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Wallpaper Trends, Then and Now

Feb 4, 2016

by Anna Rasche handmade and vintage goods

Anna Rasche is a design historian and author based in New York City. She is a curatorial fellow in the Wallcoverings Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and co-founder of the Society for the Advancement of Social Studies.

Margot Tenenbaum’s childhood bedroom, the Fountain Coffee Room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and every faux speakeasy you’ve ever sipped a sidecar in all have one thing in common: It’s the wallpaper that sets the scene. In fact, wallpapers have been transforming otherwise ordinary rooms into specific, evocative spaces for more than 500 years. And with a few rolls of the stuff — handcrafted by contemporary makers or scooped up from a vendor specializing in vintage stock — you can do that, too. Since many of today’s top wall decor trends have roots in the past, let’s take a quick trip through the archives of wallpaper history.

The earliest wallpapers in the Western world were conceived as alternatives to costlier textile hangings like woven tapestries or embroidered panels, with ornate patterns that riffed on those motifs. The eighteenth century saw a European obsession for hand-painted silk wallcoverings imported from China, and French and British wallpaper manufacturers became wealthy by printing their own interpretations of Eastern designs.

Prior to the industrial revolution, all wallpaper patterns had to be hand-stenciled, hand-painted, or (most commonly) block-printed on individual sheets of handmade paper, which were then joined together to create wall-sized panels. All this changed around 1840, when factory-produced, continuous sheets of paper and mechanized rollers put intricate and colorful patterns within the budgets of the masses. By the late nineteenth century, however, supporters of the Arts & Crafts movement were fed up with industrialized production and called for a return to traditional crafting methods — notably, British design reformer William Morris, whose beautiful block-printed patterns are still produced today.

Now, even as modern advances in digital printing have revolutionized wallpaper production once again, we’re also seeing a subset of craftspeople return to traditional printing methods, à la William Morris, and many of the most up-to-the-minute designs for 2016 are revivals and reinterpretations of historic styles.

Below, find six trends to show that when it comes to wallpaper, what’s old is new again.

DIY Decals

In mid-eighteenth-century England, “print rooms” were quite the thing: DIY decorators collected inexpensive prints of favorite artworks and pasted them directly to their walls in creative arrangements. The prints were often further embellished with wallpaper frames and decorations manufactured by paper-stainers specifically for this purpose. Today, removable vinyl decals alleviate the potential for mess, and give us even more freedom to cut, paste, and move stuff around our walls. Thanks vinyl!



The print room at Castletown, an 18th-century mansion in Ireland (photo via Heritage Island)


Lush Botanicals and Florals

Big, bright botanical patterns help us feel more connected to nature, even when we’re stuck indoors. Some beautiful examples were produced by early nineteenth-century French manufacturers; as horticulture was a fashionable hobby at the time, botanically accurate images of roses abounded. This year, look for tropical-inspired patterns featuring motifs like palm fronds, hibiscuses or twisting jungle vines, or classic florals updated with vibrant color palettes to bring a 21st-century feel to this timeless concept.



A circa-1800 French paper from the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


Trompe L’oeil Texture

Another favored nineteenth-century trend making an appearance in 2016 collections is trompe l’oeil. French for “fool the eye,” trompe l’oeil wallpapers create the illusion of a textured surface on a flat wall. By choosing paper instead of the real deal, consumers were able to get the look of draped fabric, elaborate molding, gilt and leather — without the price and upkeep. Today’s designers tend to focus on patterns that imitate natural materials (and in a strong second place, faux bookshelf prints), but don’t overlook vintage papers for tufted, lattice, and even macramé-inspired styles.



An early 19th-century trompe-l’oeil paper frieze from the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection


Repeating Vignettes

During the mid-Victorian era’s Rococo revival, quirky, toile-like patterns with little repeating vignettes of exotic or idyllic locations were very popular for the parlor; scenes of bucolic life and architecture from far-off lands show up with frequency. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve seen playful new riffs on this old style, which is good news for parlors (and living rooms and bedrooms) everywhere.



One vignette example from the Cooper-Hewitt


Room-Specific Papers

Jumping forward to the 1950s, we find an affinity for themed wallpapers specific to spaces like kitchens, kids’ rooms and laundry rooms. After decades of turmoil brought on by the Depression and then WWII, Americans were eager to settle into the good life. Wallpaper reflected this desire quite literally by depicting objects associated with a comfortable domestic existence. I’m personally a big fan of food-themed patterns as a fun and witty choice for cooking and dining areas.



Cooper-Hewitt’s chicken print


Geometric Feature Walls

Another great throwback to postwar America is the feature wall papered with a large-scale, geometric pattern. Many of the new homes mass-produced for suburban developments (like those built in the infamous Levittown) featured wide-open floor plans. People found that papering a bold pattern on just one wall helped to bring interest and intimacy to a living space without becoming overwhelming. For 2016, geometrics incorporating thinner lines and neutral tones are particularly on-trend.




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