Quick History: Wallpaper

Quick History: Wallpaper

Anna Hoffman
Sep 13, 2012

It's wallpaper week at Apartment Therapy, the perfect time to look at the history of wallpaper. Evidently the Chinese were hanging decorated rice paper on their walls for a couple thousand years, but the history of European wallpaper begins in the 16th century.

The first European wall decorations were textiles — in the Middle Ages, sumptuous wool and silk tapestries were used not only as décor and artwork, but also as insulation. These tapestries were incredibly time-consuming to produce, with costly labor and supplies, and so were only really available to the wealthiest consumers. The Renaissance was the golden age of the textile, with expensive, beautifully woven fabrics used as decoration on walls, tables and doorways. It was during this time that wallpaper was developed as an inexpensive alternative to textiles.

The earliest surviving wallpapers are from early-16th century England (images 1 & 2). These were block-printed and then colored by hand. These early papers usually mimicked fabrics, like damasks (image 3), and were used not only as wallpaper but also as liners for chests and armoires (these tend to survive the longest, protected from elements and vagaries of fashion).

By the 1600's, wallpaper was common in Western Europe. A paperhangers' guild was started in Paris in 1599 (image 6), and a historian from the era, Savary des Brusions, wrote about dominotiers, who made "a type of tapestry on paper … which is used by the poorer classes in Paris to cover the walls of their huts or their shops." It was also in the early 17th century that the Chinese began printing rice paper panels with flowers, birds and landscapes, a genre that became known as chinoiseries and were soon imitated by European designers, though the authentic imports were more highly prized (image 4).

Flocked wallpaper was developed in the 17th century, as well. This involved printing a background color onto paper, then applying adhesive in a pattern, and sprinkling the paper with the dyed trimmings of sheep wool, resulting in a sumptuously textured imitation of cut velvet (image 5).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, wallpaper was an increasingly popular decoration, with designers exploring different kinds of patterns, including chinoiserie, flocking, scenic papers (image 7), and papers that imitated swags (image 9) and tassels. Wallpaper designs were often topical: some American and French wallpapers celebrated the revolutions of 1776 and 1789, respectively, and the Great Exhibition of 1851 inspired several commemorative designs (image 10).

The 19th century was an age of immense technological development in every aspect of life, and wallpaper was no exception. The first machines for printing wallpaper were developed in the late-18th century and refined in the 19th century. It was during the 1800s that steam power was applied to the printing process, allowing papers to be printed much faster and cheaper than ever before. Inventors also developed industrial methods for printing multiple colors - 8 colors by 1850 and 20 colors by 1874.

Cheap industrial production methods meant that wallpaper was available to a wider population. It also, unfortunately, meant that the design phase of the production process was often neglected. The Design Reformers of the 19th century railed against shoddy factory-made products. They shunned trompe l'oeil, panoramic scenes and imitations of textiles and architecture (images 7-10) as being artless, tasteless, and without integrity. Instead, designers like William Morris created flat, two-dimensional patterns based on abstracted flora and fauna, derived from pre-industrial prototypes and using pre-industrial methods (image 11).

During the 19th century, walls were often divided into three sections, the dado (from floor to chair rail) the filler, and the freize. The Aesthetic Movement, during the late Victorian era, often saw walls with different complementary patterns for each section, including borders between them (image 12). This interplay of color and patterns was inspired by non-Western designs, particularly from the Islamic and Far Eastern worlds.

Wallpaper was very popular during the first third of the 20th century, though the influence of mid-century Modernism soon led to a lot of white walls. Advances in technology led to more durable papers, more lasting dyes, and easier application and removal of wallpapers. Recent developments in digital printing have brought a new generation of artists and designers to the medium, yielding large-scale murals and unexpected patterns (image 15), and ensuring that wallpaper's long history marches on.

Images: 1 & 6 Wallpaper History Society; 2-5, 8 Victoria & Albert Museum; 7 Metropolitan Museum of Art; 9, 10 & 14 The Textile Blog; 11 The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 12 Brooklyn Museum of Art; 13 Big Bang; 15 Trove.

Sources: A great online source of information on wallpaper history (and the source of my Savary des Brusions quote) is Barbara Krasner-Khait's 2001 article for History Magazine. Or just watch this fabulous video-history of wallpaper from the Wallpaper History Society of the UK. The V & A Museum also has this great video of how William Morris created his lush patterns by hand.

Originally published 10.14.10 - JL

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