Paper Trail

Wallpaper has enjoyed a centuries-long history, and today the options are seemingly endless

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Grass cloth wall coverings, such as this one from Colony, are popular local choices, as many Vero Beach residents favor colors and themes from nature
Grass cloth wall coverings, such as this one from Colony, are popular local choices, as many Vero Beach residents favor colors and themes from nature.

In his book Wall Paper: Its History, Manufacture and Decorative Importance, published by Joseph P. McHugh & Co. in 1891, W.R. Bradshaw recounts an episode at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate:  

“Some expensive wall paper had been imported to adorn the banquet hall in honor of the visit of Lafayette and some French noblemen to Washington. The paper had arrived, but the paperhangers failed to turn up. Mrs. Washington was in despair, but the gallant Lafayette consoled her by saying, ‘Madame, we are four able-bodied men who will soon make short work of hanging the paper for you,’ and without more ado he and his three companions set to work with a will. They were soon afterward joined by General Washington himself, who rendered efficient and vigorous aid. ’Twas thus the heroes covered themselves and the walls of Mount Vernon with glory.”

The year was 1784, and it must have been an unorthodox, but auspicious, start to Marquis de Lafayette’s 10-day visit to Mount Vernon. Imagine four French aristocrats and the father of our country rolling up their sleeves for the noble cause of interior design! 

According to historical records, Gen. Washington opted for vivid paint and wallpaper throughout the rooms of Mount Vernon. The vibrant green wallpaper in the “New Room” was reportedly one of his favorites.

Designers at the Italian company Jannelli & Volpi were inspired by South American landscapes to create the JWall Paraiso line. Courtesy of Scalamandré
Designers at the Italian company Jannelli & Volpi were inspired by South American landscapes to create the JWall Paraiso line. Courtesy of Scalamandré

Wallpaper, at that time, had only recently made its way to the United States after gaining prominence in China, France, and Britain far earlier. Up until then, the early settlers contented themselves with paint. But if walls could talk, the conversation surrounding wallpaper would be centuries old.  

The Chinese reportedly came up with the concept of applying rice paper to walls as early as 200 B.C. In the Middle Ages and in Renaissance Europe, the social elite hung large tapestries on their stone walls, not only to add color but for insulation from the cold. People of modest means, who couldn’t afford expensive tapestries, decorated large sheets of paper using a woodblock printing technique and applied them to their walls. 

In fifteenth-century France, King Louis XI is reported to have ordered “grands rouleaux” for the castle at Plessis-les-Tours. Measuring 3.2 feet in length, the rouleaux (sheets) were pasted together and painted by hand. 

In 1515, “The Triumphal Arch”—one of the largest prints ever produced—was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Measuring 116 by 141 inches, the image was printed on 36 large sheets of paper from 195 separate wood blocks and was intended to be hung in palaces and city halls of the time. 

Bright blues, such as this Holland & Sherry pattern that local designer Rod Mickley chose for a recent project. Gridley + Graves, Courtesy of Moulton Layne
Bright blues, such as this Holland & Sherry pattern that local designer Rod Mickley chose for a recent project, reflect the beauty of sea and sky. Gridley + Graves, Courtesy of Moulton Layne

When Henry VIII’s split with the Catholic Church disrupted the trade of tapestries, the English gentry and aristocracy also turned to wallpaper. The oldest known fragment from Britain is dated between 1550 and 1570. 

As trade routes improved in the early eighteenth century, hand-painted Chinese wallpapers found their way to Europe, where Chinese textiles and ceramics became highly sought-after commodities. These expensive chinoiserie (French for “in the Chinese style”) wall coverings can still be seen in many grand homes and palaces throughout Europe. 

By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain’s wallpaper manufacturers were taking the lead in Europe, serving Britain’s merchant class–the “nouveau riche” of the time–as well as exporting large quantities to the rest of the continent. The robust business was disrupted, however, with the start of the Seven Years’ War in 1756, the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, and a tax on imports to France. 

