“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a graphic designer,” says London-based Kristjana S Williams, whose work – particularly the vibrant birds and butterflies entwined in intricate detail on limited-edition art prints and mural wallpapers (from £175 per 10m) – has been informed by her love of traditional nature studies and a colour-bereft upbringing in Iceland. “There are so many people pushing the boundaries in interior design. Interiors now are about stories, and wallpapers are becoming murals rather than linear pieces of design subject to the constraints of screen-printing.”
Williams’ illustrations are absolutely of the moment, combining a very 21st-century mix of historical references, digitally altered naturalistic imagery and hyper-coloured decoration; they have already graced the walls of trendsetting venues, including the V&A Museum during the last London Design Festival. She is currently working with wallpaper producer Osborne & Little on a collection whose designs will be 3m high, so they work as a narrative mural rather than a traditional 52cm-wide repeat paper. They will feature her signature hyper-bright palette, too, and are due out early next year. Her own collection already includes such exuberant murals as the two-roll Purpura Vallis forest (£175 per 9.9m roll) – as well as upholstered, printed seating in collaboration with heritage furniture maker George Smith – and will expand to feature new designs inspired by William Morris from September.
Williams is not the only one favouring large-scale narrative images over smaller repeat patterns. The Fornasetti II wallpaper collection for Cole & Son (launched earlier this year; from £100 per 10m) features a number of all-over designs from the Fornasetti archive, reworked into larger-than-average prints and across several panels of paper. Custodian and creative director Barnaba Fornasetti felt there was scope for more fantasy within wallpaper: “I wanted to change the way we use rolls, to make them more creative.”
These “more creative” designs include Magia Domestica (£750), which depicts a whole “room” of illustrated features, such as trompe-l’oeil bookcases, doors and a suit of armour, and is designed to wrap around a real room in a complete set of 10 panels or a smaller set of five; Uccelli (£180), a pretty, bird-filled tree study originally designed by Piero Fornasetti as a decorative screen, which has been issued in two new colourways and in a design that is 2.8m by 1.04m (two papers of the standard 52cm wide join to form the pattern); and Nuvolette (£240), a cloudy sky whose repeat is 137cm in total (made up of two rolls of 68.5cm each). “With Fornasetti, there’s so much imagery within the archive, and some of it is quite large,” explains Cole & Son’s creative director Shauna Dennison. “It seemed like a natural progression – working with lots of images in a bigger scale. It fits the current mood.”
And the mood is experimental, risk-taking, hyper-colourful, informed by wallpaper’s history and technology-led. In Milan, young design house Carnovsky, formed of partners Francesco Rugi and Silvia Quintanilla, has become known for its barrier-breaking wallpaper murals that feature large outlines of flora and fauna – in eye-popping, primary colours – influenced by 17th- and 18th-century natural-history texts (such as those of Frederik Ruysch and Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre) that also change form under different chromatic lighting conditions (about €91.50 per square metre). The duo recently covered the walls of east London café Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes in its jungle-themed print, and see wallpaper “as a way to create contemporary frescoes rather than simply home decoration. That is why we have designed more murals than repeating patterns,” says Rugi.
Joining them are a number of others who are raising the stakes of digital-based graphic design on wallpaper. 7Gods, a north London creative design agency that frequently works on products such as lighting for its architectural/housing clients, recently issued blown-up digital papers (from £45 per square metre) produced by wall-covering print specialist Surface View, one of the creators of this new mural trend. They feature
close-ups of flora, transformed into kaleidoscopic patterns.
Then there is French print label Domestic, whose range of “scenic wallpapers” (€480 for 3m by 3.72m) launched a couple of years ago and features limited editions of 100 per year designed by Matali Crasset and Studio Job, among others. Recent addition Jardin saw work by the artist Nathalie Lété – who is known for colour and figurative creations that lean towards art brut – transformed into a panoramic floral mural in bright pinks and oranges on a grey or cream background. Woodland animals stand out just as boldly in one of her darker designs, Forêt Noire.
