Every once in a while it is compelling to write about the most fundamental of design elements that designers employ to change a space. The fastest and most accessible is that of wall paper - but if one examines its origins and history we see it was not always so available to the general public. In fact even today - custom wallpapers can be utterly cost prohibitive allowing only those of higher income brackets to aquire custom hand painted, or hand blocked and coveted designs of times past. So beautiful it has begun to emerge in modern projects as a back drop to cold angular modernist furniture. Used sparingly, wall paper can be an absolute elegant way to transofrm a room and bring it to a completely new place.
Wallpaper, using the printmaking technique of woodcuts, gained popularity in Renaissance Europe amongst the emerging gentry. The elite of society were accustomed to hanging large tapestries on the walls of their homes, a tradition from the Middle Ages. These tapestries added color to the room as well as providing an insulating layer between the stone walls and the room, thus retaining heat in the room. However, tapestries were extremely expensive and so only the very rich could afford them. Less well-off members of the elite, unable to buy tapestries due either to prices or wars preventing internationaltrade, turned to wallpaper to brighten up their rooms.
Early wallpaper featured scenes similar to those depicted on tapestries, and large sheets of the paper were sometimes hung loose on the walls, in the style of tapestries, and sometimes pasted as today. Prints were very often pasted to walls, instead of being framed and hung, and the largest sizes of prints, which came in several sheets, were probably mainly intended to be pasted to walls. Some important artists made such pieces, notably Albrecht Dürer, who worked on both large picture prints and also ornament prints intended for wall-hanging. The largest picture print was The Triumphal Arch commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and completed in 1515. This measured a colossal 3.57 by 2.95 metres, made up of 192 sheets, and was printed in a first edition of 700 copies, intended to be hung in palaces and, in particular, town halls, after hand-coloring.
England and France were leaders in European wallpaper manufacturing. Among the earliest known samples is one found on a wall from England and is printed on the back of a London proclamation of 1509. It became very popular in England following Henry VIII's excommunication from the Catholic Church - English aristocrats had always imported tapestries from Flanders and Arras, but Henry VIII's split with the Catholic Church had resulted in a fall in trade with Europe. Without any tapestry manufacturers in England, English gentry and aristocracy alike turned to wallpaper.
During the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, the manufacture of wallpaper, seen as a frivolous item by the Puritan government, was halted. Following the Restoration of Charles II, wealthy people across England began demanding wallpaper again - Cromwell's regime had imposed a limited expressive culture on people, and following his death, wealthy people began purchasing comfortable domestic items which had been banned under the Puritan state. In 1712, during the reign of Queen Anne, a wallpaper tax was introduced which was not abolished until 1836. By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain was the leading wallpaper manufacturer in Europe, exporting vast quantities to Europe in addition to selling on the middle-class British market. This trade was seriously disrupted in 1755 by the Seven Years War and later the Napoleonic Wars, and by a heavy level of duty on imports to France.
In 1748 the English ambassador to Paris decorated his salon with blue flock wallpaper, which then became very fashionable there. In the 1760s the French manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon hired designers working in silk and tapestry to produce some of the most subtle and luxurious wallpaper ever made. His sky blue wallpaper with fleurs-de-lys was used in 1783 on the first balloons by the Montgolfier brothers. The landscape painter Jean-Baptiste Pillement discovered in 1763 a method to use fast colours. Towards the end of the century the fashion for scenic wallpaper revived in both England and France, leading to some enormous panoramas, like the 1804 20 strip wide Panorama, designed by the artist Jean-Gabriel Charvetfor the French Manufacture Dufour et Cie showing the Voyages of Captain Cook. One of this famous so called papier peint wallpaper is still in situ in Ham House, Peabody Massachusetts. Beside Dufour et Cie other French manufacturers of panoramic scenic and trompe l'œil wallpapers, Zuber et Cie and Arthur et Robert exported their product across Europe and North America. Zuber et Cie's c. 1834 design Views of North America is installed in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. Like most of eighteenth century wallpapers, this was designed to be hung above a chair rail.
Hand-blocking wallpapers like these are manufactured by using a centuries old method in which wallpaper is hand-printed from hand-carved blocks on paper. Hand-blocked wallpaper depicted scenes include, panoramic views of antique architecture, exotic landscapes and pastoral subjects, as well as repeating patterns of stylized flowers, people and animals. The 1797 founded French company Zuber et Cie in Rixheim, France is the only company in the world which still manufactures wood blocked wallpaper.
In 1785 Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf had invented the first machine for printing coloured tints on sheets of wallpaper. In 1799 Louis-Nicolas Robert patented a machine to produce continuous lengths of paper, the forerunner of the Fourdrinier machine. This ability to produce continuous lengths of wallpaper now offered the prospect of novel designs and beautiful tints being widely displayed in drawing rooms across Europe.
The development of steam-powered printing presses in Britain in 1813 allowed Britain to dominate the industry in unprecedented ways. Wallpaper enjoyed a huge boom in popularity in the nineteenth century, seen as a very effective way of brightening up dark. By the early twentieth century, wallpaper had established itself as one of the most popular decorative methods.