Ryan's Eye: Decorating with Wallpaper | Grapevine Magazine
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Ryan’s Eye: Decorating with Wallpaper

by Will Ryan
Illustration by Gray Abraham


When papers were first manufactured there were two very strong professional guilds and each felt it was their turf. One was the printing guild, the other the fabric guild. This dispute came about because the first printed patterned paper, for wall décor, came in a set sized sheet. This was initially suitable for book printing.  Some earlier printed papers were printed on the back of spoiled sheets from books or newspapers. Later the sheets were glued together end to end to create long strips and finally it was available in rolls. The wood blocks that were used for fabric printing were able to be applied to paper and eventually wallpaper became more associated with fabric as a home décor item rather than books and
newspapers. Chinese wallpapers were imported in the late 17th century and most often used in principle bedrooms. The background colours were usually light tones of blue, green or cream. After 1750 the subjects were often people and their jobs.

In the 1840’s engraved copper rollers greatly reduced the labour required to produce wallpaper, thereby reducing the cost.

We, humans have always felt the need to decorate our walls, starting with early man and his cave drawings. However, in the last few years wallpaper has slightly fallen out of favour as it has become associated with “little old ladies” with overdone floral motifs.

Now we are returning to using wallpaper once more and it started with the application of grass cloth and hessian types of paper (although these have always been available) because it gives a slick and modern look. It can come already coloured or painted over so it is extremely adaptable.

And now, we have a new way of producing wallpaper and that is by computer, which has opened up a whole world of possibilities. The computer is capable of generating any image from pretty well any source and has the ability to stretch or shrink an image to fit the wall size.  An example that I’m sure we’ve all seen is a shot of one wall with the image of the New York skyline at night.

Wallpaper can do many things. It can set a mood, an atmosphere, and can give a space a look of finish. It supplies more bang for your buck than a carpet, curtains or flooring material. If you don’t have any significant art, wallpaper takes the curse off bare walls or walls with limited artwork. Having said that, art can be installed on wallpaper especially if it has a real presence. It works best if the wallpaper has 3-4 tones of a similar colour within the artwork. Artwork is particularly effective with paper that is either striped or damask pattern, although not limited to these patterns. In some cases a dark painting on a darker paper looks much better than on a plain white wall. Wallpaper can also cover walls that have issues with lumpy plaster or other complications. If you have a high traffic area, you can have a computer generated image placed upon a really tough backing that can take any amount abuse from sharp objects and endless scrubbing. You are in control and can customize your paper so you are not at the mercy of what is offered in the marketplace.  On the market now are really good looking up to date textured wallpapers which can upgrade a space. Metallic wallpapers add a real touch of glamour and can make a small or relatively windowless space seem larger because of the reflective quality. The beauty of the computer generated papers are that you can get much larger images if you want. Separate panels with a motif can be applied to create a mural in a room which if hand done, easily cost $ 1,000. per panel.

If you are not interested in computer reproduced images you have sourced yourself but interested in applying wallpaper that already exists in the marketplace, there are many to choose from. If you wish to go with the traditional approach, you are now spoiled for choice as you can now have the existing wallpaper printed on a background colour of your choice. This is now done with the computer. Anaglypta wallpaper is a traditional wallpaper that is embossed and meant to be painted over. It is often painted with a metallic finish and applied to a ceiling. I have seen it applied to walls, painted with a strong colour with a high gloss finish and it looks very au courant.

I have spoken about wallpaper used with an up to date more current approach. Now I will discuss wallpaper from the traditional aspect.  Wallpaper doesn’t have to be applied to all four walls of a room, but it makes more sense to unite the space rather than make a contrast. In some cases the only wallpaper in a room is a border with a complimentary wall colour. Some borders are applied as the wall meets the ceiling, this eliminates the need for a cornice. Other borders are applied where the wall meets the baseboard, door and window trims. Borders can also be applied to create wall panels which can give the room an architectural feel. If you have a historic space that you wish to keep in period, you are in luck again as historic wallpaper can be reproduced by computer. You can, if you wish, change the colour palette to suit your needs and the supplier can send you extra images from the paper to sort out tricky corners or areas where it is difficult for whatever reason.

As I said earlier we are so spoiled for choice and because people are realizing there are more possibilities with wallpaper than ever before. Now when I approach a client about using it, I am not greeted with cries of horror.

As with so many things today, we don’t have to approach things in the old slavish manner. Old fashioned, wallpaper can be used in a slick ultra- modern context and modern wallpaper can be used in a period setting. It all works, just don’t be shy.

A final word, hire a professional. Hanging wallpaper with your partner practically ends in divorce.



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