During the same period, the French manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon began producing luxurious wall coverings in silk and tapestry. His sky blue wall covering with fleurs-de-lis adorned the Montgolfier brothers’ first hot air balloon in 1783. 

This mural design, part of Scalamandré’s Grand Tour collection, incorporates artifacts of ancient Rome. Courtesy of Scalamandré
This mural design, part of Scalamandré’s Grand Tour collection, incorporates artifacts of ancient Rome. Courtesy of Scalamandré

Eventually, the French pioneered machines to produce longer colored lengths of wallpaper designs. In 1785, Frenchman Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf invented the first machine for printing colored tints on sheets of wallpaper, and in 1799, Louis-Nicolas Robert patented a machine to generate continuous lengths of paper. 

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the French led the way in producing wallpapers depicting panoramic scenes and trompe l’oeil friezes, borders, and panels, which were widely popular among the elite classes throughout Europe and in North America (including the Washingtons’ home at Mount Vernon). 

One of those manufacturers, Zuber & Cie, remains today and is still highly revered. The company uses the same antique woodblocks, paint formulas, and time-honored processes as when it was founded more than two centuries ago. Jean Zuber, who became the sole owner of the company in 1802, was awarded the French Legion of Honor by King Louis Philippe. Zuber’s panoramic Les Vues de d’Amérique du Nord (Views of North America) wallpaper hangs in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, where it was installed by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Although wallpaper was imported into America around 1769, it wasn’t until the latter part of the eighteenth century, around 1789, that it was manufactured here—first in Philadelphia and later in Boston and New York. Prior to 1835, wallpaper in the United States was made by hand in square sheets and pasted together. As machine production techniques evolved, American firms began churning out colorful wallpaper by the roll. From 1840 to 1890, annual wallpaper production at American factories increased from 2 million to 400 million rolls. 

A vibrant black-on-white print by Alan Campbell adds a sense of sophisticated whimsy to this bath in a John’s Island home. Gridley + Graves, Courtesy of Moulton Layne
A vibrant black-on-white print by Alan Campbell adds a sense of sophisticated whimsy to this bath in a John’s Island home. Gridley + Graves, Courtesy of Moulton Layne

By the early twentieth century, wallpaper had gained enormous popularity across the Western world, with manufacturers from Sears to Scalamandré selling designs ranging from toiles to tropicals. Buyers appreciated not only its decorative attributes, but also its durability and potential for masking flaws in walls that couldn’t be hidden by paint. 

Production techniques evolved, spawning the development of prepasted vinyl-coated wallpaper, peel-and-stick wallpaper, custom digital inkjet–printed wallpaper, and textile wallpapers that included silks, linens, grass cloths, strings, rattan, and actual impressed leaves. 

Other market developments have included recyclable paper wallpaper, photo and metal wallpaper, acoustical wall coverings that reduce sound, wallpaper that blocks mobile phone and WiFi signals in the interest of privacy, and even wallpaper that can help keep a masonry wall from crumbling in an earthquake.

While some would say wallpaper has gone in and out of fashion, others would contend that history, along with wallpaper, repeats itself. Interior designers and home decorators widely acknowledge that wallpaper—and those who hang it—are in high demand these days. A robust real estate market, increased consumer spending on home renovation, and a wide range of wall covering products at multiple price points have helped spur a global industry that is expected to grow from $1.66 billion in 2020 to $2.2 billion in 2028. 

The aptly named Zebrawood pattern by Phillip Jeffries creates the appearance of alternating wood planks
The aptly named Zebrawood pattern by Phillip Jeffries creates the appearance of alternating wood planks.

“It’s been insanely busy,” says John Auger, a third-generation wallpaper hanger from Vero Beach. “I’m booked four months out.” 

