A History of Wallpaper's Deception

For centuries, the wall covering has helped people construct new realities inside their homes. An Object Lesson.

Andreas von Einsiedel / Corbis

The history of wallpaper is a story of mendacity, of the many forms lying can take. Wallpaper has been guilty of little white lies, like visually altering the proportions of a room or projecting your idle fancies onto the four walls—and also of more outright deception, of social pretension, even the erasure of history.

According to The Wallpaper Book by Geneviève Brunet, paper itself was invented by a Chinese court official named Tsai Lun in 105 B.C.E., as a mixture of mulberry bark, bamboo fibers, linen, and hemp. Almost immediately after this new material was created, people began hand-painting it to display on walls. Some of the earliest wallpapers depicted scenes of genealogy or the gods, or brought a false natural paradise indoors.

Wallpaper made its way over to Europe in the 15th century with “domino” prints, or designs made with woodblocks and colored by hand. (The book Wallpaper: A History explains that the name “domino” was likely a mash-up of two Latin terms: dominus, classic Latin for God the Father; and mamino, colloquial Latin for either the Virgin Mary or mothers generally.) Domino wallpapers initially depicted political or devotional images, later branching out to include designs made of geometric shapes. Part of their appeal came from the fact that they were a cheaper alternative to tapestries—concealing cracks and improving insulation for less money than woven wall coverings. Often, they resembled other, more expensive materials: leather, brocade, wood. Flock wallpaper, a type made to resemble cut velvet, enjoyed widespread popularity beginning in the 1600s.

The flipside of its affordable appeal, though, was that it received a stigma it’s never fully gotten rid of. Wallpaper “has never quite thrown off the taint [of] being a cheap imitation,” writes Gill Saunders in A Short History of Wallpaper.

Even wallpaper’s application during this period suggested falsehood. Papers weren’t pasted to walls, but instead hung in sheets held by copper tacks, a practice that continued well into the 18th century. The walls behind the paper, though hidden, remained tantalizingly accessible.

Wallpaper borders extended the visual subterfuge. Originally used to hide unsightly tacks, borders assumed importance in the late 1700s as way to alter a room’s visual proportions. In the late 19th century, it became popular to divide walls into dado (from floor to chair height), frieze (a horizontal band at the ceiling), and filling (the space between). Wallpapers came in three-part prints, designed to lend architectural bombast to plain walls. Dado-filling-frieze patterns often borrowed their design from Islamic and east Asian countries, projecting an air of false worldliness onto the walls.  By the early 19th century, wallpaper was increasingly seen as a window to the world. The  introduction of seamed wallpaper in huge, 12-yard rolls meant that manufacturers could use their vastly expanded canvas to move from simple repeated motifs into trompe-l'oeil panoramas. Often, these panoramas depicted mythological or historical events like the destruction of Pompeii; or scenes of faraway lands, like chinoiseries showing a romanticized China; or French colonies like Senegal or Cambodia. Startlingly vivid in detail, panoramic wallpapers were considered educational tools for the ignorant masses, who might encounter these expensive papers in pubs or courthouses. In wealthy domiciles, panorama wallpapers supposedly reflected their owners’ educated status.

Innovations came thick and fast with the Industrial Revolution. The French wallpaper magnate Jean Zuber churned out innumerable innovations: iridescent papers; embossing machines to make paper resemble leather; machines to print stripes evenly; a secret “color kitchen” that concocted recipes for synthetic colors like Schweinefurt green and ultramarine. Continuous papers without seams came about in the 1820s, steam-powered printing in the 1830s, and synthetic dyes in the 1850s—all developments that fine-tuned wallpaper’s capabilities for visual trickery. Machines printed finely detailed scenes more easily and accurately, at ever-plummeting prices.

By 1851, though, some designers and critics were arguing that wallpaper design had jumped the shark, pointing to the garish papers on display at London’s Great Exhibition as proof that design standards were falling. Many also criticized the trend towards more realistic designs, which were deemed deceptive. The critic Robert Edis wrote about “dishonest” wallpapers:

If you are content to teach a lie in your belongings, you can hardly wonder at petty deceits being practised in other ways ... All this carrying into everyday life of “the shadow of unreality” must exercise a bad and prejudicial influence on the younger members of the house, who are thus brought up to see no wrong in the shams and deceits which are continually before them.

