Portland's first hostel created a magical space with wallpaper

An interview with the designer and owner of the Elephant Hostel in Portland, Maine.

In 2017 Heather Loeber, a mother of two from rural New Jersey, decided it was time to leave behind her life as homesteader and embark on a crazy adventure. Having experienced and loved staying in hostels during her holidays abroad, she wanted to replicate the social experience for the budged-conscious travellers visiting her adopted home in Portland, Maine.

Hostels are a common feature in Europe and Asia but not in North America where most cities do not sport even a single one. Portland was one of those places and Heather was determined to change that!

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Unique decoration concept

Like for most commercial enterprises, location is key to success. Aware of this principle, Heather started scouting what was available and soon her attention fell on a grand old building in the center of Portland. The location was perfect, the price manageable but it needed very substantial renovation work. Heather’s eclectic taste, and her love for carefree and whimsical patterns had to be reflected in her hostel, but the need to balance the budget meant that she needed to be thinking outside the box when coming up with an interior design solution that matched both requirements.

Her innovative idea was to use wallpaper. A lot of wallpaper. Many different models and designs, in places where few people had dared to put it before. Scouting the web for ideas and inspiration, she landed on our website. The initial plan to order a couple of models soon went out of the window, as she could not decide which model she liked best. Having created a design sketchbook with the samples, and browsed through it night in and night out, in the end Heather decided to order a staggering number of wallpaper models.

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Wallpapers which make the difference

The result of this work of love was the “Black Elephant Hostel”, which opened in the summer of 2018 and left both guests and visitors alike breathless. Jokingly called by Heather and her staff the “Island of Misfit Toys”, the entire building is a monument to a carefree, comfortable and whimsical environment, where the incredible clash of colours and motives create a balanced and relaxed work of art. We went to visit Heather to find out more about it:

Wallpaper from the 70s: Dear Heather, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us, we know how busy your day is, as you are preparing for your second summer season. The interior design of your hostel is so unique and captivating that one could not avoid gasping in surprise once entering it. You really took wallpaper to a place few other interior designers had dared to go!

Heather: Thank you! It really is like a magnum opus of wallpaper (laugh heartily). Every single day people ask me “Where did you get this wallpaper?” Generally it's always the women that look around before muttering "Honey I'm going home and I'm putting up wallpaper" and the guys look in discomfort and say "Oh boy. Here we go..." Actually, this is not entirely true, as a lot of the guys really like the wallpaper too! They especially like the psychedelic wallpaper….

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Wallpaper from the 70s: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Heather: I had my children when I was very young, right out of college and I actually was a homesteader. I have been working on a farm for the last 20 years, raising children and horses and training horses for eventing.

I always liked design, had a knack for it, but we could never really afford to do much about the interior design of our place. I went to boarding school, which is where my love for patterns began, because I bought tapestries and I hung them everywhere. When I went to college, I did not have furniture, only cardboard boxes. I still had my tapestries however, I had rags and bandanas and would lay them over the cardboard so nobody would know that my room was just made of cardboard (Heather laughs)! I always had this eclectic, very vibrant pattern-y space. Very different from my mother's taste, that is for sure.

I always had great experiences in hostels and my love for them came back alive when I toured universities with my daughters. We visited several colleges, did some tours in the UK and to West Coast, and I taught my kids all sort of things: how to use public transportation, how to ride the bus and how to stay at a hostel. It was then that my love for hostels came back.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: We find your hostel truly inspiring as often hostels in Europe are associated with minimalism and the Black Elephant is definitely something else…

Heather: True, we also have all been going through what I would call a Feng Shui phase, where everything was grey or beige. I like to call that look “grayish”. It is soothing and calming but it does not have any personality. It is not for me as I am a person that likes to express herself clearly. I find that when people come into the space in the lobby of my hostel, with all the patterns around them, they feel comfortable, because it is not sterile. If it were all just grey or white they would worry about maybe getting something dirty.

