Looks good on paper: Trompes l'oeil, tartans, skulls...the return of wallpaper is complete, with subtly outrageous designs to suit all pastes
The trends that influence the way we decorate our homes may move at a less frenetic pace than those that influence our clothing but, if anything, that makes them all the more pervasive. While most of us are fairly forgiving of individuals' sartorial eccentricities (it doesn't do to be too slavishly fashionable, after all), when it comes to other people's houses there is often frighteningly little mercy in our condemnation of anything that runs against the grain of collective contemporary taste. An avocado bath suite, for example, dusty fake flowers, or co-ordinated leopard-print soft furnishings are all more or less guaranteed to elicit snooty grimaces.
For many years, wallpaper lurked, shame-faced, in the design-hell category. Chintzy florals in maiden-aunt's bedrooms, brown-hued 1970s headaches in dodgy foreign hotels, uninspiring woodchip in budget rented accommodation – in all its incarnations, wallpaper represented an outmoded style of décor.
In the past few years, though, it has been popping up at an ever-increasing rate in stylish homes and commercial spaces the world over. It started a little tentatively – the odd feature wall here, an alcove there. Maybe even an entire downstairs bathroom for the bolder among us. But now it is reasserting itself throughout the homes.
"Its popularity is incredible right now," agrees Lucy Wright, home-decoration buyer at John Lewis. "A few years back everything was minimal and everyone was painting their walls. The wallpaper revival has been going on for a couple of years, but it is really taking hold of people's imaginations right now because it is a fantastic way of updating your room at very little expense.
"The first trend we noticed was definitely all about the feature wall, but that has moved on and we are seeing lots of people going for it with all four walls. What's exciting for me as a buyer is how confident my customers are becoming with colour. Five years ago all my bestsellers would have been beige, now it is cassis, catkin green, metallics... People are really enjoying themselves with diverse prints too – 1950s retro designs are hugely popular: large florals and big-scale patterns."
No one could be more thrilled by this renewed love affair than Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz, whose recently published Wallpaper: A History of Contemporary Style is a lavish visual and verbal paean to the stuff. An antiques dealer and curator, Thibaut-Pomerantz has been pioneering the rediscovery of wallpaper as an art form for the past 20 years.
"Wallpaper revolutionised the concept of interior design," she explains. "It's an important but overlooked chapter in the history of the decorative arts, so there were two strands I really wanted to get over in the book.
"First, that wallpaper has always been a valuable form of artistic expression in its own right; from the beginning it was an extraordinary technical feat and it was well-known artists who were designing these papers, which were meant to be a mural art form, not some kind of sub-product.
"And second, wallpaper has been up and down in fashion throughout history. At various times it has been put back on the map by trendsetters – it was invented in the 16th century but it was in the 18th that it really became the height of fashion in interiors. Then it had another heyday during the Art Deco period. And now it is enjoying a revival once more."
Thibaut-Pomerantz's book takes in everything from the enormous idealised landscapes of the panoramiques that were the ultimate in stylish décor in 18th-century France to the Mao-emblazoned efforts of Andy Warhol, and Takashi Murakami's smiley-faced flowers (best known for their appearance on Louis Vuitton bags). It makes for a brilliant source of visual inspiration old and new, but although a surprisingly large number of antique papers do survive and can be restored to their former glory, most come with price tags that run into the thousands – and few of us are likely to get our hands on a roll of Warhol any time soon.
Fortunately, however, several options that have just hit the high street are bringing the talents of designers in other fields to the medium of wallpaper. First on any style maven's wish list ought to be the joint efforts of the grande dame of British fashion, Vivienne Westwood, and another national institution, Cole and Son, which boasts more than a century of wallpaper-making.
Westwood's designs are based on archive prints from previous collections, including her signature tartan, some quintessentially British dogtooth, and the exuberant "squiggle" print from her iconic 1981 Pirate autumn/winter line. The real showstopper, however, is a dramatic trompe l'oeil print of the draped skirt of the tartan wedding dress worn by Kate Moss as part of Westwood's 1990s Anglomania collection.
The Westwood papers are as bold as her clothes, so for anyone unsure about how to integrate them in to their home, Cole and Son's creative director Karen Beauchamp advises mixing different designs to avoid overpowering a room: "Think about the subtle relationship between different patterns and be brave – you could use horizontal stripes on walls and tartan on the chimney breast, or use small designs on walls and larger ones to line the insides of cupboards."
Elsewhere, Barbara Hulanicki, founder of the Biba clothing label that defined the look of swinging 1960s London, has lent her signature style to Graham and Brown with a collection that takes flocked wallpaper out of grimy boozer territory and into the realms of contemporary cool. Hulanicki has drawn on her Biba days, when wallpaper was a big seller in its homewares department, with baroque patterns in jewel colours as well as whimsical illustrations and soft florals perfect for bedrooms and dressing rooms. If those are a little on the girly side, a skull design (opening page) captures fashion's current gothic mood. "I love the almost shock element that you don't instantly see the skulls unless you really look," she laughs. "Particularly good for a guest loo!"
Back at John Lewis, the services of star textile designer Neisha Crosland, whose fabrics grace some of the world's chicest bars and hotels, have been enlisted for an exclusive capsule range of papers inspired by Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and Oriental Shanghai Deco. The quietly elegant resulting prints were designed with mixing and matching in mind, says Crosland. "I wanted to create different moods, a pick and mix feel, where the patterns and products can be used together in one room without having an obviously prescribed, co-ordinated look."
With so many options for transforming the home, it's hard to know where to begin. But Wright has some sound advice for those with an ingrained fear of the tricky task of perfect papering: "The secret is good-quality paste, mixed in the right proportions. We sell pre-mixed tubs – once you've got that right, it's really not as hard as it seems."
'Wallpaper', by Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz, is published by Flammarion, priced £49.95. For more: www.johnlewis.com, www.cole-and-son.com, www.grahambrown.com
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