Interior Design

That roll is made for you

Adventurous new bespoke wallpapers enlist cutting-edge technology and exquisite craftsmanship for truly one-off works of art, says Charlotte Abrahams.

June 08 2011
Charlotte Abrahams

When wallpaper designer Tracy Kendall was asked to create a 13m-long border bearing the text “What Shall I Wear Today?” in 11cm-high crystals for a client’s New York dressing room, she didn’t raise an eyebrow. The job may have been time-consuming (each individual crystal had to be heat-treated to the backing paper by hand), but one-off commissions such as this are now pretty routine, at prices from £100sq m. And not just at Kendall’s London studio: high-end wallpaper manufacturers everywhere are reporting a huge upsurge in bespoke commissions.

“Bespoke papers, like antiques, have an exclusive value,” explains antiques dealer Max Rollitt, who is also an interior and furniture designer. And in these days of design democracy, when papers by “name” designers such as Marcel Wanders or Kelly Hoppen can be picked up for £30 a roll from a DIY shed, exclusivity has become a much sought-after commodity.

This isn’t the first time people have embraced bespoke wallpaper as a counter to mass production. Before industrialisation made wallpaper the cheapest way to cheer up a home, wall coverings had either to be painted or block-printed by hand, making them the sole preserve of the wealthy. But the arrival of machine-printed papers in the 1840s changed everything. In 1834, for example, the British wallpaper industry produced a mere 1.2m rolls of paper. By 1851, a decade after the first machine-printed papers went on sale, output had rocketed to 5.5m rolls and the cost to the consumer had been slashed. What was once a desirable, luxury item could now be picked up by anyone with a sixpence to spare. Faced with such widespread accessibility, the discerning moneyed classes had two choices: abandon wallpaper altogether (and many did) or commission their own.

So then, as now, the fashion for bespoke was driven by advancing technology. The difference is that while 19th-century clients viewed technology as an evil to be avoided, today it is best friend to the bespoke maker.

“The new wave of technology allows for bespoke in a different way,” explains Kendall. “Instead of having a wood block carved for you and wallpapers made from that, as Pugin did, you can, for example, download your favourite photo and have that blown up to fit your wall. It’s opened up a whole new personalisation market.”

And plenty of people at the top end are now busy exploiting that market. Business is brisk in the US, China, Russia and France but, as has always been the case with trends in wallpaper, Britain is leading the way.

London-based wallpaper design house Ornamenta, for example, is one of the world’s leading producers of site-specific digital wallpapers. “These are contemporary versions of the painted mural,” says the company’s founder Jane Gordon Clark. “People tend to think they’re cheap to produce, and indeed they can be, but you get what you pay for – one of our bespoke wallpaper projects costs from £1,500, depending on the size. It’s not just a case of blowing up a 35mm transparency – there’s a lot of artwork involved in making the proportions fit the space; and we print on really good-quality, heavy-duty paper that absorbs colour and gives it a real intensity.”

Ornamenta has a range of stock images that can be coloured and resized to fit a client’s space, but, increasingly, customers are turning up with their own images. And they are becoming ever more adventurous. One, for example, wanted to turn her bathroom into a Japanese garden in springtime using a holiday snap of some cherry blossom, while another commissioned a reproduction of a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, which he had fallen in love with while on a trip to The Medici Chapel in Florence. Working from large-format transparencies, Gordon Clark adjusted the scale so that the image worked in the client’s Regency dining room, and then printed it onto a waxy surface that replicated the look of the fresco and captured the original colours (prices from £150sq m).

Deborah Bowness, who has been at the forefront of the digital bespoke scene since 1999, refuses to work from other people’s images. “I consider myself to be an artist rather than a designer,” she says. “It is my job to translate a client’s ideas onto the wall, but people come to me for a particular aesthetic so I always use my own photographs.”

