Of all the decorative arts, wallpaper is one that’s often overlooked. But one woman has dedicated her career to sourcing some of the most fabulous hand-printed papers in existence. Suzanne Lipshutz started selling vintage wallpaper in the 1960s to film and television-set designers, and her business has since expanded to retail clients and interior designers (including the Soho House franchise). She has also donated nearly 300 samples of rare wallpaper to the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York City, including a textured design featuring astronauts and spaceships from 1954 and an elaborate cocktail-bar paper from 1952 depicting pink elephants holding pilsner glasses and roosters sipping martinis.
“I used to find unsold stock in old hardware stores – paper that had originally sold for 23¢ a roll. Back in the 1930s it was a poor man’s way of modernising his home. I found a barn full of wallpaper in Pennsylvania and have sourced a lot from Ghent in Belgium in the past. I once bought a building out in Illinois, because it ended up being cheaper to do that than buy the wallpaper it contained.”
Lipshutz pulls out a selection of her rarest papers, her shiny red nails pointing out the details to my untrained eye. We look at ornate chinoiserie designs, including a 1920s varnished wallpaper ($200 per roll) illustrating bucolic scenes, and a three-dimensional French damask ($250 per roll). Floral designs are a perennial favourite with clients – she shows me a breathtaking 1940s rose-motif paper ($350 per roll) as well as a 1920s varnished design, suitable for kitchens and washrooms, with red geraniums, green ivy and black geometric shadows ($200 per roll, pictured). The store had a flood of enquiries after a photograph of Madonna posing in front of one of Lipshutz’s floral wallpapers appeared in the December 1994 issue of Details magazine.
Vintage wallpaper need not mean blooming patterns, however. Her store has an impressive range of geometric papers ($100 per roll) from the 1930s, some produced at the celebrated Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna. These more restrained designs are very popular: “Nowadays people tend to be more conservative – they will buy only one roll instead of six or seven. Sometimes they are too scared even to hang a picture on it; they forget that it is supposed to be a background.”
In terms of what Lipshutz prefers to source, she goes up to the 1970s and then stops. “The Mylars [mirrored papers], along with some pop-art and psychedelic patterns, are the ones I have from that era, as they were so interesting. I provided the original 1970s wallpaper for American Hustle. There was an astounding attention to detail in that set design,” she says.
Lipshutz, who has lived in the Chelsea Hotel for 25 years, is so obsessed with wallpaper that she admits no flat surface in her apartment is safe: “Doors, furniture… not even the floor!”
She mentions that she is considering winding down the business in a couple of years; when she tells me this, my heart sinks. Where will all these beautiful papers go? Now is the time to seek out a roll or two from this unparalleled collection.