In artistic circles, “wallpaper” is used mostly as a term of derision—something not worth looking at closely. Even in our homes, wallpaper has lost a certain amount of status. Nowadays, those pastel garlands in the guest bathroom, the peeling “wicker” at the back of the pantry, the textured ochre in the den—these brave remnants are on a mental list of things to be gotten rid of, counting their days along with the wall-to-wall carpet and that bulky hide-a-bed.
Part of wallpaper’s shame is that we associate it with a once-prosperous family of postwar miracle surfaces. Vinyl, linoleum, and aluminum siding were durable and easy to clean; they came in up-to-the-minute designs in all the latest colors; above all, they were affordable. But they promised too much. Wallpaper especially was supposed to make your home seem expensive and unique, a floor-to-ceiling backdrop for the quixotic dream of the suburbs. Often impersonating more noble materials like silk or marble, or borrowing idyllic motifs from places we’d never been, wallpaper projected a worldliness that we eventually saw right through. Indeed, the most vexing problem turned out to be that these fashionable patterns stuck around for too long. Any amateur could casually identify a wallpaper’s decade of origin, which couldn’t always be blamed on a previous owner.