Not at the Black Elephant hostel! (laugh). You could spray ketchup on yourself and walk into my lobby and be like "I'm at home!" What I find amazing is how so many guests walk in the door, find themselves surrounded by the lobby paper (which I can be seen as overwhelming) and they love it. My design has been really well received. I think my mother in law is the only one that did not like it but you know how it is (Heather giggles).

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Wallpaper from the 70s: Could it be that people are starting to get bored of the IKEA-driven minimalism, as they travel to the far corners of the world only to find themselves in a place that is the carbon copy of their own living room?

Heather: The funny thing is that this hostel is still very minimalist. It needed to be because I had to work with literally every inch of space I have, in order to fit bunk beds and everything you need in a hostel. Guests might walk in and be dazzled by the awesome décor of the place, but it is still a utilitarian hostel with lockers, bunk beds and so on. If you walk around the building you will find that the wallpaper is mostly only on the ceiling. It really fills the space with art without taking up any room. That is the magic of it!

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Wallpaper from the 70s: Talking about wallpaper, how did you find us?

Heather: It all started when I was looking for a special wallpaper to renovate my home in New Jersey. I had moved in a Frank Lloyd Wright-style flat roof bank house and I was trying to figure out how to decorate it. I had lived my entire life in a house that was built in the 1840s, so I was facing a real challenge. When I first walked into this modern house I immediately knew I wanted a wallpaper from the 70s, as the house had been built in the late 60s, early 70s. The first thing that caught our attention as we took a look inside was the avocado carpet from the 70s (Heather laughs)! I thought to myself “OK I'm going to embrace what I have”. I went on the internet, found “Wallpaper from the 70s” and fell in love with the products on sale. After much thinking I ended up using it on just one feature wall in the living room and it just transformed the space.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: What this experience, having seen how it worked in your home, that made you consider going back to the idea of wallpaper when it came to redecorate the hostel?

Heather: Yes! I had also used one of your undulating, psychedelic wallpapers in my daughter's room and loved the result. When thinking about the hostel, I knew I was going to use that model, or that at least was going to have psychedelic wallpaper in the stairwell and kind of keep to life-safety codes but still challenged people not to fall down the stairs. It was going to be fun (Heather laughs)!. When it came to order it I however discovered that you guys had ran out of that particular paper. This forced me to continue switching to different psychedelic papers as I wallpapered my way up the stairs and it turned out to be a good thing.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: Why did you choose to decorate the ceilings with wallpaper?

Heather: The reason is that I chose a particular paper and wanted to use it in one of my dorm rooms, the one called "Jimmy James" (each dorm room in the hostel is named after a Beastie Boys song).

It is a simple black and white floral pattern and it looks like coloring paper. I was a bit worried and thought, “I love this, but people are going to want to draw on the paper. How do I protect it?” Suddenly I came up with the concept of putting it just on the ceiling! I immediately loved the idea as it will protect the paper from the wear-and-tear while still add the art without being overbearing. “If you don't like it, don't look at it, It's on the ceiling!”. People that do not like wallpaper can just turn their head, sleep in another direction and not be bothered by it. I was nervous when we put the first sheet of paper, as it was pretty psychedelic, and I was worried it was going to be too much. I feel however in love with the look instantly.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: What type of guests does your hostel attract?

Heather: It is really a mix. Every state in the United States has a slogan, and ours is "Vacation land". Everybody comes to Maine for vacation, they picture themselves next to a lighthouse, they want to see the water. Initially the bulk of the guests were all Europeans, just doing their tour of this part of the world. They found us because they knew to look for the word "hostel" when they arrived in a city. Google helped them but the reality is the hotel rooms on the peninsula for whatever reason go between $400 and $600 per night and I am more towards $40-50 per night…

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Wallpaper from the 70s: Did you plan of using wallpaper from the beginning or is something that you came up during the renovation?

