Not Your Nana’s Florals: Why Wallpaper is Making a Stylish Comeback

Photo: Daniel von Appen via Unsplash.

Trends in wall treatments have ebbed and flowed, typically connected to fluctuations in the social and economic climate. While the domination of minimalism in the 1990s and early 2000s meant that interior designers and home decorators opted for simple matte paint over intricate wall coverings, the last decade has seen a triumphant return of extravagant wallpaper designs. Even the craft of printing wallpaper itself has seen a spike in interest, with DIY wallpaper printing classes emerging across the UK’s capital. In a recent article for the Financial Times, interior design expert Kate Watson-Smyth credited the renewed interest in wallpaper to its nature as “an affordable art form,” and a way to make a statement. She added that it can be “light-hearted, conversational and dramatic.”

Academics first acknowledged the historical significance of wallpaper in the 20th century, and museums now look to include it their archives. For collectors of historical decorative arts, this is arguably the most ephemeral form. Delicate and difficult to preserve once it has been hung, many historic examples have been lost, covered over and forgotten, which makes finding intact antique wallpaper a rare event.

Early Adopters

For early examples of wallpaper, experts point to Chinese, French and British cultures. The Chinese were some of the earliest innovators, applying rice paper to walls as far back as 200 B.C. In France, the first examples emerged in the 15th century, with a printed record of payment made by King Louis XI for “grands rouleaux” to be used in the castle at Plessis-Les-Tours. Grands rouleaux were sheets, measuring approximately one meter in length (3.2 feet), which were pasted together and painted by hand. The French also developed the first machine for printing wallpaper in 1785. In Britain, the oldest known fragment of wallpaper is dated around 1550-70. The British also claim to have later invented the technique known as ‘flocking’ (wallpaper with a soft, raised pattern), but some experts dispute this still today.

Wallpaper as we know it rose to prominence in 18th century Britain, where it became popular among the merchant classes – the “nouveau riche” of the time. But this decorative wall treatment truly hit its stride in the 19th century, when new machine production techniques enabled large quantities to be produced more efficiently. These new methods made the commodity available to greater numbers of people, and at lower prices. This led to a rejection of the medium by the upper class, who perceived it as a mere imitation, since most 19th century wallpaper designs sought to resemble more luxurious wall coverings such as tapestries, damask and murals.

The Champion of the Field

Morris & Co wallpaper printer at work. Image courtesy of Morris & Co.

Beloved leader of the Arts & Crafts movement, William Morris was an ardent supporter of wallpaper in the early 19th century. In a lecture about its importance, Morris once said, “Whatever you have in your rooms, think first of the walls, for they are that which makes your house and home, and if you do not make some sacrifices in their favor you will find your chambers have a kind of makeshift, lodging-house look about them.”

Morris is often credited with the revival of textile production in the UK. He believed tapestry to be the finest form of textiles and his legendary firm, Morris & Co., produced both tapestry and intricately block-printed wallpaper in the same pattern. Morris’ signature design, “The Strawberry Thief,” is a perfect example of how the firm was able to seamlessly translate a design from tapestry to wallpaper. The design, in its various iterations, remains Morris’ best-selling work.

Detail of “Acanthus” William Morris wallpaper at Wightwick Manor and Gardens, West Midlands, © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The firm is still in operation today, and to celebrate its 150th anniversary, has launched its first archive collection. To create original Morris & Co. designs – with a contemporary twist – designers painstakingly visited each of the Morris houses and scoured the firm’s archive, which still contains the original hand blocks used to print all original Morris & Co. designs.

New Context & Relevance Today

Installation view of David A. Schorsch / Eileen M. Smiles American Antiques at the 2017 Winter Antiques Show, featuring Folk art portraiture mounted on a cool grey paisley wallpaper print.

Wallpaper has found new significance today, particularly among art fair exhibitors. The complexity of designs has evolved as well, with manufacturers taking advantage of advanced technology to produce increasingly intricate patterns. Antique wallpaper specialist Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz tapped into this renewed interest in wallpaper to bring fresh designs to New York’s Park Avenue Armory for both the 2017 Winter Antiques Show, as well as the fall and spring editions of TEFAF New York. For Thibaut-Pomerantz, wallpaper is treated as a work in its own right – no longer a backdrop, but a work of art worthy of framing and hanging. At the 2017 Winter Antiques Show, Thibaut-Pomerantz partnered with London dealer David Gill to present the work of designer Mattia Bonetti, who conceived a brand new wallpaper design for the booth (aptly named “Carolle Lines”).

Installation view of Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz and David Gill Gallery at the 2017 Winter Antiques Show. Photo courtesy Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz.

With a growing interest in providing fresh, modern context to centuries-old objects, other exhibitors at New York’s annual Winter Antiques Show have also looked to wallpaper designs to breathe new life into antiques, decorative art and objects. At the 2017 fair, Pennsylvania gallery Kelly Kinzle did just this by juxtaposing American Folk art with vibrant, leafy green-patterned wallpaper (designed by Schumacher).

Installation view of Kelly Kinzle at the 2017 Winter Antiques Show.

Britain’s Best

In the world of contemporary wallpaper, it’s British-based designers who are taking the industry by storm. London designer Tracy Kendall sells to international audiences who attend London shows to find the most exciting new talent. The availability of digital printing today means that Kendall can print bespoke wallpapers at dimensions that would have been prohibitive in the days of block printing. London-based High Street design house, House of Hackney, has gone from strength to strength with vibrant statement designs. Their recent collaboration with the William Morris Museum marked a major revamp for the traditional designs, and introduced Morris to a younger audience. And while the gap is growing in the generation of people who can afford property to decorate, and those who would like to decorate a property, companies like New York’s Chasing Paper have arrived to fill the void with a removable wallpaper.

Preserving Antique Wallpaper

Original designs from the Morris & Co. Archive. Image courtesy of Morris & Co.

The British Wallpaper History Society suggests that most wallpaper made after 1840 is likely to be of poorer quality than older papers, and can become brittle. The Society suggests that DIY repairs can be carried out successfully by using traditional starch pastes, but it is surprisingly easy to tear or stain old, weak wallpapers. They advise, “With the careful use of a flat-bladed knife, poorly fixed papers can be gently eased off a wall, although this can often cause more harm than good. If a wallpaper is historically significant, it is advisable to contact an accredited paper conservator, who should be able to offer general advice, plus provide options for treatment and make suggestions for long term care.”