Whatever Happened to Wallpaper?
In artistic circles, “wallpaper” is used mostly as a term of derision—something not worth looking at closely. Even in our homes, wallpaper has lost a certain amount of status. Nowadays, those pastel garlands in the guest bathroom, the peeling “wicker” at the back of the pantry, the textured ochre in the den—these brave remnants are on a mental list of things to be gotten rid of, counting their days along with the wall-to-wall carpet and that bulky hide-a-bed.
Part of wallpaper’s shame is that we associate it with a once-prosperous family of postwar miracle surfaces. Vinyl, linoleum, and aluminum siding were durable and easy to clean; they came in up-to-the-minute designs in all the latest colors; above all, they were affordable. But they promised too much. Wallpaper especially was supposed to make your home seem expensive and unique, a floor-to-ceiling backdrop for the quixotic dream of the suburbs. Often impersonating more noble materials like silk or marble, or borrowing idyllic motifs from places we’d never been, wallpaper projected a worldliness that we eventually saw right through. Indeed, the most vexing problem turned out to be that these fashionable patterns stuck around for too long. Any amateur could casually identify a wallpaper’s decade of origin, which couldn’t always be blamed on a previous owner.
But to ignore wallpaper, even out of politeness, is to give it short shrift—that fragment in the pantry, it turns out, is a page from a long story of social mobility and aesthetic innovation. Though today we might associate it with 1950s suburbia or the Victorian drawing room, wallpaper actually came into being five centuries ago, with the printing press. In many ways the original fake, it proved a boon to generations of aspiring families who wanted a home full of vibrant patterns and beautiful vistas but couldn’t afford the taffeta or the oil paintings. As a stately new volume called “The Wallpaper Book,” by Geneviève Brunet—smartly designed, with an elongated format and a cloth binding, to look like a book of wallpaper samples—suggests, the story of wallpaper is both longer and more revealing than one might expect