A journey from
and back again
Cumberland Island mantle
On a remote barrier island off Georgia’s Gold Coast, a Gilded Age estate harbors a century-old mystery—and all of the clues to solving it point to a set of historic monuments beneath one of France’s fabled wallpaper houses.
Cumberland Island is the kind of place that feels neither old nor new, just present. Like Cuba, with its retro cars and mid-century aesthetic, it’s as if time has been suspended and the trappings of life and landscape that date a place have been crystallized in an amber-like resin, a spell from these enchanting oaks. In many ways, this is true. This Georgia barrier island is a protected National Seashore, its lush wilderness accessible only by ferry. Here, the only traffic is day-tripping hikers and bikers and the island’s packs of wild horses; the only buildings are the homes of the extended branches of the storied Carnegie family, who first owned and later entrusted the island to be used for public education and enjoyment. The preserved landmarks of glory days gone by reflect a liminal moment, when development and much of the impact of outside influence ceased to breach these shores. 

Thousands of miles off of Cumberland’s pristine beaches, across the Atlantic Ocean in a picturesque town along the border of France and Switzerland, is a place equally steeped in tradition, equally unmarred by the passage of time. And the link between these two worlds is the stuff of both legend and lore, and a mystery we, and they, are only beginning to unravel.
Our curiosity was first piqued on a tour of Plum Orchard, the Carnegie family seat on Cumberland Island... overseen by the Department of Natural Resources. Gesturing toward a wall just inside the main entrance, which served as an office and library, a tour guide recited a litany of design details cobbled together through the years; the wallpaper, he said, is suspected to be from a fabled French house called Zuber & Cie, the oldest surviving wallpaper manufacturer in the world, a master of the craft since 1797. The wall covering’s surface contains signature aspects of the company’s work, which in the absence of formal documentation of the origins, he believed, served as evidence of its provenance.

Though this generational lore certainly seemed credible given the wallpaper’s aesthetic hallmarks and the fact that it was frequently used in the great houses of the time, it had yet to be confirmed, and furthermore, Zuber and its team of archivists halfway across the world had yet to weigh in on the matter. The possibility of linking these iconic places together was too irresistible–we had to at least try to verify the source. What followed was a chain of events that revealed more than just the connection between two legacy institutions. Beyond setting out to solve “The Mystery of the Wallpaper,” our year-long, bi-continental tale of two landmarks took on deeper resonance, revealing how the human story behind buildings and places and the traditional handcrafts that emanate from them shapes history in unforeseen ways. Like that relic of wallpaper, it leaves an enduring imprint of artistry and craftsmanship. 
The day after arriving in Basel, we set out to meet Guillaume Tregouet, Zuber’s Burgundy-born, Paris-based creative director at the workshop slash factory in Rixheim, France. Passing through the arched entry of the disarmingly picturesque stone-clad structure, a former knight’s commandery in medieval times, we began our tour. We were led through four floors filled with craftsmen, all wielding highly specialized tools and fixtures, employing hypnotizing techniques—a symphony of dozens of patterned layers are pressed in one corner, synchronized brush-strokes are applied in unison in another—culminating in the gallery-like scene of mid-process sheets of drying wallpaper on display. 

But even amidst all of this beauty, including the public museum featuring murals of Zuber’s legendary designs, scenes of iconic historical pastorals, what we were really searching for—and hoping for a rare opportunity to see first-hand—was behind the scenes and largely inaccessible to the public:
The cellar housing the company’s archive of 150,000 hand-carved wooden blocks. “There is a layer of pine, but the real magic is in the top layer which is pear wood.” Guillaume said of the sculpted plates that are prized for their fine grain structure. “It holds designs of endless intricacy.” Unrivaled in their detailed approach, many of the company’s signature depictions can utilize over a thousand individual blocks and take up to a year to produce.

More than just a company treasure, Zuber’s blocks were recently designated a historic monument by the government of France. And they are unparalleled; no one who has glimpsed the wallpaper or maintains even the most superficial knowledge of the craft can fail to appreciate the commitment and craftsmanship represented in this collection. But seeing them up close, stacked floor to ceiling and wall to wall—well, it’s truly awe-inspiring. 
Guillaume Tregouet. The legendary Eldorado pattern. Zuber watermark woodblock. Stenciled typography organizes the woodblock catalog. Dozens of rows of individually numbered shelves contain the 150,000-piece woodblock collection. Panels of a panorama: Decor Chinois, a pattern originally created in 1832.
“Though they date back to the 18th century,” Guillaume explained, “they are made for more than just castles or châteaux in Europe. The scenes of Zuber go anywhere.” Because of such artistry, it’s easy to understand why Zuber’s workmanship was prized among the prominent and wealthy and adorned stately homes in early America, from New York to New Orleans. 

Each block is numbered and stored on metal shelves marked only by hand-lettered labels denoting the contents of each stack. Contrary to the basement’s relatively small square footage, it feels vast up close. There’s not much room to move between the aisles, and it’s dimly lit toward the outer rock walls enclosing the entirety of the cellar, but the walkway in between the left and right shelving units runs the length of the space (from an ancient, now defunct door at one end to the opposite wall, bare save for a small fire extinguisher). From this central path, it’s possible to take in everything at once. 

