Wild for Wallpaper

Wild for Wallpaper

Grandma’s dated decorative staple has returned, using designs and techniques that are fresh, fabulous and utterly fashion forward.

By Bettijane Levine 09/11/2013

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Just when you thought the tech tsunami had erased all vestiges of life as our forefathers knew it, the papered wall has joined a growing list of “old-fashioned” items becoming new again.

Along with thick glass milk bottles and eggs from happy chickens roaming nearby farms, some of the haughtiest homes in America are once again awash in wallpaper — a word most teenagers associate only with computers and cells, rather than actual walls. And the new breed of wallcovering is as up-to-date as the iPhone 5. More than just decorative — although it’s reached new heights in that arena — it has become dimensional, architectural, more durable and easier to manage than the fragile, old-fangled stuff that graced great-grandma’s walls. Some of the best new entries are handcrafted, blending ancient artisan techniques with new technologies to lend depth, texture and luminosity impossible to achieve just a few decades ago.

Google the websites of some of the field’s innovators, such as Maya Romanoff, Philip Jeffries and David Bonk, to name just a few. You’ll find wallcoverings made of hand-inlaid wood marquetry, seashells, mother of pearl, Swarovski crystals, hand-applied gold or silver leaf, glass beads, brass studs, gilded jute and patterns hand-painted or hand-printed with woodblocks. Although the new wallcoverings may sound a bit glitzy — more Las Vegas than San Marino — they are the exact opposite: They’re subtle and sophisticated or gorgeously graphic, which is why they now grace walls and ceilings in some of the most distinguished homes around the globe.

“We love wallpaper. We’re using it more and more. We’re wallpapering entire rooms in some fabulous homes,” says South Pasadena–based interior designer Jennifer Bevan Montoya, adding that the new wallcoverings help define a room’s character. “More than just decorative, they achieve a great layering of backgrounds. They add texture, depth, dimension and richness to a space.” The best wallpaper designers, she says, “have engineered extraordinarily imaginative surfaces” that can enhance homes of every period and suit any homeowner’s personal taste. Among trends in pattern and color, she says geometrics and brights are becoming more popular — some reminiscent of the 1970s — as are luminescent subtle metallics.

In recent projects, Bevan Montoya says she’s covered a ceiling in silver-leaf paper, designed a master suite using David Bonk’s hand-screened Cipriani pattern in white and silver–metal leaf and covered an entire room in Philip Jeffries’ gold-on-white Manila hemp. Other favorites among clients, she says, range from “crazy imaginative” patterns to the totally traditional, such as wallpapers by Hermès. Wallcoverings are popular in San Marino, she adds, because it “has become younger” in both age and outlook over the past few years. “My clients there tend to embrace innovation.”

La Cañada Flintridge–based interior designer Carolyn Von Der Ahe says wallpaper “went backstage” for a few decades, but it started becoming popular again in the past few years. “Five years ago I rarely used wallpaper. Now I’m using it all the time,” she says. “You can tell it’s a growing global trend, because well-known interior designers are creating their own collections and licensing them under big vendors. You haven’t seen that in many years.

“Martyn Lawrence Bullard, for example, has a line with Schumacher that I love. Another one I love is Kravet’s Shimmer collection by Winfield Thybony. And L.A. designer Kelly Wearstler now has a line with Lee Joffa. That tells you where it’s all going.”

Von Der Ahe says graphics, metallics, bolder colors and new-era florals are popular, and she’s intrigued by all the inventive new coverings — many of which she hasn’t yet had a chance to use. “There’s a collection with brass studs, and a firm that lets you design your own paper [designyourwall.com]. Let’s say you have the paw print of a beloved cat or dog, or a handprint your toddler made in pre-school and you want to design a pattern using something personal like that. Wouldn’t it be fabulous?”

Von Der Ahe’s Arroyoland clients “tend to choose more classic patterns, which they mostly use in bedrooms, dining rooms and baths,” she says. She recently wallpapered a teenage girl’s bedroom in Farrow & Ball’s lavender-and-white Lotus pattern. The cost? “I think it was about $300 per roll,” she says.
Judy Koessel is co-owner of Chicago’s Koessel Studios, which designs and manufactures unique handcrafted papers that require many hours of artisans’ work. “Our papers have a painterly quality,” she says. “First, we apply layer upon layer of color by hand” until the desired depth of color and texture is achieved. Onto that, she says, they sculpt or press a selected pattern into the surface, also by hand, using woodblock, embossing or other techniques. “We use the mineral mica for anything metallic or with sheen, and we embed glass, mother of pearl, brass and other metals into certain patterns,” all of which are also applied by hand.

One of Koessel’s current favorites features a pattern of open peacock feathers, each with a glittering eye made of multicolored and reflective dichroic glass. The studio fires each “eye” in a glass fusion kiln before hand-applying it to the paper. It’s obviously a costly and labor-intensive operation — one five-yard single roll goes for $375 — but she says the results are worth it, and the paper is likely to last as long as the house it’s installed in.
Indeed, wallpaper now has greater longevity and flexibility because much of it isn’t just paper anymore. It’s a hybrid creation of color and design fused onto a substrate of non-woven fiber, similar to that used in wet wipes or diapers. This recipe makes wallcoverings breathable, extremely durable and flexible enough to go around corners. It is easier to install and easier to remove. Just wet the wall, designers say, and the paper peels off in a single swoop, just like a banana skin.

A few final design tips from the experts: The faux-finish painted-wall trend is finito. Instead, some new papers have texture and subtle pattern built in, and they’re designed to be painted with the color of your choice. Also, consider your ceilings, which designers call “the fifth wall.” Cover them with one of the new luminous papers to subtly light up the room. Or try one of the new architectural designs that give the effect of a coffered ceiling. It’s all possible now. 

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