March 9, 2015

Essay by Andrea Dietz.


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Wallpaper–Boullee museum. © Andrea Dietz.

Perhaps I was a daydreamer. Perhaps I was mischievous and prone to triggering time-outs spent facing dining room corners.

I passed many of my childhood hours staring at patterns on walls. Rapt by the reciprocal glances of figures receding into and out of geometries, by spaces and volumes emerging from fields and lines, I lost myself in (im)possible realities.

I long since have outgrown such indulgent disappearances. I have seen and touched many of the world’s actual, tangible architectural and geographical marvels. But, the “imagelands” that continue to dance upon the screens of my eyelids as I drift off to a fitful sleep are those that I pretended into existence when my naivety allowed for a much less formidable separation between the realms.

Sometimes, the paper-thin leaves the lasting impression.

“Majorité Opprimée”: Or, Where to Hang the Wallpaper
(A Nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Plus)

Its place is in art photographs of house trailers abandoned to the Mojave Desert. Its cracked, yellowing edges, clinging to deteriorating plywood surfaces, invoke the kind of nostalgia that makes the passage of time comforting. The fading of its cheerful flourishes reminds the sophisticated of aesthetic innocence.

Its place shifts before the glue dries. It waffles in the “fatal newness” to which John Ruskin condemned it. Cursed, for all of its (im)permanence, to mirror the whims of the hipsters and the it-kids, it samples the latest trends and coolest gadgets in its search for that thing that will help it “stick.” Just as it settles into mode, it grows bored, relinquishing the hand, for the block, for the stencil, for the steam-driven surface roller, for the screen printer, for photogravure, for flexography, for lasers, for coding—then, takes it all back, when retro is in.

Its place is in a trade fair—the alternately flamboyant or sterile halls of the market economy. Or maybe it’s in one of those Digests. It’s the stuff of decorators and wannabes. It’s the mark of the suburban mindless, of those who consume their environments like they do their outfits, their media, and their meals.

Its place is in show business, amongst the actors, fakers, and liars. It imitates—brocade, chintz, damask, velvet—reducing textiles to caricatures. It dares to don the shade, shadow, and stroke of masterworks on its secondary canvases. It mocks form—flattening etchings, friezes, ornaments, and sculpture into the narrowest of reliefs. Its fraudulent cosmetics are a distraction from true volume, an insult to objectivity and sensibility.

Its place is in quarantine, rolled-up and sealed away for purposes of decontamination. Its pastes and its pulps absorb the grime and the grit, the grease and the soot, the germs and the malevolence of the classless and uncultured. It killed Oscar Wilde.

Its place is in the kitchen—and the attic playroom. It’s the home of feminine hysteria—and liberation. The women already shook The Yellow Wallpaper’s bars, crawled through its seams, and “creeped” out into the world. They escaped the wallpaper, but it cannot escape them.

Ladies Home Journal Household Feature:
A Guide to Practical Wallpaper
Maintenance and Preservation

Stop! Your old homecare how-to guide is wrong.

Yes, your walls, with their swirling florals and rosy hues, are sensuous. But, please, respect the surface. If you must caress the details, by all means, wash your hands, first.

It’s unavoidable; dust will build-up on your wallpaper. That does not give you permission to pull out the mop buckets and chemical cleansers. Resort only to delicate, soft-bristle brushing.

If, heaven forbid, your walls befall some misfortune—fingerprints, food stain or splatter, pen blot—consult a professional. Whoever thought of rubbing bran and breadcrumbs on walls was not well; benzene and oxalic acid, just vicious.

The upkeep experts are trained in time-tested techniques to use special mechanical erasers and muslin-covered hand-held vacuums. Do not assume that you, with whatever you find under your utility sink, can mimic the skill.

If your well-loved wallpaper is wearing your affection, it is time to get serious. The foolhardy might think a little dab of glue or a spot of touch-up paint are harmless. Think, again. Real wallpaper repairers know the secret concentrations for starch adhesive and methylcellulose recipes. They know never to be so presumptuous as to introduce, without thorough study, foreign pigments into set scenes. They use trade tools, like artist’s brushes and syringes to apply their wares.

Now, if you get the home re-do itch, remember: that which is boring and old to you might just be someone else’s treasure. Old wallpaper (unless you know for Wallpaper certain that the connoisseurs have deemed your pattern a dud) is not to be hung, nailed, plastered, or rolled over. It should be carefully removed with scalpels and spatulas and, only in the most extreme of circumstances, loosened with water-alcohol spritzes and steams. Again, pursue a consultation, first.

