Wallpaper is back in the good graces of designers and homeowners — but this time, they’re determined to right the decorating wrongs of the past. Some designers still struggle with memories of wallpapered childhoods in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when dizzying prints and pastel florals ran rampant through American homes. As renovators, they’ve come face to face with the lingering reminders of previous eras.
“Wallpaper sometimes scares people. Wallpaper of years ago was always covered in oranges and apples,” says Dee Elms of Boston firm Terrat Elms Interior Design. “Wallpaper today is different.”
Despite this conflicted history, for Elms and other local designers — plus a nation of home-decor bloggers who’ve plastered Pinterest with their projects — wallpaper’s comeback is gaining traction. Reimagined for a modern eye and used with restraint, the latest wallcoverings lend personality and style without being overwhelming. “We all love paint, but sometimes you just need a little bit more. Wallpaper can add dimension, it can add a sparkle, and it creates a really warm, layered feeling,” Elms says.
The key to an up-to-date look, says Melissa Hammond of Boston’s Hammond Design, is all in the application. “A lot of people think of their parents’ or their grandparents’ house, where the entire house was wallpapered, where it was not done well and the patterns clashed. I try to get them to rethink it,” Hammond says, reminding them that “it’s not something you’re going to have in every single room.”
To help them think differently about wallpaper, Sally Staub, an interior design consultant in Northampton, encourages clients to view it as an amazing piece of art or a gorgeous accessory. “A great wallpaper is a way to add excitement and unify a room,” Staub says. “It’s like getting dressed — first, you pick out your favorite skirt or shirt, and you build the outfit around it.”
For the noncommittal, new formulations make wallpaper less dauntingly permanent. Removable adhesive treatments are available in an ever-increasing range of designs, and, as Staub points out, “even traditionally pasted coverings are easier to remove because the papers and the glue are better.”
Considering a move beyond the monochrome? Here, designers and other creative types suggest how to use wallpaper in ways that suit the moment:
Opt for texture over print
When a geometric or floral design seems overpowering, many designers choose the more subtle pleasures of a quiet, textured paper. “It’s not going to have such a big personality that it takes your breath away when you walk in the room,” Elms says. “It’s going to blend with the interiors.” Her firm’s projects often feature textured designs such as Phillip Jeffries’ “Rivets,” shown here in a Jamaica Pond dining room. The patterned wallcovering adds visual interest but still sets a soothing neutral tone for the space.
“We’ve definitely seen wallcoverings growing in popularity,” says Reka Varga-Vienne, Phillip Jeffries design director. Treatments made from luxe materials such as hemp and grass cloth allow designers to “set the stage by adding in the first layer of texture that envelops the room,” Varga-Vienne says.
Use it on an accent wall
For a quick hit of energy and color, designers are increasingly prescribing small doses of wallpaper. “We’ll use wall treatments on one wall of a space, similar to the way we might use a painted accent color,” says Stephanie Horowitz of Boston firm ZeroEnergy Design, who covered an accent wall in a South End bedroom with a deep-navy hemp paper.
Staub chose an effervescent Kimberly Lewis print for an accent wall in her own Northampton kitchen. “I fell in love with that paper, so I used it to unify the rest of the rooms and create visual interest.” She borrowed from its palette to choose colors for the adjoining spaces and even selected a matching turquoise refrigerator and dishwasher. “It such a fun and happy kitchen,” she says. She adds that limiting wallpaper application to a single wall is easier on the budget: “It’s a lot of bang for the buck.”
Stick to a smaller space
A fully papered room still can feel contemporary, but Horowitz advises homeowners to “use a modern print, and think carefully about where to put it.” Closets, laundry rooms, and nurseries are popular spaces for splashing out with a wilder wallpaper. In that ZeroEnergy project in the South End, for example, a bold Marimekko pattern transforms a dressing area into an energizing launch pad for the day ahead.
Even styles that have fallen into disrepute can seem newly cool when used in a small space. For a powder room in Cambridge, Hammond chose a metallic paper, which some might consider a less-than-appealing throwback to the glitzier looks of the last century. But Hammond was inspired by the room’s handblown-crystal pendant fixtures: “They cast this ethereal and irregular light. I landed on that wallpaper because it had a sheen, and I thought about how that light playing off it would look — and it works!”
Try temporary paper
For cautious experiments with wallcoverings, temporary paper is an increasingly popular option, sold by large retailers like CB2 and indie firms such as Flavor Paper, which makes murals with pop-art influences (think Andy Warhol), and Chasing Paper, which produces a range of sophisticated, on-trend removable prints. With a few basic DIY skills and a bit of patience, removable paper can be applied in a few hours and taken down with ease when its appeal fades. The wallpaper peels off, and in the case of Flavor Paper, if you hit a stubborn spot, you can wet it to reactivate the paste.
Shelly Lynch-Sparks of the online interior-design firm Homepolish chose a vibrant foliage print from Chasing Paper for a bathroom redo in her New York City apartment. “It was super-quick; two of us did it in four hours,” Lynch-Sparks says. With no installation costs and materials totaling under $600, she found it an affordable and practical solution for her rental unit, and a year after hanging it, the paper has held up well. “In hindsight, I didn’t realize it was going to have so much impact,” she says. “You can see the bathroom from the entryway, and people are like ‘Oh my God, I love it!’ ”
Removable papers are also worth considering for a children’s space; if kids color on the wall, it’s not such a big deal. In fact, online retailer Wee Gallery offers coloring-book-style wall treatments that encourage small artists (or grown-up ones) to use markers or crayons on them when inspiration hits. At Spoonflower, customers can upload their own images to print on fabric, wallpaper, or gift wrap, and many opt for the coloring-book-style designs.
Go for vintage
Homeowners with nostalgic tastes might want to check out the endless galleries of vintage wallpapers on web sellers like Etsy and eBay. In his 1842 Cambridge Greek Revival, An Urban Cottage blogger Steve Fuller lined a dining room closet with a 1940s hunting print, then outfitted it as a self-serve bar. He likens it to a wild-print lining in a conservative blazer. “It’s kind of a surprise element when I have guests over. It’s a really fun conversation starter.”