Dramatic backdrops

Wallpaper once knew its place. Its role as a quiet, decorative backdrop was universally acknowledged. And even when it occasionally played a more prominent part – as a bold feature wall, for example – it did so as a capricious act of rebellion. Now, however, technological advances and aesthetic gear-shifts are turning the medium into a powerfully expressive and creative force.

“A whole new generation of homeowners haven’t experienced what can be done with wallpaper,” says Miami-based designer Barbara Hulanicki, who recently launched a collection with manufacturer Graham & Brown. “They don’t realise how easy it is to put up, now that you paste the wall not the paper.”

Still, attitudes are changing. “People are realising that wallpaper is not an irreversible choice,” says London-based interior designer Suzy Hoodless, whose “Hothouse” wallpaper collection is produced by Osborne & Little. “They’re prepared to take risks with bold patterns, strong colours and interesting textures because they recognise wallpaper provides a warmth and texture that paints can’t achieve.”

“There’s a resurgence in papering walls as people realise it’s a great way of introducing texture and variety while sticking to their favourite colour palette,” confirms David Oliver of Paint & Paper Library. “Wallpaper creates an illusion of depth and space by introducing volume through pattern, so it’s an effective way to modulate moods, add personality or act as a punctuation mark. And it’s brilliant for attic bedrooms and hallways with complicated architectural ceiling lines.”

Increasingly, wallpaper is also employed by contemporary artists as a vehicle for exploring social, political, cultural and even sexual themes, as revealed in the first UK exhibition of artists’ wallpaper at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. Featuring more than 30 international artists, including Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Allen Jones, Sarah Lucas and Abigail Lane, it analyses wallpaper’s role as a meaningful art form.

Christine Woods, the show’s co-curator, pinpoints Andy Warhol’s repeating designs Cow (1966) and Mao (1974) as the springboard for fine artists’ engagement. “They’ve used wallpaper’s ubiquity and non-threatening domestic status as a foil for the shock factor of hard-hitting commentary,” she says. However, Karen Beauchamp, creative director of British wallpaper manufacturer Cole & Son, believes “wallpaper has always been a reflection of social history, mirroring many things”.

Some of the show’s star turns, such as Abigail Lane’s Black Skeleton wallpaper (available from Showroom Dummies) could be challenging to live with. Head Jam, a limited edition from the Hedonistic collection by De Angelis & Garner (available online) is similarly surreal, with the red-lipped, ghostly head of 1980s British performance artist Leigh Bowery (a muse of Lucian Freud) portrayed as a slightly unsettling punk icon.

Avant-garde wallpaper is found elsewhere, too. Take the subversive images conjured by Timorous Beasties, a design studio founded by Glasgow School of Art graduates Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons. Glasgow Toile – a graphic depiction of an urban landscape populated by homeless people, scavenging seagulls and crumbling tower blocks – is uncompromising in its focus on contemporary social and political issues. Less provocative but still unusual is Picture This, a wallpaper showing an illustrated frame bordering a block of colour, as if a painting has been removed. Meanwhile graphics of iguanas, thistles, insects and pineapples are among Timorous Beasties’ less contentious, yet still off-beat, imagery.

Unusual subject-matter is also Annette Taylor-Anderson’s speciality. Her own-brand Construction wallpapers depict cranes, bridges, pavements and New York traffic lights. Meanwhile Amye Fitzgerald, whose intensely coloured papers were a 100% Futures highlight at London’s 100% Design show last year, combines her own photography with hand-sketching to create exotic, digitally printed, Rousseau-like designs. Her Las Vegas collection of bespoke patterns feature dancing girls and palm trees embellished (as requested) with crystals and feathers.

Texture is as seminal as pattern or image for many designers. New York-based fine artist Anya Larkin hand-paints rice-paper or grass-cloth (available from Donghia). Fluxus, a hand-painted rice-paper, resembles an ancient, peeling façade while Zephyr, a rice-paper handpainted in faded blues, greens and creams, looks like a sun-baked wall. Concertina, a pleated, hand-painted rice-paper embellished with gold leaf and an antique glaze, is as much an evocative artwork as a tactile wallcovering.

Similarly, one of Jocelyn Warner’s new designs, Fern (shown at 100% Design last September), shimmers with iridescent gold and silver detail. Warner, whose work is in the collection of New York’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, enjoys scanning objects such as folded paper or pebbles to create big, apparently three-dimensional designs. She favours eye-catching surfaces – often mirrored or metallic – and works closely with manufacturers’ research and development teams to explore new finishes and speciality inks.

New production techniques are creating fascinating textural effects. Fine silica sand accentuates and softens lined grid patterns in Ulf Moritz’s Charisma collection (available from Brian Yates). Lacquered flowers in spectacularly large repeats sit on silky, gloss grounds while hammered metallics, woven leather effects, crystals, pearly micas and shimmering sparkling threads are incorporated into various designs.

