Artists are using off-the-wall themes and techniques to design wallpapers that demand attention

Rolling out wallpaper: artists are using off-the-wall themes and techniques to design wallpapers that demand attention

Julie Mehta

Many people think of wallpaper as no more than white noise for the eyes–predictable, innocuous and forgettable. Yet wallpaper is a centuries-old medium that has gone through countless transformations. Today, stunning French scenic papers from the 19th century fetch up to six figures, and a new crop of artists is challenging common assumptions about wallpaper.

“Lots of artists are looking at the gray area between fine art and design,” said Doug Bohr, director of public programs and exhibitions for the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, where a major exhibition of wallpaper art, “On the Wall: Wallpaper and Tableau” recently concluded. “Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Gober have played with the mundane role of wallpaper in society–they’ve put more meaning into it and created a merging of high and low art.”

A Colorful Past

Historians believe wallpaper dates back to 15thcentury Europe, when people used paper to simulate design elements they could not afford, such as wood panelling or trellises. “Wallpaper began with the same impulse that made people line boxes and drawers and cabinets with paper,” said Thomas Michie, curator of decorative arts at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, which earlier this year did a companion exhibit to the Fabric Workshop show called “On the Wall: Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists” that included some historic papers. “In the 16th century it was chiefly utilitarian, covering wall seams and keeping out drafts. Slowly it began to take on decorative qualities.”

The French were at the forefront of wallpaper development, printing complicated and colorful scenes using carved wooden blocks. At first, the prints were only the size of a sheet of typing paper. Sheets would be arranged on the wall like tiles to create a complete landscape image.

Chinese papers gained popularity in the 18th century. They featured brightly colored birds and flowering trees hand-painted on rice papers that were glued together to form a roll.

The most famous wallpapers, though, came from France in the early 1800s. Zuber and Company block-printed intricate, richly-colored scenic vistas from around the world and continues to make prints from the same blocks today. Three of its prints were featured in the exhibit “Rooms With a View: Landscape & Wallpaper,” which showed at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York in 2001. Most of the more than 80 pieces displayed were from the museum’s own wallpaper collection, which is the largest in the United States. “These papers were made for the upper-middle class. They would work on any wall, whether it had fireplaces, windows, low or high ceilings,” said Gregory Herringshaw, assistant curator of wallcoverings at the Cooper-Hewitt.

The industry flourished as wallpaper printing machines made continuous rolls possible in the 1830s. In the late 1800s, Englishman William Morris gained a following with his elegant repeating floral patterns. With the economic and political upheavals and increasing mechanization of the early 1900s, wallpaper became more common and mediocre, and tastes shifted to the minimalism of bare walls.

Then in 1966, Andy Warhol papered the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York with a repeating pattern of giant pink cow heads on a yellow background, and suddenly wallpaper was thrust into the artistic spotlight once again.

“Warhol rescued wallpaper from being merely a decorative thing, a silly thing,” said Donna DeSalvo, who showed Warhol’s paper at the “Apocalyptic Wallpapers” exhibit she curated at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts in 1997. “There was a period when people really hated wall paper and liked white walls, so this was a radical act of claiming it as territory. Warhol did a lot to pave the way for wallpaper to be accepted as an art form.”

Eye-Catching Designs

Artists are often attracted to wallpaper because it allows them to create an extremely large-scale work that completely envelops a space. The recent exhibitions at RISD and the Fabric Workshop showcased the variety of materials, processes and themes in contemporary wallpaper art. “Artists see in the wallpaper tradition, the potential to get art into a domestic setting instead of having it set on a pedestal or set apart,” said Bohr. “They want their work to find its way into everyday culture.”

Some, such as Nicole Eisenman, had never worked with wallpaper before. “You have to consider rhythm, flow and balance in paintings, too, but the most challenging aspect of this was thinking about how to make patterns that lock together like in a puzzle,” she said. Her screenprinted “Graybar Hotel” juxtaposes starkly colored scenes of a women’s prison against a background inspired by a lighthearted nursery wallpaper. “Graybar Hotel” was offered for $150 per yard by the Fabric Workshop.

