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Monday, November 4, 2013


Is it real or is it wallpaper?
When I was growing up, every year, around late winter as I recall, there came in the mail one or more wallpaper catalogues. Sears had one, and a couple others. They had my mother pegged. She loved to redecorate, and every two or three years, whether it needed it or not, our living room got wallpapered. Cracks in the plaster? Enough layers of wallpaper disguised or obliterated them. Walls weren't too bad but ceilings! That wonderful little undertaking would test the bonds of even the strongest marriage. By the time I left home for college, I hated wallpaper. Never would I have the damned stuff in my house.

Foil wallcoverings today flash forward another thirty years from those on the
late 1970s which won me back to the art and craft of wallpapering.
Flash forward fifteen years, I'm married, college educated, a working artist, decorating a newly built home I'd designed myself from the footers to the faceplates. My wife suggested we use wallpaper on a wall in the foyer. I suggested we not. She dragged me kicking and screaming (figuratively speaking) to a wallpaper store. (They have whole stores for this sort of thing now?) Well, let's just say it was not the stuff of my mother's Sears Roebuck wallpaper catalog. By the time she got me out of there, we were not only doing the foyer, but had purchased two wallpaper murals as well. Sticking the stupid stuff to the wall was still as onerous a task as I'd recalled, though tricks and techniques I'd learned as a child came flooding back to me as we worked. The marriage survived. 

By the early 19th century, the French became quite adept at block printing
mural-like wallpaper made to look hand-painted. This one had ten panels.
When our medieval ancestors built castles of stone, they hung huge tapestries to cover the walls, and warm the place up a bit (both figratively and literally). They hired artists to design them and nuns to weave them. However, because of this, tapestries were extremely expensive. Paper was too, but not so much. Medieval interior decorators began hanging paper images (hand painted or block printed) on walls as a cheap(er) replacement. Later, they decided wheat paste was a good idea (over breakfast porridge, no doubt). Thus the wallpaper industry began. The French had a lot of castles so they, naturally, developed the first wallpaper printing presses and the delicate technical expertise to run them (below). By the 18th century, they sort of had a corner on the market. England had a lot of castles too so they imported the finely designed, finely crafted decorating commodity from their neighbors across the channel. Which was all fine and dandy until war broke out (the Seven Years War and later the little ruckus with Napoleon). The French decided the Brits could print their own damned wallpaper. 

Even as late as 1877, the French were still "hand-blocking" wallpaper
at a time when the British were printing the stuff by the mile.
British wallpaper of the Victorian
era was heavily floral. This is mild
compared to some designs.
They did, though often as not, they found it as easy to paint their images as to print them. Also they found they could import Chinese wallpaper, which was just as good as the hated French stuff and cheaper. Besides, it matched the popular Chinese Chippendale chairs. When the industrial revolution came to England during the early 19th century, it began with textiles, then quickly spread to the making of paper and printing. By the Victorian era, wallpaper was-dirt cheap and and almost literally everywhere. Rotary printing presses demanded repetition, so textile designers were called upon to do their thing on paper, which quickly became a race to see who could make the most fanciful, and convoluted, configuration of cultural constipation conceivable. The worst of it they shipped off to the former colonies where the pseudo-Victorian parlor pasters ate it up.
Wallpaper as I remembered it.
By the time my mother came around, American wallpaper manufacturers were taking the scraps generated by their printing processes and cutting them into squares to form the sample pages of mail order catalogs. Then came the housing boom after WW II. Wallpapering took time and no small amount of skill. Simply painting walls was quick and easy, and to my way of thinking, looked immeasurably better in any case. Moreover, in the midst of the post-war baby boom, with the exception of my mother, who had time to wallpaper? Wallpaper nosedived in popularity. Wallpaper catalogs became the stuff of children's craft projects. A new wallpaper as well as a new ways of marketing manufacturing wallpaper became necessary if the industry was to survive.

Our foyer now sports a slightly less
textured version of this extreme.
Note the door at center.
As young Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols', The Graduate, was informed, plastics were the way to go (or in wallpaper jargon, laminates). No more sloppy wheat paste, just peel and stick. Or, if you liked, there was polymer sticky stuff. The burgeoning chemical industry revolutionized wallcoverings. Foils were feasible. Textures were tasteful. Photo-murals were phantasmagorical. Stores were stupendous. Decorators were delerious. My wife was mollified. I was gradually converted.
Getting to sleep might be difficult.
Having once felt the economic distress of not changing with the times, the wallcovering industry is not going to let it happen again. Today, you can choose your wall decor online from a bewildering array of designs and images that would have made my mother's eyes pop (top); though beware of Websites featuring "wallpaper" which has come to mean the digital background of your computer desktop. Today you can purchase wallcoverings which prevent walls from collapsing during earthquakes, or conserve heat, or block wi-fi signals, or conversely, serve as computer interfaces, turning an entire wall into a giant monitor. Today the heroes and villans of computer games seem to burst forth from the walls of boys' rooms while little girls sleep amid artists' renderings of fairy tale castles...presumably hung inside with medieval tapsetries.

Children's wallcoverings are quite gender specific.

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