That aesthetic has little to do with politely repeating patterns. Her subject matter is the everyday made quirky – household items such as books, standard lamps, chairs, filing cabinets and frocks predominate – and the finished papers (from £175 per 56cm x 330cm drop) are designed to be displayed in single strips, or even as framed rectangles, in a way that is closer to paintings than wallpapers. “My papers are objects in their own right, not just background decorations,” Bowness explains.

Claire Coles is another London-based wallpaper designer whose intricately collaged handmade work is currently blurring the boundaries between art and decoration (prices on application). She creates whimsical, otherworldly tableaux by stitching leather and silk motifs onto fragments of vintage wallpaper; these are then collaged onto a wallpaper background. These scenes are wrapped around corners or trailed from ceilings, usually in intimate spaces such as dressing rooms where they don’t have to fight for attention with too much furniture. “My work is always the central piece in a room,” Coles says. “It’s not designed to mix with other things.”

Fromental produces equally exquisite handmade papers but Tim Butcher and Lizzie Deshayes, the husband-and-wife team behind this English label, believe that wallpaper only really comes alive when it’s used on all four walls of a room and is mixed with as many paintings and pieces of furniture as possible. One recent project, for example, saw them lining a living-dining room (complete with 6m-high ceilings, gallery and fountain) with hand-embroidered chinoiserie paper (from £1,620sq m), while another called for extravagantly papered kitchen walls. “Wallpaper shouldn’t be used in a precious way,” Deshayes says. “Historically, chinoiserie paper was put in rooms used for entertaining because it looks terrific with ornate furniture. It almost demands to be next to other busy patterns rather than in splendid isolation – it’s a minimalist’s worst nightmare.”

The couple don’t have much time for high-tech digital papers either, finding that their clients prefer the authenticity of papers made by hand. “Digital printing has made perfection so easy,” says Butcher, “so the handmade, with its inherent faults and irreproducible nature, has become especially sought after. For many clients, the knowledge that their paper took someone 10,000 hours to embroider, as some of ours do, is one of the pleasures of going bespoke.”

It’s a view echoed by British company Cole & Son, which still prints many of its papers with traditional wooden blocks and hand-flocks them using a wooden sieve (bespoke papers from £100 per roll); and American outfit Peter Fasano, whose hand-painted and hand-silk-screened wall coverings (from £104 per roll) have been used in the White House.

Obviously, this kind of labour doesn’t come cheap but you do get a lot of bang for your bucks – especially if you eschew the quiet subtlety of stripes and damasks and commission paper decorated with Swarovski crystals. “Crystal Strata”, which incorporates crystals into a paper design as it is printed, is the latest innovation from the Austrian brand Swarovski Elements. At £620 a roll, the readymade collection – designed in collaboration with British wallpaper designer Karen Beauchamp – is hardly your average off-the-shelf paper, but customers in search of something even more special can commission their own Crystal Strata design (prices on application).

Everyone who has gone through this process agrees that custom-made wallpaper, whether digitally printed, hand-flocked or encrusted with crystals, is a joy to commission and to live with – but what happens when you move? The depressed housing market has undoubtedly contributed to the new popularity of bespoke (not worrying about affecting resale values has made us braver decorators), but people do sell up, even in these stagnatory times, and moving wallpaper isn’t like rehanging a painting.

Papers can be moved provided they were put up with a view to being taken down again (ie, the walls were first treated with a couple of coats of latex primer) and silk-backed papers of the kind Fromental makes can be peeled off and repaired, but in practice this rarely happens. And that seems right. As professional paper hanger Yair Meshoulam says, “Bespoke wallpaper is specific to the room it’s been made for, so unless you are moving to a place with exactly the same dimensions, it’s unlikely to work elsewhere. Bespoke wallpaper is not like a painting, it’s an installation, so clients should put it directly onto on their walls, enjoy it while they’re there and then pass it on for the next people to love.”

Or strip off, of course. Tim Butcher knows of at least one Fromental wall covering that was removed as soon as the sale documents were signed but he accepts this is part of the process. “There’s an element of showy wealth behind the new popularity,” he says. “The fact that you can’t take it with you or sell it on is part of the appeal.”

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