged to pursue their own projects at other venues. “Liz and Ephi are very supportive of us in general,” adds Limes. “They allow us to sell our own goods during the annual Sample Sale.”

“Everyone’s in it together,” says Galbraith. “The culture of the workplace environment is very important.” Sensitivity to workers’ concerns extends to time off when unexpected challenges, like an illness in the family, arise. The all-women factor may originally have been originally unintended, but it has nurtured a special kind of culture. The women watch each other’s backs, pitch in where needed, and generally enjoy each other’s company. Galbraith points out that most of them tend to be “caretakers” in their respective families, and there’s no two ways about how to respond when a crisis occurs. One early winter day this year Galbraith was all smiles and encouragement as she took a call from an employee who was reporting to say that she had been chosen for what would probably be days-long jury duty. Rather than the usual expressions of dismay that often follow such announcements, Galbraith’s attitude was philosophical. “We’re just making wallpaper; who cares?” she mused. Her employee, she added, was really smart, and Galbraith had fully expected her to be chosen for a jury and given a chance to perform her civic duty.

Staff at Galbraith & Paul tend to stay for at least awhile, and when the unusual opening comes up, the inclination now is to hire another woman; one or two men would just be disruptive at this point, she says. Galbraith and Paul joke about their three sons, two young adults and one high-schooler still at home, as being the male component. Cordial relationships with people outside the studio – from vendors to the UPS man — are mindfully cultivated, particularly by Paul, an affable personality who claims to be the only one working a five-day week.

Items that have already found their way into Galbraith’s brand new second-floor design room include nods to older traditions (a striking photograph of her mother in uniform as a young World War II “poster girl”) as well as evidence of possible new ventures (a model’s form draped in a tunic made, of course, from a Galbraith & Paul fabric). Although it is not yet clear if the clothing business is a “go,” Galbraith is eager to point out the tunic’s practicality; its simple design, she notes, means it will transition easily from day to evening.

“We hope that when you look at our products, the love for what we do shines through,” say Galbraith & Paul. It does.