Whatever happened to wallpaper?
Its heyday may be over—but behind the peeling stuff on our walls lie 500 years of history and ambition.
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.
But to ignore wallpaper, even out of politeness, is to give it short shrift—that fragment in the pantry, it turns out, is a page from a long story of social mobility and aesthetic innovation. Though today we might associate it with 1950s suburbia or the Victorian drawing room, wallpaper actually came into being five centuries ago, with the printing press. In many ways the original fake, it proved a boon to generations of aspiring families who wanted a home full of vibrant patterns and beautiful vistas but couldn’t afford the taffeta or the oil paintings. As a stately new volume called “The Wallpaper Book,” by Geneviève Brunet—smartly designed, with an elongated format and a cloth binding, to look like a book of wallpaper samples—suggests, the story of wallpaper is both longer and more revealing than one might expect.
Now that its heyday has passed, and we see wallpaper at a more historical distance, it is becoming clear we should think of it not so much as a companion to the carpet and drapes, but alongside its printed cousins: mass-market fiction, comic strips, and greeting cards. Looking at how people covered their walls says a lot about the imaginative life of the middle class, and how they wanted to see themselves in the world—which might also tell us something about why we no longer use wallpaper as we once did.
Everyone knows how Gutenberg’s press revolutionized the written word. But mechanical printing radically changed visual art, too. With rise of the woodblock in 15th-century Europe, pictures began their journey from handmade rarities to multiples that could be reproduced and widely sold. One particularly popular format was called the domino, printed in simple black outlines, often with bold color added by hand or with stencils. Depicting religious scenes, floral arrangements, and simple geometric patterns, these modest-sized sheets were mostly used for book bindings or to line boxes, but it’s not surprising that these beautiful prints also began appearing on people’s walls.
This ad hoc wallpaper led the way for more elaborate and intentional forms of decoration. Their simple geometry and standardized sizing meant that the individual pieces could repeat and interlock ad infinitum, so by the 17th century, they were being placed end-to-end to provide a border or a frieze for a room. Stealing themes from both textiles and architecture, they were a cheap, trompe l’oeil alternative to imported fabrics and difficult-to-carve woodwork. Eventually, techniques like flocking (which introduced powdered wool fibers) and embossing (which pressed in a third dimension) allowed wallpaper to convincingly replicate even the feel of velvet or the actual texture of a cornice. Called upon to imitate everything from leather and marble to tapestries and silk, these chameleon prints provided the emerging middle class with vibrant decorations, an affordable fanciness.
The popularity of this idea meant that by 1765 individual pieces of paper, which were a hassle to align, had been seamed together into the all-conquering roll. Numbering in the hundreds, firms in England and France covered the interiors of a raptly industrializing Europe. With thinkers such as Goethe and Kant endorsing wallpaper’s aesthetic value, the bourgeoisie spruced up their plaster walls with interwoven flowers, fake taffeta, and golden colonnades. Designers improvised freely on classical, architectural, and botanical themes. Even Marie Antionette replaced the tapestries at Versailles with easier-to-change paper patterns, and when she herself was replaced, the French Revolution was celebrated on wallpaper.
By the mid-19th century, an innovation called “continuous paper” was being printed with steam presses whose rates of production were measured not in square feet and days, but in miles per hour. Wallpaper became affordable to even the working classes, while on the high end, expensive European wallpapers were augmented by ever more elaborate illusions. Breathtaking wall-sized panoramas were printed in color schemes involving as many as 250 unique shades. Along with arcadian and classical scenes harkening back to simpler times and past empires, Europeans advertised their vast colonial conquests in real time by filling their rooms with exotic portrayals of places like Hindustan and New Caledonia.
It was the mundane American suburb, however, that played host to wallpaper’s own great expansion. The United States had started to print lower-end wallpaper on an unprecedented scale, a quintessential middle-class decoration that turned out to be perfectly suited to a context that required both individuality and conformity. Its “unique” patterns were marshaled in to quickly differentiate houses that would have otherwise seemed too mass produced. If many 20th-century wallpapers continued to evoke Old World themes of affluence and pastoral calm, public dreaming in the modern era also looked forward in time. Even the Bauhaus produced a line of wallpaper, and architects like Le Corbusier and artists like Andy Warhol designed their own papers for their buildings and exhibitions. Each new decade brought new colors and patterns, even entirely new styles of wallpaper that reflected developments in music, fashion, and the fine arts. As toile and wicker turned to checkerboards and chrome, Disco, Op Art, and Scandinavian design all appeared in patterns ordinary people could buy in stores.
And then suddenly, as centuries of increasing popularity culminated in several frenzied decades, the whole idea of wallpaper seemed to go out of fashion. Sure, people still put up wallpaper, and there are many interesting designers currently working in the form, but try this little experiment: What images does the phrase “1950s wallpaper” conjure in your mind? Tiny flowers on a light green ground. OK, how about “1970s wallpaper”? Overlapping brown oblongs with rounded corners. Now try this: “1990s wallpaper.” Drawing a blank?
One practical explanation would be that the fashions started to move too fast for wallpaper: It wasn’t worth the hassle to peel and paste again and again. Or maybe, as a population, we started to move around too much and didn’t want wallpaper devaluing the property. What seems more likely is that as we found other outlets for our imagination, and as we spent more and more time staring into televisions and computer screens, we didn’t need so much stimulation on the walls. As our screens got bigger and more immersive, our walls became a relaxing backdrop rather than competition.
Contemporary wallpaper has responded in various ways. Of course, many factories are still printing the tried-and-true florals and stripes, and boutiques are offering more precise nostalgia: hand-crafted reproduction prints of bygone designs, sometimes at thousands of dollars per roll. Other designers, however, have enjoyed being outside, and even against, the mainstream tradition, ironically quoting outdated images or riffing on old patterns with the surprising, dream-like, mash-ups that are encouraged by digital technology. Some have gone even further, playing with space-age materials, creating wallpaper you can draw on, and even “video wallpaper” whose imagery can be changed—or turned off—by remote control. But whether it’s made with a knowing wink or with the exactitude of museum restoration, it’s hard not to feel like the once-serious business of wallpaper has entered the digital era firmly in quotation marks.
We’re not used to thinking of lowly wallpaper in relation to its more famous paper cousins—the newspaper, the old-fashioned letter, the venerable book, the printed photograph—but maybe it was simply the first to suffer the loss in popularity they have all had to face.
Today, if you Google “wallpaper,” the search already turns up jpegs of outer space and tropical beaches. Just like “desktop,” the word wallpaper now commonly refers to its analog on the computer screen, which would be more accurately described as a digital backdrop. This might seem coincidental at first, but as teenagers put up models and pop stars on their laptops and retirees put up jpegs of grandkids, we may be a lot like the people who first pasted dominos to the wall: piecing together fragments of something that will eventually surround us completely.
Dushko Petrovich, a painter and critic, teaches at The Rhode Island School of Design and is a founding editor of Paper Monument.