Just another trick on the wall

It might be garish, but that novelty wallpaper your kids insisted on having in their rooms could have investment potential
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ever since anonymous white Anaglypta displaced the vibrant printed wallcoverings of old, wallpaper has become something of a second-class citizen in the world of home furnishings. Unfashionable and unloved. However, with the launch of the Wallpaper* magazine in 1997, the word took on a new sexiness, and the potentially ironic associations of the medium were highlighted. Wallpaper* ("the stuff that surrounds you") has absolutely nothing to do with wallpaper itself, of course. But the magazine's preoccupation with the delights of a "lost era" of early post-war design drew attention to the importance of colour and pattern during that period, expressed through fabulous fabrics and wallpapers.

Ever since anonymous white Anaglypta displaced the vibrant printed wallcoverings of old, wallpaper has become something of a second-class citizen in the world of home furnishings. Unfashionable and unloved. However, with the launch of the Wallpaper* magazine in 1997, the word took on a new sexiness, and the potentially ironic associations of the medium were highlighted. Wallpaper* ("the stuff that surrounds you") has absolutely nothing to do with wallpaper itself, of course. But the magazine's preoccupation with the delights of a "lost era" of early post-war design drew attention to the importance of colour and pattern during that period, expressed through fabulous fabrics and wallpapers.

Until the 1980s, when manufacturers lost their creative bottle, wallpapers provided a potent vehicle for pure unadulterated pattern design. Pattern for pattern's sake. Today we are scared of pattern, and the only area in which designers can really unleash themselves is in the niche field of novelty wallpapers, now geared almost exclusively towards young children and teenagers, and invariably tied in with the latest craze. An exhibition currently on show at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester features some prime specimens of this gruesome genre, including one wallpaper emblazoned with photographs of the Spice Girls, and another decorated with some rather naff drawings of players from Manchester United. The quintessentially ephemeral nature of such products is demonstrated by the fact that, although only three years old, they are already out of date, featuring absentee stars such as Eric Cantona and Geri Halliwell. By contrast, a Vymura paper adorned with the enduringly popular Barbie (40 years old and still going strong) looks set to maintain its market share for some time.

Contemporary offerings form but one part of this tongue-in-cheek exhibition, which traces the development of the novelty wallpaper from its origins around the turn of the 19th century. Not all are intentionally light-hearted, and some are geared towards adults rather than children. One of the earliest commemorates scenes from the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. However, the link between nursery and novelty was established fairly early on, and then, as now, there were frequent tie-ups with children's books. Beatrix Potter, although initially sceptical about her characters being reproduced in wallpaper form - "the idea of rooms covered with badly drawn rabbits is appalling," she exclaimed - eventually came round to the idea after being assured that she would retain control over the drawings. A Peter Rabbit frieze that she created during the early 20th century was still in production as late as 1969.

Will Owen, a commercial illustrator who worked for Punch and designed adverts for products such as Bisto, enjoyed a lucrative sideline as a designer of wallpaper friezes during the 1910s and 1920s. His designs, and those of his contemporaries, were often inspired by nursery rhymes such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin or fairy stories. With their simple, flat graphics and their charming innocent subjects, they provide a stark contrast to today's garish offerings. Friezes remained popular in British nurseries until the 1930s. "Their horizontal form was well-suited to the narrative content of most designs for children," explains Christine Woods, Curator of Wallpapers at the Whitworth Art Gallery, "and they could be hung out of reach of sticky hands."

With the arrival of Walt Disney and the animated cartoon, novelty wallpapers took on a more blatantly commercial edge, and became an essential part of a wider marketing package used to promote new films and toys. In 1938, for example, Sanderson issued a wallpaper to tie in with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The full range also included a horizontal frieze, a vertical border and a set of eight cut-out figures. The post-war consumer boom prompted numerous spin-offs of this kind, described at the time as "personality papers", featuring characters as diverse as Batman, James Bond and the Flintstones. Then, in 1964, Beatlemania took the lid off the teen market, an area that has remained buoyant ever since. From this date on any pretence to good taste was abandoned. Pop culture - like Pop Art - prevailed.

Among the gems on show in the exhibition is a vintage Beatles wallpaper featuring photos of the Fab Four, complete with faux signatures. Sold at the time for a meagre 14s 6d a roll, if it went through the salerooms today it would probably raise a small fortune. So, if you have recently pandered to your offspring's whims by papering their bedroom walls with pop stars, it might just be worth keeping that left-over roll in the attic. You might think the stuff is hideous but, who knows, one day it might provide a supplement to your pension.

* Fun de Siÿcle: 20th Century Novelty Wallpapers continues until February 2001 at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER (tel 0161 275 7450). Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 2-5. Admission free

Comments