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Wall art

By Emily Hedrick

Posted: Friday, Jan. 27, 2012

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To paint or to paper? For well over 300 years, for owners of bare walls, that has been the question.

Design historians claim that wallpaper has its roots in ancient China, where rice paper was glued onto walls as early as 200 BC. It wasn’t until 1675, however, when French engraver Jean-Michel Papillon started making block designs in matching, continuous patterns, that wallpaper as we know it today got its start. This modern version of wallpaper quickly made its way into fashionable salons in England and France, offering an alternative to hand-painted murals, frescoes and woven tapestries for those artistocrats who loved the beauty and romance of patterned walls.

Since those late 17th-century beginnings, wall coverings have evolved drastically, as technology stepped in to create products that include compounds and materials that Papillon never imagined. Though “wallpaper” is actually a misnomer for what’s on the market, most customers still use the term for any surface treatment for a wall that isn’t painted.

Wallpaper captivates decorators for its versatility, visual appeal and ability to hide a multitude of flaws on walls worldwide. Wallpaper can make a small space look bigger or a large space take on the proportions of a grand gallery. It can add depth and intensity, make a bold statement or create a subtle background.

Most of all, wallpaper expresses the owner’s individual style even more elaborately than paint.

The home furnishings industry has changed substantially in the last decade as the economy forced many smaller manufacturers and mom-and-pop retail outlets out of business. By the late 1990s, designers were noticing a trend toward cookie-cutter interiors in neutral tones and a deliberate choice of paint over wallpaper. Additionally, the economy started causing some homeowners to choose lower-cost design solutions such as blinds and paint rather than custom draperies and coordinating wall coverings.

Discriminating homeowners, however, have continued to gravitate toward wallpaper not only for its almost limitless variety and beauty but also for its durability. And now wallpaper is again on the upswing.

“Wallpaper, especially if it’s properly cared for, lasts longer than paint,” declares Jenifer Stern, national agent and export manager for Schumacher, a leading manufacturer who caters to the luxury home furnishings market. “Our customers perceive that they get a better return on their investment with wallpaper than with paint alone, and it’s absolutely true.

“Our customer doesn’t want what everyone else has, which makes product lines like ours so valuable to our market,” she says.

Companies like Schumacher, Thibaut and Scalamandre, local designers agree, offer unique designs that appeal to homeowners who aspire to a certain level of comfort and quality in their surroundings. Wallpaper is definitely part of that equation.

“A wall without the right covering is like a cake without icing,” says Stern.

She says to predict trends in her industry, one only has to look on fashion runways; What’s showing on the runway will translate into home furnishings about a season later. As an example, she mentions hot new wallpaper patterns like Greek keys or trellises, and tone-on-tone prints, all of which came from Gucci clothing shows last year. Color in home décor, especially, she says, tends to follow the fashion industry’s lead.

Other current wallpaper trends include:

Nature is working the walls. Prints inspired by the forest floor or leaves, ferns, berries and flowers have never been more chic. Animals – not just from the jungle, but from Down Under – show up often, too.

Eco-friendly is on the comeback trail. Grasscloth, which was never “out,” is now back in in a big way. Formerly considered a bargain, grasscloth speaks to sustainability, since it’s made with natural fibers of jute, reed and arrowroot. Lately it has been updated with metallic threads and prints like plaids and stripes, and it now comes in a variety of colors. These changes are driving the selection of grasscloth into home offices and dining rooms, in addition to the playrooms where it was often relegated in the past.

In addition to the familiar grasscloth, other textured wallpaper in the form of raised patterns, flocking, embossing and embroidery is being used, especially in more contemporary interiors.

Traditional still rocks – but maybe with a twist. Classic, comforting wallpaper designs are being used as always, but now perhaps in a nontraditional color. Some industry insiders are predicting trends in the optimistic, saturated and rather primary colors from the late 1960s like greens, yellows, corals, reds, blues and purples, alone or in combination.

Timeless design was never out. Hand-blocked, made-to-order wallpapers with classic patterns from the colonial, Victorian and Art Nouveau eras, often known as document prints because of their historical roots, continue to satisfy the style of homeowners who love the look of reproductions.

Make a bold splash. Wallpaper allows you to have fun without going overboard – unless that’s your style. Especially in contemporary designs, homeowners are using one, large dominating pattern – such as a cluster of giant lily pads – on a single wall as a focal point. The effect can be very stylized, masculine and, above all, original.

As if deciding which wallpaper best makes your personal statement isn’t difficult enough, you might consider wallpapering the ceiling. Schumacher’s Stern calls the ceiling the “fifth wall” and adds that ignoring the ceiling “is like wearing a ball gown with tennis shoes.”

Murals, often found only in children’s rooms, have grown up: Photographic or painted murals in the form of wallpaper can transport any room to the English countryside, a cityscape, an Oriental garden or the tropics.

And like paint, wallpaper comes in various finishes, like pearlized, matte or high-gloss.

Finally, if you can’t find the perfect wallpaper to match those new curtains, consider installing Anaglypta or another brand of textured, uncolored wallpaper made of cotton and paper pulp. Over its various embossed patterns, you can paint the color of your dreams.

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