Wallpaper cropped up constantly in 19th-century literature as a symbol of deceit. Looking back at many of these written works, it becomes clear that describing a wallpaper pattern is a surprisingly efficient literary device: It can signal how in- or out-of-place a character feels in a room, or convey a character’s awareness of social class. Any imperfections in the paper can hint at cracks in a metaphorical façade. Staring at wallpaper slows down a story’s action while emptying a character’s mind of telling contents, much like film characters catching their own gaze in a mirror.

In the book A Literary History of Wallpaper, the author, E.A. Entwistle, gathers every reference to wallpaper in English-language print between 1509 and 1960, when the book was published. It’s crammed with examples of how 19th-century literature harnessed wallpaper’s symbolic value. Take, for example, this vaguely ominous description from the 1881 novel Bel-Ami: The History of a Scoundrel by Guy de Maupassant: “The wallpaper, grey, with blue posies had as many stains as flowers, stains ancient and suspicious which defied analysis, crushed remains of insects, drops of oil, smudges of fingers greasy with pomade, splashes of soap suds from the wash hand basin.”

Or, for another example, the classic symbolic-wallpaper tale is the 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Supposedly afflicted with a nervous condition, a married woman moves to the country for a rest cure. She fixates particularly on her bedroom’s wallpaper, its “absurd, unblinking eyes,” its “debased Romanesque’ with delirium tremens, its “great slanting waves of optic horror.” By the story’s end, she’s driven mad, peeling the paper from the walls, then chaining herself to the room.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, aesthetics took a backseat to utility with the rise of “sanitary” wallpapers. Unapologetically practical, sanitary wallpapers featured washable surfaces, pre-pasted backs, and sturdy embossed moldings. In Recording Ruin, a 1943 account of World War II’s damages, A.S.G. Butler pays back-handed compliments to Lincrusta, an embossed wallpaper still produced today:

One thing is remarkable in the mêlée of bad detail and trashy decoration that I find. It is the triumph of Lincrusta. I do not mean aesthetically but quite the opposite, in a military sense. No material I think has stood up to blast so stoutly. That bumpy, adhesive skin on walls and ceilings, aping rich plasterwork, has counteracted many blows from bombs, even sustaining whole surfaces by itself ... It quite hurts me to think that something we have scoffed at for years has turned out a valuable ally in a fight. A pity it is so unattractive, especially when painted chocolate.

By the early 20th century, wallpaper began to struggle against modernism's preference for stark, painted walls. The architect Le Corbusier hated wallpaper, famously decreeing: “Every citizen is required to replace his … wallpaper … with a plain coat of whitewash.” (This attitude didn’t stop Le Corbusier from collaborating on two wallpaper collections in 1939 and 1959.)

Nevertheless, wallpaper persevered. Embossed paper smoothed uneven walls, while simpler designs helped modest living spaces expand visually; in the postwar period, repapering one’s home was a classic ritual of moving in. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the design pendulum swung back towards maximalism—until the flame seemed to burn out. After a short revival, wallpaper dwindled in popularity in the 1980s, never fully to recover.

And yet, it hasn’t disappeared either. In our current era of “truthiness” and reality TV, the line between real and artificial often blurs—and wallpaper innovations gamely follow. Ingo Maurer’s LED Wallpaper, for example, features an ugly circuit-board pattern embedded with controllable lights shaped like dots and polyhedra. A luminous textile produced by Philips with Kvadrat Soft Cells contains acoustic panels to dampen noise, as well as super-adjustable LEDs. Like many bold-faced liars, LED wallpapers don’t apologize for what they are: infinitely mutable surfaces with no fixed reality.

Other contemporary wallpapers are super-haptic, interactive, even anti-virtual. Moveable wall decals by Blik let consumers rearrange designs on a whim. German wallpaper firm Architects Paper can cover your walls with micro-thin layers of concrete, marble, or slate on rolled paper. Heat-sensitive wallpapers might one day make the walls bloom with trailing flowers, say, after snapping on the radiator. You might even say wallpaper is the perfect modern object: an open-faced dissembler, epitomizing how constructed reality actually is.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.