Long Beach’s Black Crow Studios Presents a Vision for Wallpaper Design Like None Other
Her work is unforgettable. Sweeping watercolors in saturated hues, geometric prints in black and white, abstract single-tone brushstrokes. The murals from Black Crow Studios, in Long Beach, are just as arresting as they are inspiring and inviting. And yet they aren’t quite murals—not in the traditional sense.
”I really like the scale of murals and the fact that in that medium you can create any design idea and print it out. It’s so unrestricted,” Tracy Hiner, owner of Black Crow Studios, remarked from her office. ”But I knew I didn’t have the patience to do hand-painted murals, so wallpaper was the solution to that. Plus, architects and interior designers love wallpaper.”
All About the Art
Six years have passed since Black Crow first opened for business. Featured in numerous magazines and design resources, the company is known for its distinct look and product. Hiner runs a streamlined operation with a handful of employees working out of an expanded studio space. With clients all over the world, the studio’s bread and butter is residential installations, but Hiner has also expanded to commercial spaces as well, including Shazam and Cisco Systems offices, a few hotels, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and more. And Hiner was quick to point out the importance of staying business-minded.
”Our artwork is what sets us apart,” she said. ”And the way we approach designing a mural is completely different from any other company. Nobody does anything close to what we do with our watercolor series.”
She’s right. A quick look at Black Crow’s portfolio shows incredible one-of-a-kind vision, with each piece taking on a life of its own. It’s the combination of customization and jaw-dropping designs that has allowed the company to pull ahead of the pack.
“Our artwork is what sets us apart. Nobody does anything close to what we do with our watercolor series.”
When asked about the studio’s product, Hiner was eager to share. ”Most companies that do this kind of wallpaper have a specific design and that’s it—that’s how it will look for every project, just scaled to fit the wall size. For us, we work really hard to create a good flow or movement to the design of the space. Regardless if it’s a small niche, a large accent wall, or an entire room, each [design] has its own flow, and the artwork is manipulated to make sure it is different in each application.”
And the customization goes beyond how the wallpaper flows in a room. It starts with the colors—the very concept itself. ”Often we have clients send us their custom-color story to work with,” Hiner explained. ”We will mix paints to match the color and create brand-new pieces to design with. Some color stories are very hard to work with and others just create stunning looks. From there we use the client-provided elevations of the room and create multiple (sometimes dozens) scaled-down layouts for the clients to look through. We get their feedback about the pieces and make any changes needed, which can be as simple as ‘I don’t like this little blob here‘ to a total reworking of the idea. Once we have the design itself approved, we send a strike off for color approval by the client, so they know exactly what they are getting.”
The most popular design that Hiner works with is the watercolor series. Each piece is completely different, truly unique—from the colors used to the way the art comes together. And while Hiner celebrates the unpredictability and challenge the watercolor series brings, she’s also very aware of how fortunate she is her art has taken off.
The Idea That Sparked It All
What may seem like a burst of inspiration was actually a process—one that started while Hiner was on the job, working for a decorative-arts company. She was asked to design a mural for a client, but when the test version was printed out and hung, Hiner was awestruck. “I just couldn’t believe how amazing it looked and how much I loved it. In that moment, my mind exploded with ideas.”
She approached the company about creating a wallpaper or mural line, but the idea couldn’t get off the ground. ”We were deep in the recession, and a short while later that company decided to pack up and move their operations to Florida,” Hiner explained. "The move to Florida was tempting, but it didn’t feel right. All of those ideas for wallpaper I had just would not stop pulling at me. I lost my job in October of 2009, with $1,500 in my bank account, and launched my company in January 2010.”
But the recession that had affected her previous employer also took a toll on Hiner’s small startup. ”I got some online press early on but struggled to get orders that first year. The recession was at its worst when I started, and nobody was spending money—especially on decorating their homes.”
Without any orders and with a dwindling bank account, Hiner began to say yes to opportunities—even if they didn’t fit her ideal model. She ended up landing a client who wanted Hiner to act as a sort of print shop, printing out some of her own art prints and then framing the final product. It wasn’t in line with what Hiner had envisioned for the company, but it was paying work that kept the business afloat. Hiner chuckled when recalling that first big client relationship. ”Would you believe I still work with that client to this day?”
Other opportunities that Hiner said yes to included a deal with a major fashion and home-décor retailer. ”I got a call from [the company] about doing wallpaper to be sold in their online store—something fairly out of the box for them. I thought it was the best thing ever, so of course I did it. The problem was the amount of work it took to design the product and print and package it in the precise way they required was just not worth what we made on the order. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still glad we did it, but I realized it wasn’t the big life-changing opportunity I thought it would be. You want to grab onto opportunities, but it can be hard to know what are good opportunities and what aren’t.”
Early on, Hiner also struggled with the realities of running a business—something she had no background in. She is an artist, after all, not a bookkeeper, salesperson, marketer, or logistics expert.
”I think there is a misconception of what it means to run an art-based business,” Hiner said. ”It is far more running a business than it is making art, if you want it to grow into something big. The art part is what comes naturally and easily to an artist, whereas the business side will demand far more of your attention, and if you are like me, with no business background, you have to learn all of it very quickly.”
When asked what designs we might expect to see next, Hiner was glad to share. “I’ve been in a darker, moodier place for a while now—I think we do so much with bright colors that I am now more inclined to the darker pieces. I am actually working on a whole series that is very dark and textured and moody—very different from the watercolor work, but still abstract and able to be used in a similar way to the watercolor.”
“I don’t like doing the same thing over and over, so I always like to push my clients past what they were thinking by offering them options they never could have imagined.”
That would be quite the contrast to the company’s current bright, bold designs. But Hiner is OK with that. “I don’t like doing the same thing over and over, so I always like to push my clients past what they were thinking by offering them options they never could have imagined.”
Though running her business prevents her from being able to pour her time into these new concepts, she’s determined to make headway and offer something new, different, and intriguing at Black Crow in the near future. We’re certain the designs will make a splash, but Hiner remains humble.
”I think there are a lot of people out there that are more talented than I am, and people who work way harder than I do—and I work very hard—that will struggle to make their business work. I think some of that comes down to luck,” Hiner said.
Call it luck, call it chance, or call it beautiful art. But the $1,500 startup that kicked off in the middle of the recession is doing pretty well for itself. And we can’t wait to see what kind of wall art it has for us next.