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From grand, stylish murals to graphic prints, the trendiest designs are filling our Instagram feeds and inspiring us to refresh out-of-date spaces with a bold new pattern. Digitally crafted prints from artists, fashion brands, and historic decor houses are making waves throughout the world of design — and on the other hand, savvy clients and designers are experiencing a bout of nostalgia for vintage wallpapers, including Victorian wallpaper, retro wallpaper, and vintage floral patterns, that have withstood the test of time. Here, we dive into the history of vintage wallpapers and uncover the chicest patterns that will best fit your space. Category is, in with the old! 

Vintage wallpaper from Zuber et Cie
Photo courtesy of Zuber et Cie

Early Vintage Wallpaper Designs

First, we’ll flash back to Ancient China, where wallpaper was rumored to be created from mulberry bark, bamboo fibers, linen, and hemp. Centuries later, wealthy feudal lords in western Europe hung silk and wool tapestries throughout their estates, until block-printed papers — colored by hand and modeled after fabrics — were brought into use to line walls, chests, and armoires. Many famous, high-end wallpaper houses, including Zuber et Cie, which was founded in 1797, still craft their wallpapers with wood blocks.

As early as the 1600s, China yet again impacted the development of vintage wallpaper in Europe with its exportation of rice-paper panels called chinoiseries, from the French, that featured birds, flowers, and romantic landscapes. European makers attempted to copy the wildly popular Chinese patterns, yet the original Chinese was always considered more valuable than its imitations. Vintage bird papers and the chinoiseries from popular luxury brands like de Gournay are undoubtedly inspired by this early style. Later on, in the 1800s, wallpaper often depicted historical or mythological events, such as the eruption at Pompeii, and foreign places with a colonial connection, from China to Senegal. Landed gentry with expensive taste used wallpaper to show off their wealth and education to guests, and lining public spaces like pubs and courthouses, wallpaper was thought to educate the masses without the means to paper their own homes.

Vintage wallpaper from Cole & Son
Photo courtesy of Cole & Son

Victorian Wallpaper

During the Victorian era, decorators used three different wallpapers to decorate separate areas of a wall: from the floor to the chair was called the dado, and the filler consumed the space between the dado and the frieze, the band of wall that touched the ceiling. Multiple styles dominated the Victorian imagination, from nature-inspired and Victorian floral patterns to classical, Islamic, Japanese, and Gothic sources of inspiration, among others. Several iconic wallpaper houses like Schumacher, Gracie, and Cole and Son were all established during the Victorian period, demonstrating the flourishing of design.

Victorian wallpaper also experienced a backlash, however, as new technologies made a lavishly decorated home more available to the lower classes. In the 1830s, seamless wallpaper was created, and papers were finally purchasable in 12-yard rolls. More colors were printed, and steam power was used to increase the pace of production, which led purists to claim that labels were sacrificing beauty to create tacky, unpolished designs; some advocates argued for restraint and a return to simplicity, an argument that would be echoed in the Mid-century modern era of plain, monochromatic walls that followed the Egyptian-inspired vintage wallpaper of the Art Deco period.

Hicks Hexagon from Cole & Son
The Contemporary Collection Hicks’ Hexagon. Photo courtesy of Cole & Son.

Vintage Wallpaper in the 1960s and 70s

Design rode the wave of the Swinging 60s, along with other art forms. Pop art and optical art were the order of the day, as retro wallpaper styles featured colors as bright as Kool-Aid and hallucinogenic designs a viewer could get lost in. Retro kitchen wallpapers played with colors, shapes, and patterns in new ways, while more demure patterns, like Clarence House’s Vase print in the 1970s, added a fresh approach to artistic patterns. Designer David Hicks also collaborated with Cole and Son to bring his hexagonal patterns — you’ll recognize his carpet from the hallways of the hotel featured in 1980’s The Shining — to an unforgettable wallpaper indicative of the 60s aesthetic, called Hicks’ Hexagon. During this period, the first pre-trimmed and ready-pasted wallpapers came onto the market. Innovation went wild in a variety of directions: laminated papers were easier to clean and created a glossy look, while metallic finishes — like that of gold retro wallpaper — rejected the bashfulness of the 1950s. New, scrubbable vinyl papers meant that the vintage wallpaper trend was even more accessible to families where, with more women questioning ingrained social roles, housework was becoming less and less of a priority.

