If you think of wallpaper as the flowery stuff in Grandma’s living room, or the preferred decorative choice for those tasteless English flats you see in the movies, then you haven’t been looking at many trendy walls lately.
Five years ago, many people were scared of wallpaper.
But as countless photos on Pinterest and Houzz lavishly demonstrate, wallpaper has been breaking free from its traditional locations: an accent wall in the downstairs powder room and the space behind the headboard in the master bedroom.
Now people are ready to try wallpaper in many different places throughout the home.
The biggest fear homeowners have about wallpaper, is its tendency to hem things in. People were afraid to make their rooms look small. But the healthy diversity of colors, textures and patterns on the market can create any kind of spatial effect you desire.
The biggest technological advance in the world of wallpaper is digital printing, which allows practically any image or pattern, no matter how intricate, to be turned into wallpaper.
Digital printing has enabled wallpaper designers to go in directions that have never been available, (even) in previous hand-printed versions. Wilder’s Los Angeles company produces intricately patterned wallpaper using abstract, floral and butterfly designs.
At the other extreme, the ancient craft of hand blocking – creating an image or pattern on wallpaper by imprinting it with paint from hand-carved blocks – has become popular again, too. The rough imperfections of hand blocking are a coveted part of the look, creating a rustic effect. People love that these kinds of things are one-of-a-kind.
The other technological breakthrough that’s a hit, is removable wallpaper, which simply peels off without leaving any residue or removing an underlying layer of paint.
The quality of (removable wallpaper) is very good now. It’s not like the stick-on flowers that you used to put in your dorm room. They’re more like contact paper. And they’re not hard to put on or remove, so you don’t have to get a professional to do it.
Alternative materials and textures are big, too. There are many more types of vinyl now. Some people like wallpapers with rocks embedded in them, or sparkles. And metallic sheens are getting popular – gold and silver and bronze that reflect things in an unusual way. Feathers, beads, even embedded LEDs are working their way into modern wallpaper designs. For the adventurous, some companies are making wallpaper that’s suitable for the outdoors.
If you’re using a pattern that’s large in scale, it looks better on a big wall where there are high ceilings. In smaller rooms, wallpaper with a vertical striped pattern can cleverly open up the room and provide the illusion of height.
Another caveat: Don’t overdo it. I’d rather have quality than quantity. I would rather just do one great area, to keep costs down yet make a statement. The other fun thing is you can add it without committing yourself. You can frame samples and put three contrasting patterns together, and boom! You have some artwork hanging over your sofa. Or put it on the back of a bookshelf. Do something that you can easily change down the line.
Painting, especially the kind of custom job that requires special techniques and extra time, can be costly these days. Wallpaper is a great bang-for-the-buck alternative that provides a change of look that’s much more dramatic than a coat of paint for a fraction of the cost.
Nowadays I think custom painting is really expensive, and you’re not guaranteed a great result – it depends on the skill of the painter. If you want to try something a little daring without spending a lot, why not try wallpaper? If you hate it, you can just peel it off.
WALLPAPER: HOW IT ALL ROLLED OUT
Just as wallpaper is today considered an economical alternative to painting, its origins in Renaissance Europe were based on a desire for a less costly alternative to tapestries, the wall covering of choice for royalty. Early hand-painted wallpaper usually imitated scenes found on tapestries, and it was sometimes hung loose on a wall like a tapestry.
Wallpaper flourished in England after Henry VIII’s excommunication from the Catholic Church reduced trade to the continent and made tapestries rare and expensive. Oliver Cromwell forbade the making of wallpaper – it was un-Puritan and frivolous – but it came roaring back during the Restoration. By the middle of the 18th century, Britain was the leading wallpaper manufacturer in Europe.
Once the French invented a machine to produce continuous lengths of patterned wallpaper in 1799 and the British came up with steam-powered printing presses in 1813, the era of mass production was born. Prices dropped dramatically, and wallpaper quickly lost its status as a sign of gentility. Well into the 20th century it was ubiquitous in middle-class European and American homes before gradually losing market share to paint. One reason for its demise: Sherwin-Williams released Super Kem-Tone latex paint in the late 1940s, making DIY painting less messy and spelling the end of oil-based interior paints, which contained dangerous levels of lead.