Not your grandma’s wallpaper

Universal UclickAugust 2, 2013 

Atmospheric and ethereal, some images defy references. There are unlikely patchwork montages, graphically arresting, which actually reference a colorful range of intricately patterned silk scarves. Watercolor abstractions in intense hues are spellbinding. Blooms of dahlias evoking more psychedelic than natural colors are explosive. Mega-scale, mural-sized photos are crisp and realistic. Brushstrokes and drips of paint may, in fact, be real.

Welcome to the 21st century wallpaper design. It’s a modern movement with deep roots in nostalgia, both in history and in imagery.

Technological advances, including ink-jet printing, have opened a new world of scale, color and technique, one embraced by artisans, many of whom have been trained in fine arts, graphic design and photography.

In an effort to experiment with unusual surface coverings, there has been a recent uptick in the use of leather, skin and more unconventional materials such as metal, resin, beads, shells and even Swarovski crystals, which add dimension, texture and sheen. One London-based company, Meystyle, even embeds LED lights into its sophisticated patterns.

Pattern certainly has played a pivotal role in dimensional or textural examples. But perhaps the most excitement these days is in the imagery itself – in traditional silk screens, hand-painting and digital and print technology.

And these days, there is so much more than meets the eye. There’s a mix of sophistication, serendipity and wit at play with the creative process.

The latest collection from Trove, for example, features ethereal looks with names such as Nimbus, which evokes puffy clouds, and Heze, which features abstracted circles. For partners Jee Levin and Randall Buck, the design was a new, experimental adventure. The two created the images by making a series of paintings with flashlights and fiber-optic toys, exposing light to different photographic papers.

“It’s playfully lighthearted,” said Jee Levin, noting that the concept was inspired by New York City street fairs. “We started seeing weird, odd toys, like bracelets and wands. We thought, ‘Let’s play with those and use them as an unconventional art tools.’ So we gathered the pieces, brought them into a darkroom, used a variety of photographic papers and exposed light at different speeds. The experiment involved time, light and color. We learned that red does not actually expose light to the paper, and you can see interruptions in the patterning, sort of gestural brushstrokes. Color was the process, not just informing the process.”

‘The feature wall’

Look closely at the patterns in Alyse Solomon’s wall coverings and you may begin to recognize elements. What they resemble may be anything from embroidery to pointillist art to pixilations. One study of red lilies, composed on a ground of leaves that look as if they have been cut out of paper and set in, takes on a whole different vibe with a shift of color to fuchsia on olive, where you get lost in stylized pattern.

So the artistry has really given a boost to rethinking the wall in interiors.

“People are using wallpaper as a kind of artistic statement,” said Shanan Campanaro, creative director and founder of Eskayel, a company based in Brooklyn, N.Y. “It’s less expensive than a giant piece of art. You can use it as an accent rather than everywhere.”

Or what is now often referred to as “the feature wall.”

“You can create an atmosphere that dominates a room,” said Carl Robinson, creative director for Wallquest. “A mural is unlike regular wallpaper, a faux-finished or plain wall.” Its impact, even at elevated price tags of several hundred dollars per roll, is less expensive than a piece of fine art.

Some companies, like Los Angeles-based Black Crow Studios, operate in bespoke products – totally custom. So they pride themselves on hand-painted coverings without repeats that cover entire walls in grand scale.

“Interior design is evolving, becoming a little more minimalist and graphic at the same time,” Solomon said. “With (the graphic papers) you can take a space and create an amusing, unique environment that you walk in and find fascinating. A lot of hotels now choose one wall in the lobby and paper it,” which substitutes for a framed piece of art.

Nostalgia goes modern

Complexity, richness of pattern, even a bit of whimsy are part of Solomon’s repertoire. One paper titled Edgeless looks like a miniprint. Look closely and a beach scene is revealed in black and white with vivid orange splashes of cushions. A paper at Flat Vernacular, an explosion of disparate objects to create pattern, is amusingly called Lots of Stuff. Another company, Flavor Paper, actually created a custom toile depicting vignettes of Brooklyn for Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys.

“Wallpaper adds depth and personality to a room,” said designer Frances Merrill, owner of Reath Design in Los Angeles. “I love to mix patterns, and wallpaper is another opportunity to do that.” Her own tastes run the gamut from “old fashioned looking” to very modern.

Some actually attribute the hip factor of today’s wallpaper to nostalgia.

“People feel they want to be connected to something in their memory,” said Chris Sotz, head of home buying for the Philadelphia-based retailer Anthropologie. “Everybody grew up with wallpaper in their mother’s or grandmother’s home, so they’re really drawn to the sense of familiar, a reminder of another time.”

At the same time, technology has made the medium more modern, especially with graphic kaleidoscopic patterns or intriguing designs whose subjects are ambiguous.

Creating accent walls

“People are drawn to the idea of customization and individuality more than ever,” Sotz said. Anthropologie has been featuring wall coverings and murals for several years, from European and U.S.-based companies as well as in-house designs.

“Five years ago, we always had the powder room discussion – about papering a small room that you didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time in. But we’re embracing larger spaces now and that’s really impacted the way we think about scale. We can create incredible accent walls.

“People are so exposed to everything out there – on Pinterest and Instagram – amazing designs from artists big and small. Wall covering is a great way to create a big impact.”

Exotic designs

One in-house design called Grand Bazaar was inspired by buyer trips to Turkey and Morocco. “In Turkey, at the Blue Mosque, there were all these amazing tiles and Islamic art patterns, kind of fading away. It was almost like a watercolor. In Morocco, there were about 35 rugs laid out on the ground. We mixed the two images to create the pattern.”

Subtext for many boutique as well as conventional wall-covering makers today is an emphasis on eco-friendly, from papers (from recycled sources or well-managed renewable forests, some certified by the Forest Stewardship Council) to inks (water-based) to management of residual inks and water.

“I love that people are embracing (wallpaper),” said Soltz of the newer bolder papers. “It takes a bold person to wallpaper a wall.”

Walls may not talk, but these days they’re likely to be the source of a lot of conversations.

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