Sarah Merenda’s Fine Arts teacher, Prof. Marcy Rosenblat, told Merenda that she really needed to “work big.” Prof. Rosenblat was right, but she had no idea how big.
Merenda entered FIT as a graffiti artist and skilled wallpaper hanger. Indeed she had been working large. But the encouragement to continue with large canvases confirmed her direction and would help set the course of her career.
After first graduating with an AAS degree in Textile/Surface Design, Merenda established Merenda Wallpaper, a company that sells wall coverings featuring everything from repeating patterns to mural-size prints. Three patterns she designed for Textile/Surface professor Dennis Lee’s class are still among her bestsellers, almost 10 years later.
“The impact of Sarah’s design work lies in her ability to balance larger-than-life scale with an intimate and intricate drawing style,” says Nomi Kleinman, Chair of the Textile/Surface Design and Fabric Styling departments. “Her compositions are powerful, while her motifs and mark-making are delicate. This dichotomy evokes a sense of wonder.”-
Merenda first got her informal education from her mother growing up in Maryland. Then she trained with members of her Atlanta-area extended family, which specialized in hanging wallpaper and other wall coverings. Then she expanded her horizons at FIT.
A Creative Lifetime Begins
Merenda grew up with five siblings in an old farmhouse outside Chestertown, Maryland. Her mother, who sold perennials and herbs, had wallpapered each room with different patterns.
“I always made art and helped my mother run her business. I used to go with her to crafts shows. I got my work ethic and learned to do everything myself,” says Merenda.
“By high school, I was painting, drawing and spray-painting graffiti.” She also began assisting with hanging wallpaper.
“Graffiti fit together with wallpaper. It’s another large format,” she says. “It’s informative. It’s quick. You put the sheet up and you can make a bold statement quickly.” With graffiti “You have to work quick; you have to get in and get out.”
Her aunt and uncle owned a wallpaper hanging business in Atlanta. “I assisted my uncle for about six months,” says Merenda. “I picked it up right away and fell in love with the patterns of the papers, then started hanging. I worked with four of my uncles who hung wallpaper, as well as another female installer.”
Merenda moved to Rego Park, Queens, in 1999 and craved to do more with her talents. “I wasn’t designing or making wallpaper. FIT changed everything for me,” she says.
While at FIT, she also began working for a contractor who taught her to paint and plaster. “I designed my first wallpaper while I was in school.”
She received her FIT Associates degree at age 26, established Merenda Wallpaper, worked for a decade, and finally took time off to return to FIT for her bachelor’s, also spending a semester at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London.
“Sarah worked with a drive not often seen in students. With unwavering focus and determination, she absorbed every aspect of the material and pushed herself beyond the expectations” says Prof. Kleinman.
“FIT was amazing,” says Merenda. “For me it was a vacation from my working life. It allowed me to be playful and to give myself permission to be creative. Sometimes work gets in the way of creativity. Working is always great. You learn to incorporate your skills into the real world. Both are just as important in my opinion.”
Many of her designs are inspired by the smallest details, like city storm drain typography, nostalgic scenes from timeless Americana farmhouses, weathered graffiti, and alluring shapes from the wild.
Her oyster and cornhusk designs comes from imagery of places she’s lived. But she also works with customers who have something else in mind, perhaps a unique tale to tell.
Merenda continued hanging wallpaper, and in 2015, she bought an HP Latex 360 wide-format printer to produce her own designs. she set up shop in Astoria. Her home and business is now in the greater Philadelphia area.
“I moved in late 2020 with my family for more space, and to continue expanding my business in surface design”
The industry is booming. “There are a lot of people interested in it, people are putting effort into making new products, so it is becoming more competitive.”
Merenda started mainly doing homes and apartments. But she also handles restaurants and office spaces and hallways in residential buildings. “I don’t generally install a lot of commercial jobs. I’ve found it more rewarding installing art galleries or residential.”
It’s not all paper, either. “I install traditional screen-printed wallpaper, clay coated, mylar, non-woven, silk, grasscloths, vinyl, hand-painted murals, digitally printed goods, gold leaf and wood veneer papers. Over the years, I’ve used a lot of different materials including covering a few galleries in tin foil, magazine paper, and newspapers.”
Merenda starts each design with a drawing, illustration, painting, rubbing or photograph and manipulates the images with Photoshop rather than custom wall design software before digitally printing them on eco-friendly paper for private clients, architects and interior designers.
Merenda’s patterns tend to be contemporary and range from mural styles to repeats. “I can make art and have it be a wallpaper, too,” she says.
The designs reflect her interests “in near and far-away lands, graffiti, tattoo art, abandoned buildings, underground history and the impermanence of all things,” says Merenda.
“Sarah’s wallpapers simultaneously create a sense of spaciousness and warmth, transforming the environments her wallpaper is applied to,” says Prof. Kleinman.
Travel in Japan, Cuba, Colombia, Berlin, Sicily, London, and Thailand have all contributed to her work, she says, “but India most of all.”
To see more of Sarah Merenda’s work, visit his website at: MerendaWallpaper.com and on IG @merendawallpaper.
To learn more about the Textile/Surface Design AAS and BFA programs go to: Textile/Surface Design at FIT.