Auger, who is frequently called upon to install custom hand-painted wallpapers produced by Gracie and de Gournay, says it is not uncommon for some clients to spend five or six figures papering a single room. The elegant chinoiserie wallpapers produced by these firms feature idyllic interpretations of florals, plants, animals, or pastoral scenes that are meticulously painted by Chinese artisans on panels. Each panel, measuring 3 by 10 feet, can take up to 100 hours to complete and might feature the work of a dozen artists.  

“I measure the exact location of every doorway, window, and light switch,” says Auger. “I send a detailed drawing to the designer, who forwards it to the manufacturer, and they provide a design for us to approve. The panels are then created to ensure that the scene or pattern fits the specific dimensions of the room.”

Producing the custom paper takes about four months, after which comes the detailed process of installing the panels. “It’s a big responsibility to work with wallpaper that may cost $40,000,” acknowledges Auger. “Hanging the custom panels requires using lining paper first, so I’m actually papering the room twice.”   

Rod Mickley set the tone in this soothing spa retreat with a grass cloth wall covering from Christopher Farr
Rod Mickley set the tone in this soothing spa retreat with a grass cloth wall covering from Christopher Farr.

The stunning result is considered by many to be an impressive work of art. Hand-painted wallpapers replicate centuries-old traditions of craftsmanship and adorn the walls of some of the most notable homes, luxury hotels, and high-end retailers in the world. 

“I sometimes hear people say, ‘Wallpaper is making a comeback,’” says Elizabeth Pusser, owner of Oodles of Wallpaper, located in Vero Beach’s Village Shops. “Actually, it’s never been dormant. It just wasn’t as accessible to the masses.”

In the past, she points out, wallpaper was available only through interior designers or in books at paint stores. Today, there is a variety of online sources as well as stores like Oodles, which has full-size samples, arranged by color and available for a small fee.  

Here in Florida, both Auger and Pusser agree, grass cloths are especially popular. “People want to display their paintings on textured walls,” says Pusser. Tropicals are also a favorite, she says, particularly among newcomers to the area. 

Many local residents, particularly newcomers, enjoy bringing the outside in with tropical motifs like this subtly hued Jannelli & Volpi design. Courtesy of Scalamandré
Many local residents, particularly newcomers, enjoy bringing the outside in with tropical motifs like this subtly hued Jannelli & Volpi design. Courtesy of Scalamandré

“Vibrant prints,” she adds, “are usually reserved for powder rooms, where people expect to find a bit of whimsy.” As far as color, 90 percent of clients choose blue-and-white patterns, while seaglass is the shade of choice for most master bedrooms. 

A hemp vinyl wall covering
in cobalt from Christopher
Farr creates a comfortable background for a sitting room in a spacious John’s Island home. Gridley + Graves, Courtesy of Moulton Layne

When choosing wallpaper, Pusser advises clients to have a color palette in mind. “Clients come in with their phone and show me photos of their room or a particular chair,” she says. “Many find inspiration from Instagram and Pinterest posts.”

Pusser also asks clients to assess their lifestyle before choosing a wallpaper. Do they have pets, grandchildren, or an art collection that may impact their choice of wall covering? 

Wallpaper is not an impulsive buy, she points out. It’s an investment in your home that requires careful consideration. “Good-quality wallpaper generally starts at about $200 per double roll, and the average powder room requires at least six rolls. Add to that the installation fee, and it adds up,” she says. 

Blue-and-white patterns in all shades are favored for their calming qualities. Courtesy of Scalamandré
Blue-and-white patterns in all shades are favored for their calming qualities. This design from Sandberg Wallpaper comes from the “Ett Hem” collection, Swedish for “at home.” Courtesy of Scalamandré

Be sure to have accurate measurements before purchasing the paper. When choosing a professional to hang it, ask about his or her experience and get an estimate and time frame for completion, Pusser suggests. 

“Whether your home is 1,500 square feet or 15,000 square feet, wallpaper–like art–can completely transform it.” 

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