You, of course, may not even know that you are a wallpaper’s caretaker. Sometimes it hides—beneath plaster, above a dropped ceiling, behind fixtures and furnishings. If you happen to stumble upon some long-covered fragment, refer to all of the above treatments. Document your findings with high-resolution photography and rigorous notes. And, store loose pieces in melinex envelopes with an acid-free tissue sheet surround.

Wallpaper Agency: Other Ways of Doing-Up Architecture

Wallpaper was the hook at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Employed in bright and immersive displays, it introduced Crystal Palace visitors to and enticed them into complicity with the British Design Reform makeover campaign. The agenda subliminal to the colorful bath was one of comprehensive comportment training—a national endeavor to instill principles and qualities of beauty as intrinsic to cultural well-being and economic competitiveness.

Published as and through AWN Pugin’s extensive guidelines and templates, wallpaper was the centerpiece of Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, a text that elevated, throughout its popularity in the last half of the eighteen hundreds, the design of the domestic interior as morally and societally imperative.

In parallel, through a complex blending of aesthetics and politics, William Morris, advocated a mass return to medieval ideals and to a direct engagement of hand and work. He enforced his vision for the Arts and Crafts Movement and its new world order in an extensive line of wallpapers and other decorative products.

For the Bauhaus and Deutscher Werkbund of the turn-of-the-century, wallpaper began as a medium for Germany’s Formwille de Zeist, the “will-to-form of age”; it had a role in setting a scene appropriate to the times. But, the ethos that evolved in the Neue Sachlichkeit and the conditions and edicts of the World Wars turned wallpaper, an emblem of excess and progressivism, into an object of hostility, violence and, ultimately, of obsolescence.

In 1946, the Dutch Goed Wonen, yet another collective operation championing the correlation between design standards and the good life, kicked off the postconflict round of organized environmental awareness and improvement drives with wallpaper reinvigorating presentations.

Edgar Kaufman Junior, along with the Chicago Merchandise Mart and New York’s Museum of Modern Art launched America’s Good Design program in 1950. Wallpaper, perceived as the perfect mediator of personal and professional expression, established the friendly front for efforts to uplift caliber and craft in the residential building boom.

Once, (not so) long ago, for at least a one hundred year span, the material was the political. Design and social practice were one and the same. The two- and the three-dimensional co-mingled. Diverse audiences participated. Just ask the wallpaper.

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Wallpaper–Boullee cenotaph. © Andrea Dietz.

Wallpaper Holler

Wallpaper, in the blue hills, is a profoundly literal term. The houses out there are paper, or are held together by it—layers upon layers of the stuff. Actual house structure, paltry from the start, lasts for just enough time to act as substrate for a first round of clipping postings. The divides of the houses, the barriers that separate space from mass and wilderness, then stratify and thicken, sheet-by-sheet, micron-by-micron. The room to live and move shrinks—infinitesimally, but surely—with the passing seasons.

Each ply of a wallpaper-house keeps time, constitutes a piecemeal ledger of the stories and fancies central to the moment of their “stick-up.” News headlines, culled for their bold typography or for the strength with which their message holds that particular house together, create the base field. Magazine adverts, adhered in positions of privilege, trace appliance breakthroughs and trends, fashion and wardrobe goals, and otherwise impossible object-wants. Cutouts from books, giftwrap, and product packaging frame jogs and thresholds—simply because they’re pretty. And, just as telling, the cartography of covering over and leaving be fixes—for good—the hierarchies of attention and dimension.

Most of these papier-mâché habitats are haphazardly uniform; they wear the character of undiscriminating inevitability. Some stand out, though, seem to aspire to upend compositional expectations.

Take “document house,” a wonderland of legal scripts rescued from generations of absent-mindedness, flea markets, and shredders; embedded in its vast collage are rare texts purportedly signed by the likes of Henry Knox and George Washington. At “currency house,” the author, once a military man, plastered his walls in foreign note from his tours of duty. Oil paintings—of varied and unknown provenance—removed from their frames now stretch over the horizontal and vertical surfaces of “canvas house.” And, quite unusually, quilts of domesticated orange tabby pelts sewn tightly into lining-paper pad the small enclosures of “cat house.”

