Saturday, February 13, 2016

Painted, Printed, and Flocked: A History of Wallpaper

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Wallpaper, the contemporary enemy to all DIY renovators, was once an integral part of the overall interior design of a home. Produced as early as the 1400s, wallpapers were an inexpensive alternative made to mimic more expensive materials such as wood paneling, architectural elements and textiles.

French tapestry woven at the Gobelins tapestry manufactory, Paris.
Image by the Google Art Project [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
The earliest form of wallpaper (often attributed to the Flemish) used small squares of paper printed using wood blocks and colored with dyes by hand. At first manufacturers produced basic floral patterns, but by the 1500s, wallpapers took on brocade patterns, velvet textures, and even incorporated leather. But wallpaper was not limited to the West. In fact, the Chinese began producing wallpapers of their own in the early 1600s featuring hand-painted birds, lush flowers, and vast landscapes.

Block for printing wallpaper.
Image by Daderot (own work) [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
The 1600s not only saw the emergence of Chinese wallpapers, but it also ushered in the wide acceptance and utilization of wallpaper by the English and the French. By this time, wallpaper was mass-manufactured to fit different socioeconomic classes. Expensive wallpaper was printed from freshly carved wood blocks, carefully printed, and expertly painted while less expensive wallpaper was printed from worn blocks on lesser quality paper and often poorly colored.

Wallpaper craftsman printing with wood blocks, circa 1877.
By G. Bruno, gravure Perot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Towards the end of the century came the introduction of flocked paper. Made to resemble cut-velvet and damask hangings, flocked paper used flocked-powder wool, "a waste product from the woollen cloth industry" and an adhesive to produce a soft relief on the paper. A very expensive product of the era, flocked wallpaper was in vogue from about 1715 through 1750. It was most commonly found in the upperclass homes of the English and French. This video from the Art of Wonderment via Youtube demonstrates the block-print and flocking processes.

By the late 1700s, colored wallpapers were in such demand in France that King Louis XVI ordered a decree to increase the length of wallpaper rolls to 34 feet. Wallpaper was so beloved by the French royals that they even employed a custom paper designer, Jean-Basptiste Réveillon, who ultimately fled to England during the French Revolution bringing his classical designs of urns, flowers, birds, swags, in an array of colors with him. While Réveillon could be considered a loss to the French, scenic wallpapers depicting hunts and landscapes were also popular, and Chinese paper with birds, flowers, and landscapes dominated the industry becoming known as "chinoiserie."

Panel of chinoiserie wallpaper circa 1760 to 1765.
Image by the Google Art Project [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
While the French preferred printed, heavily patterned, and oriental papers, the English preferred hand-colored or stained papers for much of the 17th and 18th centuries. Probably to evade the heavy taxation the English monarchy imposed on wallpaper production, paper stainers would color blank papers already adhered to walls with delicate patterns. It is these papers with neoclassical elements (likely introduced to English paper production by Réveillon) that ultimately made their way to New England. Original wallpaper of the era can still be seen in historic New England homes today due to the long history of manufacturing on the east coast. M.H. Birge & Sons operated for over 100 years in Buffalo, New York, block printing, hand-stained, and flocking wallpaper for the American home.

Block printed and flocked ceiling border by
M.H. Birge & Sons of New York circa 1885.
Image by the Google Art Project [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
With the repeal of wallpaper taxation in 1836, the English were free to innovate wallpaper design during the Victorian period, an era defined by industrialization, mass-production, and over-embellishment. The era even produced the first mechanized wallpaper printer. By the end of the Victorian period, floor-to-ceiling wallpaper began to fall out of favor replaced by a combination of natural wood paneling and minimalistic wallpaper design of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Wallpapers designed by William Morris and Company featured etherial colorways and delicate floral patterns. These papers featured organic floral patterns, in color palettes associated with nature.

Wallpaper by William Morris and Company circa 1915 to 1917.
Image by the Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons
With the dawn of Modernism, wallpaper no longer seemed necessary and homeowners began limiting the use of wallpaper to one or two rooms, or even one or two walls in the home. Today, wallpaper is making a resurgence, with designer options, millions of patterns, and colors to fit all preferences. Even antique patterns are making a comeback with online vendors including Bradbury & Bradbury and Thomas Strahan providing vintage reprints and limited quantities of "new old stock."

             Bradbury & Bradbury
             Buffalo Architecture and History
             Cooper Hewitt
             Historic New England
             History Magazine
             Morris & Co.
             National Park Service
             Thomas Strahan
             Victoria and Albert Museum
             Wikimedia Commons
             Youtube: The Art of Wonderment

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