In Sweden, the remit of Mr Perswall, a young, digital bespoke wallpaper company (incidentally owned by the Swedish Wall Vision group, which bought Cole & Son three years ago), is to offer murals on patterned wallpaper and to make them as personalised as possible. Its tagline is “What is your story?” and designs (£27 per square metre) include Blossom, from the Nostalgic collection, which features large, antique-looking damask blooms on a trompe-l’oeil textile background; the brand-new Green Wall, a photographic rendition of a plant-filled living wall; and the rainbow-hued photo image Library – Colourful Knowledge, featuring shelf after shelf of books. Each can be printed in greyscale, reversed, rotated 90 degrees and made in the exact dimensions of the customer’s room. The bespoke capability (which includes the option to upload your own images, and is all done online with a few clicks) is key, says the firm’s business area manager Gustaf Löwbäck: “Murals are used to personalise a room, to give it an extra dimension, to express or tell something on one of the walls. And the way you purchase a mural with us enables a unique expression.”
One fan of Mr Perswall – and Cole & Son’s Fornasetti collection – is Julia Johnson, owner of Greenwich-based Pickwick Papers, an interiors store and interior-design company. She recently used a six-panel-wide installation of the Fornasetti Uccelli birds-in-a-tree paper in a project where a large kitchen-extension back wall opened up on to a birch-filled garden. “A mural is not just a standard wall covering,” she says. “It’s a picture that transports you somewhere. It isn’t cheap, but if you’d happily spend thousands of pounds on a piece of art to fill that wall, you will spend £300 on a wallpaper mural where the effect is the same. It’s a unique product. In many cases, you’re the only person who is going to have it.”
This one-off element is now being embraced by many murals, including the “realist” wallpapers created by Trove, the New York surface-pattern designer and manufacturer that specialises in manipulated drawings and photographs with a romantic and slightly surreal feel. Six of its papers have recently been chosen to feature in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum, including Fuoco, based on a historic photo of the Teatro La Fenice, and Indi, a black swirling bird study and homage to Hitchcock (both $17 per square foot). They can again be scaled to fit any wall and produced in custom colours.
It is digital design that has made such offerings possible and enticed those with non-interiors skills such as illustration or graphic design to enter the fray. “Screen-printing is a huge art form, but there’s only a certain number of colours you can use with four or five screens,” says Williams, who began her career in fashion and print textiles with a London boutique called Beyond the Valley. “With digital you can have a million colours, plus you can scan in details and move them around instantly, which is a really important flexibility to have.”
Graphic designer Sarah Parris and her partner Howard Wakefield create visuals for the likes of the Danish government and Kvadrat textiles, as well as bands Pulp and New Order. They decided to launch an interiors collection, including Bliss (£100 for 10m), an almost psychedelic, cleanly graphic whirl of a wallpaper with a 120cm-wide repeat, after receiving many requests from followers of their Studio Parris Wakefield’s computer-screen wallpaper downloads. The two were tempted into launching the Parris Wakefield Additions collection by a desire to use their graphics to “make something tangible. Some of the digital processes we employ – remixing, layering, blurring and merging – cannot be done by hand.”
Digital techniques are essential to the scalability of the work of Barcelona-based Catalina Estrada, who draws upon folk and natural influences from her rural Colombian upbringing to create figurative wallpapers and murals (from €37.75 per square metre) featuring lush modern interpretations of flora and fauna, such as a tiger amid a jungle of vegetation that is a 21st-century take on Rousseau. “The great thing about working with a vector graphics editor [for example, Adobe Illustrator] is that it allows me to grow my work as much as I want, to adapt it to very big formats without losing the resolution,” says Estrada. “It also lets me make changes to colour, structure or composition easily.”
Digital-printing technology has, says Cole & Son’s Dennison, allowed larger-scale prints on wallpapers to advance – and continues to do so. “It has always been the designer’s role to try to make wallpaper look like it doesn’t have a repeat. Any extra space within a repeat, be that width or height, gives us the opportunity to disguise it more. It is partly down to design moving in line with technology, and the ability to print on wider papers. Designers want to take full advantage of that.”
At Surface View, new business development manager Tom Pickford adds that printing trends are shifting biannually, such is the speed of technological improvements. The company has recently acquired a machine that can print at 1,000dpi (the first in the UK), so that images are sharper than ever before, and another that can print on a 3m-wide fabric, allowing a much greater range of textile possibilities for its future collections and doing away with the traditional 140cm repeat to which most designers have always worked.
Julia Johnson of Pickwick Papers believes the trend will continue to grow according to what the market can produce, and in line with technology. Mr Perswall’s Löwbäck suggests murals will dominate the wallpaper industry in time. “Brands producing repeatable wallpapers still have the largest share of the market, even though murals are growing quickly. Rather than speaking about murals taking a share of the repeating wallpaper market, I think the new possibilities that murals and digital printing give will grow and change the wallpaper industry as we know it today.”