As spring teases those in the Northern Hemisphere, minds run amok with home improvement projects. While simple projects like mounting new shelves or changing a dresser’s drawer pulls usually turn out well, there are also plenty of home makeover disasters. Among the tales of woe are attempts at wallpapering; because it requires accuracy, combined with buckets of messy adhesive, wallpapering is rarely a DIY project that goes smoothly, but this once outdated fixture of home décor is back in a big way.
Unlike the dusty, flocked wall coverings of our grandparents’ homes, today’s wallpaper is sleek, evoking a retro feel while maintaining a contemporary look. A natural outgrowth from tapestries hung on the walls of Medieval dwellings, wallpaper was manufactured in America as early as the 1760s. By the middle of the 19th century, advancements in production techniques had lowered wallpaper prices and it spread through American homes like wildfire. The Victorians, with their penchant for lavish detail, elevated wallpaper to a commonplace fixture in home design. In 1885, California-based architects Newsom and Newsom wrote, “The query ‘What shall we do with our walls?’ has long since been answered… White walls, unrelieved by any color are relics of barbarism, and are almost a thing of the past. House-papering is now incorporated in building contracts, and a house is considered incomplete without these adornments.”
But by the beginning of the 20th century, the Modernists had launched their attack on wallpaper. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright championed the simplicity of the plain white wall. Perhaps no one publicly opposed wallpaper so much as architect Adolf Loos, whose seminal 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” referred to the wallpaper designer as a “rogue or degenerate.” In some ways, you might say this backlash was a result of cultural snobbery; the Modernists turned their backs on wallpaper after it became affordable for the average American. For wealthy intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century, the return to minimal, austere walls was an ultimate sign of taste.
Today, wallpaper is less an object of class warfare and more a means of self-inflicted punishment. When hung properly, wallpaper transforms a dwelling into a unique statement that will keep your guests talking for days. But for the DIY-challenged, successful wallpapering takes some practice. Fortunately for those of us who know better than to get within 10 feet of a giant bucket of glue, there are other ways to achieve the look. Stencils, as seen in the header image above, can be used to create patterned focal points. But whatever you decide to do with your walls, do plenty of research and have patience — the results will be worth it and your home will thank you.
Want more wallpaper inspiration to get you started?
- Wallpaper: A History of Style and Trends by Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz
- The Kitchn: 10 Examples of Wallpaper in the Kitchen
- The Artful Parent: DIY Frame Wallpaper for Children’s Art
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.