Heather: I knew that I wanted to do at least one stairwell. I just thought that would just be really cool. I did not know if I would have it in the budget to wallpaper everywhere else, but once I started I ordered a bunch of different papers to try to narrow it down, like over 100 samples. By then I had decided I was going to put it in each hallways, but then I just went crazy: there were so many papers that I was in love with that I could not weed out. Once I realized that if I put it on the ceiling it would not be overbearing then I just kept going. We ended up with 27 different papers, maybe 28 because Sven (the owner of Wallpaper from the 70s) sent me a free roll of a model he only had one roll left of and I snagged it. I had this binder that I took everywhere with me and it had all the wallpaper I had bought for each room and then matched with the different colors, for the walls and for the trim and so on.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: When you picked the wallpaper, what was the selection process?

Heather: I ordered the samples and my husband was so annoyed because every night I would just sit there and flip through them and be like "No, this one's for the hallway, this one's for the bedroom...". He was like "Why? What? I don't understand what you're doing! You know this is ridiculous! I don't think anybody who's ever spent so much time thinking about wallpaper!". When he then stepped for the first time into the hostel he muttered "Whoa! now I see what you were doing!"

I initially ordered the samples that I begged Sven for a discount because I was going to buy so much wallpaper. I did buy it out of my own personal money, as it fell outside the budget, but it became a crucial part of the hostel. Actually, since the opening I spoke at an American hostel conference where I showed some slides and had a bunch of people coming up to me and asking me "Do you mind if I do what you did?"

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Wallpaper from the 70s: Were there any criteria that guided you in the choice of the wallpaper?

Heather: There was no color coding grand plan. I did try to blend the hallways into the stairwell and make a decent transition in colors there. Aside for this, I did quickly find out that the more you clash, you soon reach a point where you are not clashing any longer. In terms of novelty paper, I did choose a couple of unique models. Everyone loves the lemurs and I did choose one model with some ridiculous fish, but it was just because I wanted to have a purple floor in my bathroom. I also picked some wallpaper that was very tie dye-ish and many guests seem to love, I also chose some crazy ones, like “The Berlin graffiti” for the boys’ room. It is very boyish, while for the girl I picked one with butterflies, very girly!

I am a big fan of the Beastie Boys and I named most of my rooms after Beasty Boys songs.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: Did you pick wallpaper with special materials or coating?

Heather: I did create a vampire bathroom with a vinyl-coated one, a baroque wallpaper. That was kind of our marking ground. I put a slipper bathtub in there, a black toilet, these beautiful brass fixtures and now we rent out the bathtub for $5 an hour. I call it “The vampire bathroom” because is very gothic and people love it!

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Wallpaper from the 70s: If you were to give some advice to someone embarking in a similar interior design project, what would it be?

Heather: My philosophy is that, when I plan a room I start with a simple question: what do I know I want to have in it? Is it a day bed? A hanging piece of furniture? Do I know that I really want to start with a piece of art? If it is the latter, you might then want to choose a more subdued wallpaper for background. It does not need to be something big, it could be even a plant, or your pet bird. Just choose something you know you want in the room and start from there. You can however also choose wallpaper as art.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: What is the biggest compliment you received about this project and from whom?

Heather: Usually most people love the design I chose, or at least they have to say something about it, so that is very nice for my ego. I have also been found by a couple of interior décor magazines. Wallpaper made the difference. I always say “if you are on a budget, go for wallpaper, as it makes such a difference!” I love wallpaper in bathrooms, to me it belongs there. You sit there, have time to look around, observe the patterns. My parents always had outlandish wallpaper in the bathroom and I think my passion comes from it.

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Wallpaper from the 70s: What is your next project?

Heather: I think I want to open another hostel. I have this vision that it will be down south, South Carolina or Georgia and have an equestrian theme, so you guys better stock up on equestrian wallpaper, you have a lot of birds, but I need ponies!

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