In this two-part series, we will provide a brief history on the evolution of wallpaper highlighting the various methods of production, technical advancements along with the impacts of manufacturer, style, and consumer trends.
Wallpaper - the anticipated and unforeseen evolution of decorative art | Part 1
Wallpaper is far from considered an interior miracle. Its evolution however from its modest beginnings reveals an intriguing journey of predicted, and surprising developments. It’s techniques of creation have been diverse and innovative, from hand painted designs directly onto paper, block, surface and screen printing, machine printing via various methods, and its current process of digital printing. The historical progression of wallpaper is unique. It’s a visual record of the development of styles, patterns, textures, domestic tastes of a time, consumption trends, and improved techniques from advances in automation. Along with these anticipated developments, was also however, unsettling discoveries.
Printed wallpaper was first recorded in the 16th century. The method was Block Printing, and this process was achieved by using carved wooden blocks that were inked, placed in precise positions, and pressed onto paper. This basic method was surprisingly used for the following 300 years. The intensity of the colour was determined by the pressure applied, and its accuracy by the ability of the printer. After each colour on its own separate block was carefully pressed, (with drying time allowed for each shade in the pattern), a PVA lacquer was applied for protection, then the paper manually trimmed and hand wound. This method was incredibly laborious and required high skill. This technique was further intensified with detailed polychrome designs. These early wallpapers were typically used to decorate the interiors of cupboards and drawers in middle class homes.
The prevalent patterns of the 16th century were ornate floral motifs, and pictorial murals inspired by popular tapestries. It appears that historical trends will constantly be admired and revisited, and Eglantyne by Casamance and Newtopia by Christian Fischbacher reimagine the bright beginnings of wallpaper.
Developments and popularity
During the mid-17th century, long rolls of wallpaper were able to be created by joining single printed sheets. This development led to manufacturing wallpaper with large repeats and increased the popularity of block printing, where decorative arts became a feature of the home. Innovative finishes such as flock printing were then introduced where one or two of the design colours were substituted with rayon and wool fibres, giving the surface a luxurious, velvet look. The premise of this method was to imitate textiles, particularly cut velvets and damasks. The powdered materials used to create this texture were collected from unusable fibres from the wool industry. These fibres were sprinkled into the printed adhesive areas of the design to form a soft, piled surface. Initially ‘flocked’ designs were applied to fabrics, however to create an affordable alternative, a method to apply designs to paper was discovered and secured its popularity in fashionable society.
Continuous technical improvements in block printing paved the way for the industry to flourish by mid-18th century. This dramatic rise in popularity also allowed manufacturers to push boundaries, and the range of colours, styles, and patterns available was extended to accommodate multiple tastes. This lead to ‘exclusivity’ in wallpaper design where luxurious and expensive collections where developed and sold to boutique retailers. Floral motif patterns, that were the most popular style, became more intricate, detailed, and rich in colour. Wallpaper designs in general also became more inventive, and detailed architectural and mural landscapes were highly sort after during this time. By late 18th century, interiors were greatly defined by the complexity of its styling, and display of diverse colour. It was extremely rare not to see wallpaper in notable country homes in England. At the start of the 20th century, wallpaper was then seen everywhere in interiors, and adorned entrances, living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, even bathrooms, and attracted the wealthy, bourgeoisie and lower class.
A modern wonder
Advancements in technology, its continual popularity, combined with the laborious methods in block printing, lead to Surface Printing being invented in 1839 by Potter & Ross, Lancashire. Manufacturers greatly welcomed this innovation as high demand required increasing production rapidly. The technique consisted of multiple small cylinder printing stations positioned around the circumference of a large drum, approximately 1.5m in diameter. The cylinders were made from durable ceramic rubber, and the areas where a print impression shouldn’t be applied is cut away from the surface. This leaves a ‘proud’ relief of the wallpaper pattern on the roll. Paper is then fed around the printing cylinders to gradually create the complete design. The innovative feature of this technique is the use of water based inks in the printing which take longer to dry compared to solvents. The stations are inked concurrently with the paint held in troughs underneath. This process creates incredible speed and fluidity when the paper travels through the machine. When the threaded paper leaves each station, the paint is still wet allowing the pattern to form delicate bleeds into each other creating a soft visual aesthetic. In the early years of its development, it was perceived that this method was less superior in comparison to block printing as bold colour and design complexity was lacking. However, its remarkable speed in manufacturing allowed wallpaper to become a widespread and attainable commodity.
Designing a commodity – William Morris
An affinity with naturalism, the decorative arts and creating luxury in the home, lead designer, writer and political thinker, Williams Morris, to tap into this developing commodity. Throughout his career he created over 50 wallpapers that had a significant impact on the industry and interior design. His wallpapers dismissed the severity of geometric, restrained and often unanimated patterning, to create rhythmic, fluid forms that mimicked his observations from nature. He referenced many native and wild plants that grew in the English countryside and played on the consumer’s nostalgia and connection to the landscape. Morris’s affordable wallpapers encouraged all classes to desire beauty in the home, where rich pattern and colour began to represent success and wealth.
Exclusive exports and Eastern design
In contrast to mass produced wallpaper was also a more exclusive category in the decorative arts. Expensive and highly unique wallpapers were developed and exported to Europe from China beginning in late 17th century. These elaborate designs titled, ‘Chinoiserie,’ were hand painted, rather than printed, and depicted large scale idyllic landscapes, daily activities in China, and exotic plant and bird life. The craftsmanship, superior colouration and technical skill displayed in these wallpapers defined their desirable and much deserved luxury status. Historical evidence points to China being the founders of wallpaper where decorative rice paper was pasted onto walls as early as the Qin dynasty.
These intricate designs of vast panoramic’s and unusual plant and animal life, did lead European manufacturers to invest in imitating these extraordinary scenes. Wallpaper then began to utilise more innovative finishes and a variety of effects such as marble, wood-grain and stucco were also introduced.
Exquisitely disguised killers
The increasing pressure for manufacturers to outshine others in design capabilities, illusionism and unique colouration created a hidden killer emanating from wallpaper. During the 19th century, it was widely published that the colour green was considered to be of ‘ideal taste’ and every home should select this shade in wallpaper. This view lead scientist Carl Wilhelm Scheele to create the striking yellowish/green pigment, ‘Scheele’s Green’. To add a particular vibrancy in this colour, manufacturers were using industrial amounts of arsenic which enhanced the colours’ brilliant hue. Soon after its introduction, many accounts of unknown causes of illness, respiratory issues and even death began to emerge and increased at a rapid rate. A high number of child deaths were attributed to arsenic infused wallpaper, and as this popular interior wonder decorated many walls in the home environment, generated great alarm within society. It was discovered that toxic gases and microscopic airborne particles were being released from the wallpaper and being absorbed by the body. As heating was rare in homes, often damp with poor air circulation due to outside pollution, fungal activity would develop, releasing the toxic chemical. Sadly, arsenic was also used in women’s clothing, carpets, candles and toys which further attributed to causalities. This alarming discovery lead manufacturers to remove arsenic from the colour process, and to advertise their products as ‘arsenic-free’, succumbing to public pressures. Many manufacturers refused to accept the solid evidence that their products caused deaths as they often had large investments in arsenic mines.
It is often common that through the process of developing and refining a commodity that unforeseen, and devastating issues can arise. This colour experimentation to create a more desirable product that resulted in deadly consequences, could have destroyed wallpapers longevity in the market. However, the consumer’s desire to display visual luxury and their success via wallpaper didn’t dwindle and continued to evolve in the following centuries.
Part 2 of this article exploring the current processes in wallpaper design will be published in this blog section soon.