Rolling out Wallpaper: Artists Are Using Off-the-Wall Themes and Techniques to Design Wallpapers That Demand Attention

By Mehta, Julie | Art Business News, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Rolling out Wallpaper: Artists Are Using Off-the-Wall Themes and Techniques to Design Wallpapers That Demand Attention


Mehta, Julie, Art Business News


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. …

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