Judging by the glossy photos in estate agents’ windows, which are ubiquitous round my way, one might think that most people are about as interested in wallpaper as they are in trainspotting. The curious observer might be driven to wonder what has happened to it. And yet the peculiar thing is that among artists, designers and architects interest has never died. Innovation has not been absent, whether from Timorous Beasties, with its diverting subversion of traditional toile de Jouy, or from Rachel Kelly, with her notion of involving the consumer in the design process by means of stick-on motifs, or in Abigail Lane’s Showroom Dummies, with its striking black and white skeleton graphics.
Just last year, designer Piet Hein Eek came up with new papers for Dutch firm NLXL that were seductively convincing trompe l’oeil designs based on marble, brick and wood (Burnt Wood, £249 per 10m roll). There are eight styles and the blue-painted Scrapwood is particularly striking. And at this year’s Maison&Objets in Paris, Swedish design group Front showed delicate papers (£54 per 10m roll) inspired by cut-out shapes, giving a 3D effect. Made in collaboration with Eco Wallpaper, there are nine variations – some circular (Dots), some plaited, all very beautiful, many quite ethereal.
Even London’s hub of artistic enterprise, the Serpentine Galleries, last year asked artists, architects and designers, such as Toyo Ito and Ai Weiwei, to challenge popular preconceptions of what wallpaper should be. The results (£468 per 3m panel) were produced in collaboration with New York textile firm Maharam, and anyone who visited Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy will have seen his take – handcuffs in gold chains, CCTV cameras and Twitter-style birds (reminders of his months of incarceration) – used as the backdrop to his other works.
Technology too is influencing new directions in wallpaper design. Meystyle, for instance, a boutique atelier specialising in bespoke wallpaper, has developed a way of incorporating LED lights into its designs – one, with a huge floral chandelier-like LED-infused centrepiece (£382 per 3m panel), was one of the showstoppers at last year’s Decorex. The lights, used alongside Swarovski crystals, are integrated into the fabric of the paper, so it can be used just like any other wall covering, though it does need an accessible power supply. Company founders Ekaterina and Maria Yaschuk – who were born in Moscow and grew up in Norway, with Ekaterina studying theatre design – have an inborn love of the dramatic. “Usually people come to us because they want to spice up an alcove or provide some interest along a corridor,” says Ekaterina. “For one customer, we created LED-infused paper for the kitchen splashback.” They are now busy devising ways to incorporate metallic mesh and silk into new designs. While Meystyle mostly makes papers to special order, several of the LED models can be bought off the shelf, with some papers being easily be trimmed to fit specific spaces, while the chandeliers enliven almost any wall.
Blackpop was founded in 2013 by Maxine Hall, a designer whose first foray into wallpaper was an anarcho-punk act at the age of 13, when she covered the walls of her bedroom in newspaper. She trained in photography and film and for many years felt nobody would be able to recreate the designs in her head. “As a photographer I was always interested in tonal detail,” she says, “and it wasn’t until the arrival of high-spec digital printing about four years ago that manufacturers could print my designs. I’ve always used pattern and repetition, and it dawned on me that walls were the perfect surface for me. I felt wallpaper was beginning to be interesting again, minimalism had had its day and people were looking for a more decorative approach.” She is enamoured of tonal variation, of layered looks and what she calls the “mashing up of patterns”. She became entranced by the faded grandeur that she found in the stately homes around her base in Derbyshire – Chatsworth House, for instance, inspired her with its aged tapestries and history.
The resulting designs offer a particular sort of contemporary grandeur, mixing imagery from the past and using colourful motifs to make something entirely individual and striking. Hall’s latest venture, Tudors Deconstructed (£175 per 10m roll), is a collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery. “I was immediately interested in the fine brushstrokes and painterly details of its Tudor portraits,” she says. Blackpop is stocked at Liberty, but this month Hall is opening a standalone store in conjunction with glassmaking firm Curiousa & Curiousa.
The experimental company 17 Patterns takes its name from the mathematical classification of a two-dimensional repetitive pattern first proven by Russian mathematician Evgraf Fedorov in 1891. The firm collaborates with a range of artists and designers who manipulate and restructure artworks into what it calls a “dynamic repeat design” that can be used on wallpaper. Artists and illustrators such as Paris (a graffiti artist who has worked with Coldplay) and Christina K have produced designs and artworks that are then deconstructed or extended by the in-house team.
For example, Nosca Northfield – an edgy, slightly underground designer who has curated major shows for renowned subversive artists – worked with Paris to come up with the ravishing Cloudbusting collection (£190 per 10m roll). All misty swirls and whirling palettes of grey, peach, blue and marsala, it is a lush and beautiful addition to the wallpaper genre; the original painting was left outside to produce its unique weathered patina. In a similar vein is Spiral Chaos (£190 per 10m roll, pictured right) – despite the name, actually a calming geometric pattern in peach, blue, jade and black colourways.
For an even more crafted feel, Daniel Heath specialises in silk-screen printing from his Walthamstow workshop. He draws the illustrations by hand and then prints to order in bespoke colours onto china-coated paper. So far, so traditional – but delve a bit deeper and his themes are far from conventional. Taxidermy and X-rays (£250 per 10m roll), both beautifully illustrated, are two of his subjects and the papers have a wonderfully artisanal finish.
Berni Raeside-Bell, founder of Detta textiles, has long specialised in fine craft knits, producing cushions, wraps, scarves and blankets at her studio in Kegworth. She’s now designing wallpapers for Robin Sprong showcasing knitted stitches. The Wooly Wallpaper collection contains three classic stitch patterns (Ladder Knit, £195 per 10m roll, made to order) and the papers are decidedly textural in appearance.
Just as architectural ceramicist Robert Dawson deconstructed traditional Wedgwood patterns to create contemporary china, furnishings company Blendworth has raided Wedgwood’s archive to create a charming collection of wallcoverings (from £70 per 10m roll). The patterns are distinctly Wedgwood, but taking the famous Fabled Crane design, for instance, and scaling it up drastically has given it much more power. The designers have done something similar with floral patterns, which again renders them more dramatic without losing their original prettiness.
All this merely touches upon the (newly papered) surface of the interest gathering around wallpaper; designers around the world are alive to the decorative possibilities the medium offers and are busy finding 21st-century ways of exploring them. Time, perhaps, to reconsider the matter of our walls.