This textural trend accounts for the renaissance of flock, a technique that replicates cut-velvet on wallpaper. Cole & Son, one of the few remaining manufacturers of hand-flocked wallpaper produced by traditional, 200-year-old methods, offers customised designs while its dramatic flock-on-foil collection is a bestseller. Meanwhile Hulanicki’s new flock collection for Graham & Brown combines bold images with hot fashion colours such as cerise, burnt orange and purple grape. A subtle outline pattern of skulls has been a surprising hit. “I wanted to give traditional flock a distinct modern twist,” Hulanicki says. “I feel wallpaper design has previously been too serious. It needs an injection of humour.”

Innovative finishes are a key focus for Beware the Moon, a father-and-daughter design studio run by John and Louise Wakefield. Glitter, holographic undercoats and iridescent, colour-changing, movement-activated inks are among their “magic tricks”. “We try to achieve effects and finishes that play with light and colour in new ways,” says Louise Wakefield. The company’s initial designs, hand-printed on paper made from sustainably produced pulp, play on themes of denial (Ostrich), desire (She) and death/re-birth (Skulls).

Meanwhile texture combines with image and pattern to create an intricate layered effect in Claire Coles’s bespoke wallpaper panels. Coles scours markets and charity shops for vintage wallpapers, then cuts, layers and machine-stitches them together to create new scenes and illustrations that lend fresh significance and unexpected beauty to discarded or unremarkable papers, as revealed in a recent show at London’s Flow Gallery.

Royal College of Art graduate Catherine Hammerton extends this concept with her Collection wallpaper – a collage of original love-letters, fabrics and lucky charms that turns each hand-finished panel into a wildly textural explosion of colour and image. Meanwhile Flutter is made from hand-cut paper ginkgo leaves stitched to a traditional ground, while laser-cut floral paper shapes tumble and trail like foliage in Bramble. Blossom, a hand-stitched, waxed paper dotted with lacy perforations, is best hung proud of a wall to emphasise the design’s natural shadow-play. These bespoke designs start from £200 per metre but a “ready-to-wear” range, including Stamps, a quirky photographic print featuring cascades of vintage stamps, is more accessibly priced (£179 for a 10-metre roll).

Hammerton’s designs, which combine silk-screen printing and handwork with digital technology, typify the new mixed-media approach that is transforming our wallscapes. For example, Maria and Ekaterina Yaschuk of Meystyle integrate twinkling LEDs (light-emitting diodes) into their bespoke wallpapers. The Moscow-born, London-based sisters print their designs to any scale on materials including textile-based wall-coverings, using Swarovski crystals to accentuate the lights’ impact.

Meanwhile zips, sequins, tassels – even button-holes with hand-stitched buttons – rank among Tracy Kendall’s special effects. Inspired by a 1920s dress, her Sequins wallpaper creates its own reflective light-show while a bespoke design called In the White Room employs a cut-and-restitch technique to create a three-dimensional patchwork effect with strips of paper peeling away to add texture, shadow and depth to a wall. Flax, a frondy design comprising cut strands of paper, whispers audibly as you brush past. “[She] treats wallpaper more like a textile – weaving it or creating 3D effects by manipulating and involving the paper,” says design historian Lesley Jackson.

Kendall’s latest designs, shown at the Maison & Objet interiors exhibition in Paris in January, include Inventory, which depicts a 19th-century household inventory, and Picturespots, a collection of 18th-century vignettes. Interaction is also Rachel Kelly’s goal. Specially created pattern pieces can be stuck on by homeowners, giving her wallpapers greater visual depth (available online from www.interactivewallpaper.co.uk). Kelly, whose wallcoverings grace London’s Zetter hotel, is not alone in forging a creative link between designer and homeowner via a product. Inspired by the 1950s paint-by-numbers craze, Jenny Wilkinson’s Wallpaper-by-Numbers designs can be painted in small sections or left as outlines.

An even more intensely interactive experience comes from computerised, digital wallpapers. Leading exponents include Daniel Brown, whose animated floral wallpaper – a light projection activated by self-generative computer software to evolve “organically” – is in the V&A show Decode: Digital Design Sensations (until April 11). He is currently working on a domestic version for Gallery Libby Sellers. Also on show is Simon Heijdens’ Tree – a light projection linked to outdoor environmental sensors that “blow” leaves from swaying branches on to the ground, where they lift and settle as you stroll.

Are homeowners keen to commission such elaborate designs? It appears so. Heijdens has installed moving wallpaper in five homes, while one of Brown’s is in a three-storey atrium/living space. “It looks quite exceptional,” he says.

‘Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture’, until August 30, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, UK, tel: +44 (0)161-275 7450, www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk





















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