Vintage wallpaper from Clarence House
Clarence House’s Vase pattern. Photo courtesy of Clarence House.

Contemporary Vintage Wallpaper Trends

The wallpaper industry first declined in the mid-to-late 70s following the oil crisis. Later on, 80s wallpaper that entered the market then tended to be cheaper and less innovative, as small, creative companies went out of business or were taken over by larger conglomerates. Recently, however, wallpaper has come back into style, as has vintage wallpaper, from vintage floral patterns to French toile styles. 

For those who are looking to incorporate the vintage wallpaper trend into their homes, most papers from the early 20th century are no longer discoverable. When you do come across a rare find, most often you’ll only find a portion of a larger set. However, it’s easier to find wallpapers from the 1990s that mimic earlier periods, and many contemporary papers find inspiration in previous eras, such as the chinoiseries from de Gournay previously mentioned. Whenever you install a high-quality wallpaper, take care to use a muslin backing, so that the wallpaper can be used again in a new house if you move. Lucky designers-cum-historians may also find wallpapers in pristine shape at historic houses. Famously, Jackie Kennedy had a Zuber panorama removed from a house set for demolition and brought the vintage wallpaper with her to the White House.

Zuber et Cie
Photo courtesy of Zuber et Cie

Many companies, however, reissue popular styles or model their contemporary offerings after vintage designs, and others continue to use the traditional woodblock process first refined in early modern Europe. Hicks’ Hexagon is still offered through Cole and Son, and Mick Jagger used Queen of Spain from Schumacher, a graphic retro wallpaper that’s still available today, to decorate his London apartment in the 1960s. Scalamandré’s sublime red Zebra wallpaper was originally created in 1945. Another contemporary Schumacher paper, Adele, was inspired by a 1940s Vogue illustration and features sprawling rose patterns. 

Schumacher releases its Signature Wallcoverings collection once every year, which draws on the historic company’s vast archive of more than one hundred years of patterns. “We select patterns that feel right for what’s happening (or what’s about to happen – we’re very good at predicting trends at Schumacher) in the interior design landscape and recolor them to fit the times,” says Dara Caponigro, the brand’s creative director. “For example, we were feeling a return to ‘granny chic,’ so for this past collection, we brought out lots of florals.”

Caponigro notes that the archival patterns have been fantastically popular with clients, and she theorizes about why people are drawn to their vintage look. “One, it’s a great connection to the past, and there is something reassuring about that,” she says. “And two, decorating is expensive, so selecting one of our archival patterns is a surefire way to make sure your wallpaper won’t go out of style tomorrow.”

Paper Mills wallpaper
Photo courtesy of Paper Mills

Other vintage-inspired patterns now decorate the most fabulous of homes. Vintage rose wallpapers, like the vintage rose design called Rose from Cole and Son, continue to be popular for a cottage look along with other vintage flower papers, and vintage maps are likewise used to decorate powder rooms and other areas of the home. Paper Mills, an artisan brand based in California, uses woodblock to craft chic styles, including a damask paper called Olivia that references elegant Victorian wallpapers. Colorful vintage wallpapers are likewise a popular trend, as are bold, maximalist styles. In the first episode of the Chairish podcast, designer Nick Olsen notes that pink and green have both come back with a vengeance, saying, “it’s like Miami in 1984.” Pink and green styles are effortlessly creative when paired with an Art Deco pattern —as shown in Schumacher’s Ananas Wallpaper in Tropical, which the company designed from a pattern that legendary fashion icon Paul Poiret drew for them in the 1930s — and pastel prints, like pink vintage wallpapers, give spaces a touch of color without taking over.

No matter which style of wallpaper you go with, a vintage wallpaper is sure to show off your personality.

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May 19, 2020

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