The word “wallpaper” has, in our digital age, expanded way beyond its traditional meaning. Nowadays it refers to the designs that we decorate our computer desktops or mobile screens with as much as to the patterned paper we paste up inside our homes. But this once vital element of home furnishing, that thrived throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is itself enjoying something of a comeback.
Wallpaper is believed to have orginated in China in around 200BC (where hand-painted rice paper was applied to walls) but the modern incarnation – employing a repeated pattern of block designs – was first developed in France in the late seventeenth century. While little has changed since then in terms of its application, the best in contemporary design shows just how far artists have pushed the medium. New book Wallpaper looks at a range of designers and artists who are taking the medium into the twenty-first century.
New technologies mean that wallpaper is no longer always paper-based. Graphic designer Christopher Pearson, for example, reworked an 1887 Willow Boughs print by William Morris in his Environment Sensitive Wallpaper – “a physical wallpaper that,” he says, “will change pattern depending on room temperature and UV exposure.” An RCA graduate, who has worked as a textile designer for Alexander McQueen, Pearson also used the Morris pattern in his Digital Wallpaper which animates on a giant screen. Similarly, Loop.pH – a creative partnership set up by Rachel Wingfield and Mathias Gmachl – use reactive surfaces to display intricate floral patterns onto sliding panels. These “ambient displays” can be used in the home and change colour and pattern accordingly.
The majority of contemporary designers working in wallpaper, however, work on a more traditional basis, creating “wallcoverings” (to give the medium its proper name) produced as flat graphic art – a pattern or even a single mural image – to be pasted on to a wall. What isn’t so traditional, however, is the range of designs being produced for bars, clubs, hotels and, if your eyes can take it, the modern home. While established manufacturers like Glasgow-based Timorous Beasties have been creating site-specific wallpaper for years, many design companies and practitioners – such as Sweden Graphics, Rinzen, Phunk Studio, Kam Tang and Geoff McFetridge – have more recently moved on to designing innovative repeat pattern wallcoverings and large-scale graphic artworks.
While the renaissance in wallpaper is young it’s already taking on a repeat pattern of its own. According to Timorous Beasties, wallpaper will continue to adapt and change according to prevailing tastes in the future but “digital will bring in a lot more scale and bespoke [work], then we will go back to minimalism, then back to decoration… like a big repeat into infinity.”
Wallpaper, by Lachlan Blackley, is published by Laurence King at £19.95