Other artists, such as Adam Cvijanovic, are so taken with the possibilities of wallpaper that it has become their primary medium. Cvijanovic uses Tyvek, the material in Federal Express envelopes, because it enables his work to be taken down with out damage. Cvijanovic calls his panoramic works “mobile frescoes.” They are clearly inspired by the legendary Zuber and Company papers, but Cvijanovic hand-paints rather than prints his papers, including the 22-foot-long “Space Park” depicting tourists watching a Space Shuttle launch, which was shown at RISD.

A piece by Francesco Simeti that was shown at both exhibits was even more directly inspired by historic French wallpaper. Simeti used Photoshop to replace figures in a 1789 Jean Baptiste Reveillon wallpaper with recent newspaper images of refugees fleeing Afghanistan. Because he often uses newspaper clippings in this manner, most of his work is digitally printed. Simeti said he has sold pieces to private collectors and hotels for $3,000 to $6,000, plus production costs.

Simeti has been making wallpaper since 1997, but Virgil Marti, who works exclusively with wallpaper, made his first print in 1992. “I like the idea of producing material that can be expanded or contracted to fit a room so that the architecture becomes the frame,” Marti said. His first paper is probably his most famous. “Bullies” is a screenprint featuring repeating fluorescent images of bullies from Marti’s junior high school yearbook set on a floral background. Fabric Workshop, which has the pattern installed in its men’s room, offered the paper for $375 a yard. Marti’s “Lotus Room” includes digitally printed decals that give the delicate blossoms on the reflective silver mylar background an added dimension. The piece sells for $200 a yard.

Other pieces in one or both exhibitions included Robert Gober’s provocative “Hanging Man, Sleeping Man” depicting a lynched black man and sleeping white man in a subtle repeating pattern, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s cartoonlike “Jellyfish Eyes,” and Peter Kogler’s “Untitled,” with its trails of computer-generated ants crisscrossing the walls.

Malting It Stick

Kippy Stroud, who curated the Fabric Workshop’s exhibition, said she has pieces by Gober and Marti in her own home. “It’s another form of collectors living with art. Decorators aren’t interested in stuff they can’t work into a color scheme with the sofa and coffee table. This is for art collectors.”

Cvijanovic agreed that his work has had more response from art collectors than designers. Brooklyn’s Bellwether Gallery, which represents him, sold a sprawling spring break scene he did to a corporate collector for $45,000, according to owner Becky Smith. She also said a private collector paid $20,000 for a smaller piece showing icebergs, which was hung in the family dining room.

Elisabeth Cunnick owner of A/D Gallery also in New York, has been selling wallpaper made by artists for more than 10 years. She offers a lush vine pattern by Joan Nelson in a limited edition of 1500 for $500 per roll. A famous wallpaper border by William Wegman with Weimeraners contorted into letters of the alphabet sells for $350. And a life-like living room interior scene by Lichtenstein is available in a limited edition of 1,500 for $9,500 per roll. “People might see these papers in a design magazine or they’re a fan of the artist. We get lots of people buying the Wegman as a gift for a child’s room,” said Cunnick.

One indicator of wallpaper’s lasting value may be the continued success of Zuber and Company’s scenic prints, made from blocks carved more than 100 years ago. “We get everything from world travellers to history buffs to people who are looking for a major conversation piece,” said Kerry Robinson, the company’s director of United States operations. “Views of North America” is its best seller and even hangs in the White House. The full piece costs $28,000. “El Dorado,” picturing landmarks from four continents, sells for almost $35,000. And Robinson said an old scenic paper in mint condition sold for more than $200,000 at auction.

Herringshaw said he believes repeating patterns will make waves soon as well. “They’re becoming more popular, he said. People are tired of beige interiors. I see it in showrooms–more colors, bolder patterns.” Whether scenic or repeating in nature, wallpaper continues to evolve, as it has been doing since the time of its origin.


* A/D Gallery, (212) 966-5154

* Bellwether Gallery, (718) 387-3701

* Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, (212) 849-8400

* Fabric Workshop and Museum, (212) 568-1111

* Rhode Island School Design Museum, (401) 454-6100

* Zuber and Company, (212) 486-9226

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