Long ago, someone asked me to do a column about wallpapering. I tossed the idea out because I hate the whole process of finding decent prints and spending way too much on unpasted paper (Tapete) in Germany. Impatient with mixing glue, adhering and aligning sticky sheets on uneven walls, I just get cranky.
This is practically sacrilege in Germany, a country where 90 % of wall treatment is based on wallpaper, both textured and reinforced with fiberglass (Rauhfaser). It all has to do with building differences. Germans build interior walls with cement bricks and a layer of plaster, covering the irregularities with textured wallpaper, then paint. Recent buildings will use dry wall over the cement blocks, and then paper over the Gipswand. Both methods are thoroughly frustrating for the foreigner who hits hard concrete the first time they try to hang a picture. We all have learned, probably through cursing and broken drill bits, how to drill, vacuum and hang á la Deutschland.
Why wallpaper just to paint over it? How absurd, says the American girl. American interior walls are done with framing and studs, covered with dry wall; just seal the seams, prime and paint. Therefore, wallpaper isn’t a necessity, but rather a design accoutrement, usually printed. If we are accustomed to wallpaper as an expression, I personally tend to shy away from the permanence of pattern for other reasons.
In Textile Design 101, the budding designer will be educated first and foremost in technically making a layout that can be used for print. That involves engineering a “repeat.” To print a pattern, one needs a beginning and an end that will fit seamlessly together, for use on a printing roller or screen. Most mass market wallpaper is printed via roller, so I learned to precisely place objects to line up at specific intervals. Imagine a simple floral print with three flowers: a rose, tulip, and daisy. Our roller might have a 18” surface circumference, so every 18 inches our rose will pop up on the wallpaper, as the printing roller rotates. Same for the tulip and the daisy. Noting a vertical repeat for the roller, I also learned to be sure the sides lined up in horizontal sections, too. Back in the old, pre-computer days, we made layouts with tracing paper, xeroxes and tape, constantly cutting, pasting and rearranging, paying attention to placement to avoid eye magnets such as “highways”, “voids” and “conglomerates.” With years of perfecting this tedious art, it makes you want to cry the first time you discover a computer program that puts designs in repeat with the click of a mouse. Ah, technology does make me weep with its precise beauty!
Ok, so here is my problem: I cannot look at patterned wallpaper without looking for the highways, voids and conglomerates, or just simply trying to find the repeat. In my case, specifics have ruined the joy of printed items, especially for something as readable as a flat wall (try to find a repeat sometime, you’ll see…). This revelation has been with me since I was five years old, when I slept every night between Cinderella printed sheets; my child’s mind noticed that Cinderella lost her slipper on steps placed exactly to the left and right of my pillow. Fifteen years later it all clicked as I sat transfixed in my first textile class. The printed sheets! 24 inch repeat!: it was destiny that Disney set me on my design path.
Wallpaper is a handy vehicle for personifying your space. The extensive history of wallpaper can aid you in trying to create a specific mood in your room, from Hollywood starlet to 1950’s conversationals (cowboys, buttons, Hawaiian florals, etc) Almost everyone has a defining wallpaper pattern stuck in their mind from a relative’s home…mine is the conga drummer print from my grandmother’s bedroom…so deliciously tacky and so ‘40s! The trick to wallpaper is to let it say what it has to say, then anchor it. A sweeping solid curtain will frame a big wall of print in a complimentary way, whereas four papered walls might suffocate you in a vortex of busy-ness. All-over prints come in large, bold statements or chic, unassuming patterns. Pay attention to furniture: delicate pieces can get lost with powerful prints. Dots and stripes are useful compliments. How you use wallpaper is just as essential to decorating as the design itself: on the ceiling only, in the inset of a door/cabinet doors, as a shelving surface, on a tabletop (complete with a shellac finish). A vertical stripe might be ordinary, but hang it horizontally and you have a wonky twist on an old classic. If you are reluctant to take the pattern plunge, sometimes a ten-inch border is just enough personality for one room, and can be used on furniture, lampshades and wastepaper baskets as a frisky accent. Borders are a cheap and playful alternative that can be hung high, low, or somewhere in-between. An added bonus: it fits well in your suitcase if bought on a trip.
You can find inexpensive wallpaper options at your local Baumarkt, although the color range tends towards the pre-mixed paint colors of vanilla, peach, sky blue, mint and sand: not much punch there. If money is no object, visit a decorating shop that will order your paper from a sample book, or ask your Malermeister to order it for you at a better price. If you have been spoiled by inexpensive, pre-pasted American wallpaper and outlet warehouse prices, you might find it hard to spend up to 100 Euros per European roll. I have no qualms in advising you to buy in the USA, or online, and ship it here. Even with custom tax on your package, you will most likely be saving money in the end, not to mention enjoying the luxury of pre-pasted paradise! Wonk away…
originally published in Currents Feb/Mar 2009