In these kitsch extremes, all definitions break down. Wallpaper isn’t exactly; house isn’t exactly.

But, even the mundane wallpaper-house defies parsing. Neither tectonic nor text-graphic, neither built nor printed, it is a dwelling-archive that slips between and occupies a hybrid state of form, ornament, and sign. The wallpaper-house leaves an opening for exploration of where representation ends and matter begins.

If Wallpaper Were Habitable: Style Sandwich

Est. 2015: There is a slow enveloping in pixels and fields, feathers and lines, forms and figures. The deep and the flat are confused, dogged by illusion. If something repeats—rarely the case—it’s a cacophony. No color is excluded. The signage is familiar, popular, but twisted. If self-awareness and satire were palpable, they would be here as micro-worlds, oases, or watchtowers. Nothing is fixed, but everything is sited.

Est. 1985: It’s a zone of sets. Everything exists in triplicate, all coordinating, all saturated. It steps from one shiny field of tiny textures, to another of floating figures, to another of bloated sculptures, and back. From one increment to the next, the lights invert with the darks; the primaries switch places. And then, abruptly, randomly, a neon wedge or flashy monolith breaks the rhythm.

Est. 1955: This is a hallucination. It’s a ride on waves in a sea of swirling amoebas. Tiny insects on flying saucers hang from squiggly lines like constellations. Stalagmites and stalactites rise and fall in a sea of prisms. The horizon is a merle with streaks of mauve and yellow. It all dissolves into monotone, a vast bowl of porridge.

Est. 1925: From afar, the pastel lines cross and lap in plaids and plaits. Up close, the diameter, directionality, and rigidity of the bars may vary, but this is prison. There are cells, cage yards, and fenced-in territories. Inside, the surfaces glisten with a ceramic sheen. Past the enclosure, the long view is one of shady splotches barely distinguishable from an impenetrable matte background of forest or sky.

Est. 1895: The world is slippery and seamless. It’s a space of complementing harmonies, carefully detailed and meticulously tidy. Biology morphs into geometry. Abstract curves flow and swirl in consistent and unifying trails, without end or beginning. There is no inside, no outside: just over and under, hard and soft.

Est. 1865: Enter the jungle. Monstrous leaves and petals intermingle, blocking all light and visibility. Snaking vines dotted with bright, tempting (but likely poisonous) fruits weave the ground and growth together. Peering eyes flit open and closed in the overlaps and shadows.

Est. 1835: Wander a maze of picket fences, squeaking gates, and tunnel trellises. The foliage is a dusting of tiny pin-prick flowers that bloom without stems or stalks. Soil and air are one in the same.

Est. 1775: This is the stuff of fantasy. It’s a cross-section through a biosphere of magical plantings and wildlife. It’s a window into epics and myths. Everything glitters with gold sprinkles. But, with its impenetrable glowing edges, it’s a place for which there is neither entry nor exit.

Est. 1715: Here is an endlessly cushioned den of dark, velvety contours. It’s a dirty lounge for sinking in and getting lost in the creases.

Est. 1595: One shape pushes forward; another falls back. It’s a grid of coffers far away or it’s a high-contrast game of magnified figure-field. There is only black and white.

The wall’s paper lets it imagine a time before it was, what it could have been, what it could yet become. Indeed, such lines on paper echo the wall’s own origins. Through this thin limen, drawing becomes building and building becomes drawing, too.

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Wallpaper–Ledoux cemetery. © Andrea Dietz.

Works Referenced

Greysmith, Brenda. Wallpaper. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., 1976.

Hanaor, Cigalle. The Cutting Edge of Wallpaper. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006.

Hoskins, Lesley, ed. The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns, and Techniques of Wallpaper. London: Thames and Hudson Limited, 2005.

Karmel, Pepe. “When Artwork Has a Sticky Back.” New York Times, July 28, 1995, Design Review.

Langley, Christopher and Osceola Refetoff. “High & Dry: Through a Window Darkly.” KCET, August 27, 2014. Web. December 15, 2014.

Mallonee, Laura C. “More Than 6,000 Wallpaper Designs Digitized.” Hyperallergic RSS, December 31, 2014. Web. January 3, 2015.

Oman, Charles C. and Jean Hamilton. Wallpapers: An International History and Illustrated Survey from the Victoria and Albert Museum. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982.

Thibaut-Pomerantz, Carolle. Wallpaper: A History of Style and Trends. Paris, Flammarion, 2009.