The effect is dizzying. That these blocks endure, and in this immense volume, is a marvel.
It’s hard to fully comprehend that these time-worn wooden blocks bear not only the indelible workmanship of the human hands that carved them centuries ago, but also of the craftsmen who continue to deploy them daily today. 

To begin each new commission, the artists pull the blocks required to render their designs from the inventory and carry them by hand up the spiral staircase connecting the subterranean hold with the floor above.

Across the courtyard, another private space within the museum contains similarly impressive catalogs meticulously documenting where this work ended up. One look and it’s easy to see why Zuber has only just begun updating these archives in a more modern organizational system. (At the time of our visit, an intern, who had been working continuously for months, had only made it through the early 1820s.) Within these binders and reams of paper is a veritable history lesson in America’s obsession with wallcoverings, which hit a fever pitch in the 19th century. 
Searching for the pattern. Step-by-step work instructions. An artisan preparing panels. Woodblock family. Embossing using Zuber's patented Gaufrage technique. Each layer is applied by hand. Zuber's cataloged archive of patterns.
Inside cumberland island
Which brings us back to Plum Orchard. With the family’s support and hospitality, we returned to the island, embarking from the mainland aboard the Cumberland Queen

Our first stop, under the stewardship of Hannah Sayre- Thomas, a jewelry designer and Carnegie descendant who served as our tour guide, was a visit to Nancy Copp, granddaughter of Plum Orchard’s champion, Thomas Carnegie. She grew up visiting her grandparents at Plum Orchard and has fond memories of days spent visiting the estate when it was still exclusively a family home. 

“Oh, we just loved everything about it, mostly being together,” Nancy recalled. “By then, the family was large and spread out and Plum Orchard is where we would all reunite. I remember spending so many days, usually in summertime, playing crazy made-up games with my cousins on the porch. This is the place of my childhood.” 
Nancy’s passion for the island is shared among her extended family who return often for family gatherings and to experience the sense of adventure and seclusion such a special place can provide. For Carnegie descendants now scattered in various cities across the country, it offers a respite and refuge from otherwise fast-paced lives and an opportunity to appreciate the stillness of nature. Exactly the kind of thing these original dwellings were intended for. 

Built in 1898, Plum Orchard was conceived as a winter residence with an emphasis on sporting pursuits from hunting to horseback riding. Later additions included an indoor swimming pool and an early version of a squash court. A product of its time, an air of formality pervades thanks to preserved period furnishings first procured when Tiffany lamps reigned (some of the era’s finest examples can still be seen throughout). Intricate carved woodwork and parquet floors were de rigueur, and embellished, imported wallpaper was a dominant design feature. 
The front porch at Plum Orchard. A portrait of Lucy Carnegie Ferguson in the wood-paneled parlor of The Greyfield Inn, the island's only public lodging. Oyster buckets await their catch on Cumberland shore. Cumberland Island. The swimming deck at Plum Orchard. A foyer at a family home in Cumberland Island and what is believed to be Zuber wallpaper.
Neither Nancy nor any of the other family members we met on Cumberland could verify the wallpaper’s origins directly, but they all knew the story of suspected Zuber provenance and believed it to be true. Still, despite a day and a half of touring multiple Carnegie family compounds—and seeing a half-dozen other wallpaper remnants that could likely also be linked back to Zuber—we were left with only our suspicions. And then, just when we thought the trail had cooled and our mystery remained unresolved, a fresh clue suddenly emerged. 

“I think I’ve found a lead,” Gogo Ferguson, Hannah’s mother, exclaimed during a phone call shortly after our visit. 

There was an aunt, she said, in Paris! Who might have an unused roll from Plum Orchard that we could examine. For weeks we waited anxiously, imagining the beautiful irony of finding the missing puzzlepiece in an attic in France, just a scant hundred miles from the fabled workshop from where it
was created. Then the news came: the wallpaper was in the flat…but the flat no longer belonged to the family. The aunt had sold it years ago, and there was no immediate way to communicate with the current owners. 

So this is where the mystery remains…for now. Unsolved, yet ever compelling. In fact, as we learned in our cross-continental treks to try to unravel remnant clues, the satisfaction lies not in verification, but in appreciation. In being awed by the craftsmanship of the Zuber artisans, whose work is of such enduring beauty that it mesmerizes, centuries later, in dusty stretches on a sea island wall. We discovered in the overlap of these two worlds a shared philosophy: Preservation and protection, both of man-made and natural imprints, define a way of life across oceans and generations. This story is far from over. There is always another clue waiting to be discovered, another lead to pursue—and the next one could very well shed light on the true origins of the legacy that endures. 
Wild horses roam free on Cumberland Island. Family matriarch, Nancy Copp, in her sitting room. Plum wallpaper in plum orchard. Hannah Sayre-Thomas.
inside the zuber factory