The garish designs of the '60s and '70s put many people off, but wallpaper is making a comeback with large, geometric prints.
After a decade of neutral interiors, wallpaper is back
"My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death," gasped Oscar Wilde as he lay ailing in a run-down Parisian hotel at the turn of the 20th century. "One or the other of us has to go." Unfortunately for Wilde, the overbearing wallpaper triumphed. Anyone who recalls the mustard and brown flocked backdrop of their 1970s childhood must surely empathise with Wilde's dark humour.
One of interior decorating's most enduring cyclical stories, wallpaper has been falling in and out of fashion for more than 500 years. The last time it was truly popular with the masses was the 1980s and regency stripes with contrasting fleur-de-lys borders were all the rage (their stylised formality slotting in rather nicely amongst all the wide-shouldered power suits of the era). That pomposity had in turn been a sartorial protest against the flowers, flocking and psychedelia of the 1960s and 1970s so, by the time the last decade of the century rolled around, it was time for a rest - or at least a rag-roller.
"Growing up with the extremely loud wallpaper in my parents' house in the 1970s, I had a total aversion to anything pasted to the walls when I bought my own home in London in the mid-1990s," recalls Clare Maskall, a Dubai resident. "I spent months stripping our Victorian house of every single scrap, then spent a fortune at Jocasta Innes's [the Grande dame of paint finishes] shop in north London on just-so muted colour tones, glazes and decorating tools to help me achieve her paint effects."
Yet, as she plans to redecorate her Dubai villa, Maskall says she's flirting with a bold geometric-print wallpaper for a large wall in the family room. And she's not alone. Perhaps as a reaction to the last decade's endless edicts to create "neutral" living environments, wallpaper - especially in its boldest "look at me" incarnations - is cropping up in homes that were formerly a living homage to minimalism.
"We have definitely seen more call for it in the last year or two," confirms Carolyn Hollands of the Dubai interiors store Hollands & Burton, which is the UAE's exclusive stockist of wallpapers from the leading design houses Colefax and Fowler, Jane Churchill (whose style books, for the first time this season, include wallpaper along with the fabric "stories"), Manuel Canovas and Larsen. "I think customers are realising that, especially if you focus on one wall, papering is a way to make a design statement and enliven the whole interior of a room without going to too much trouble."
The recession may have also played its part in wallpaper's renaissance, say designers. Since a house or apartment sale is no longer a sure, swift bet homeowners are looking more to their properties as a place of comfort and shelter rather than pure investment: "Wallpaper instantly creates a more private, individual space and people who are staying in their homes for whatever reason appreciate that," says Maya Malkoun, a UAE-based interior designer. "Wallpaper is also incredible in the way it affects everything else around it. For instance, when mixed with a funky wallpaper, even the most traditional furniture takes on a completely fresh look."
Malkoun says that her clients are going for the big patterns and Baroque-style prints mainly: "It can be a hard look to live with but if you find it too overbearing - or if trends move on - wallpaper can so easily be changed, unlike a pricey sofa or dining table." It's a view shared by Hollands: "Our papers range from Dh276 to just over Dh400 a roll so by papering a feature wall it's possible to have a real event going on for around Dh1,500 - and that includes installation." She adds that it's a good choice for those of her clients who eschew window treatments: "Quite often people choose not to dress their windows - either because it is a big expense or they just prefer an open frame - and wallpaper gives a room the impact that is often missing without curtains."
Simon Glendenning, the chief executive of Cole & Sons, the royal warrant-garlanded British maker of wallpaper since 1873, can track the recent renaissance of wallpaper back to 2003 - since his company really started it: "2003 was the year we launched The New Contemporary Collection. It featured bold colours and designs and got great reviews; the industry in general really picked up on the momentum of it and it shows absolutely no sign of it tailing off."
Not that, for Cole & Sons, wallpaper ever went away: "We have always had our core customer who owns the country house or the English Heritage-style property and goes for our very traditional styles, but we now have attracted an entirely new audience who are new to the concept of wallpaper." So, like many other companies steeped in tradition, Cole & Sons has turned to a stable of hip designers to help inject some much needed style savvy - David Easton, the celebrated American decorator; Tom Dixon, the renowned product and furniture designer, and Vivienne Westwood, the fashion designer who last year included her trademark tartans and herringbones in her collection. Did it win over any of Cole & Sons' traditional customers? "Well it probably didn't but in Japan, for instance, where they love Vivienne Westwood but don't really go for wallpaper, we now have a quite a following."
Ever mindful that the powerful medium of film and television has a huge influence on consumers, there is also a new generation of twentysomethings addicted to the large florals and brights of the 1960s thanks to hit shows such as Mad Men, with those chic, sleek sets that have made flocking seem fresh and new again. Both Hollands and Malkoun say they have a certain type of client who loves the heavy designs: "We did a home last year for a client who wanted the same vibrant flocked wallpaper in every single downstairs room in his villa - albeit in a different colour in each," recalls Hollands.
Given the slapstick-style antics and sheer skill it took to hang the wallpaper of old, would anyone other than the budget end of the market bother trying to do it themselves? Cole & Sons thinks so. Among the mouth-wateringly covetable collections that would tempt the most avid lover of plain magnolia walls, its website has detailed instructions for customers inspired to try DIY: "We work with non-woven paper now, which makes life easier," explains Glendenning. "In the old days you had the hassle of fixing the paste to the paper, now all you do is put the paste on the walls. It's completely taken the mystique out of wallpapering and, if you do choose to do it yourself, you can transform a room in a matter of a few hours."
The new age of digital printing has also had a huge impact on wallpaper, offering even more flexibility and adventure, with designs that can be made to order. "The onset of digital printing means that there is no need for mass production any more. Designs can be tailored to an individual's needs and tastes and it's catching on hugely here," says Malkoun. One of the market leaders, Mr Perswall (short for personalised wall), which will be launched in the UAE this autumn, is catering handsomely to the ever-expanding demand for custom-designed wallpaper, once the preserve of the super-rich and design-savvy. The company was recently acquired by the Swedish wallpaper giant Eco-Boråstapeter - coincidentally the same company that has owned Cole & Sons since 2008.
In fact the modus operandi of the two companies could not be more different. While Cole & Sons stresses its heritage, its hand blocks and craftsmanship, customers of Mr Perswall simply log onto the company's website and upload the photograph or pattern they want printed - or choose from the catalogue of ready-made designs - and wait to take delivery of their wallpaper rolls. Production takes just a few days and customers pick up their order from a local retail store.
Meanwhile, at the cutting edge of the wallpaper business, designers are going all-out to use new and innovative materials and technology. The Czech designer Daniel Piršc has incorporated three-dimensional porcelain components - gleaming rain droplets, birds, even tiny aeroplanes - into his wallpaper designs, while the Swedish designer Camilla Diedrich's Nature Ray Charles collection of fibre-optic papers adds the luminosity of mood lighting to the floral patterns and spirals.
The Swedes (yet again) take the current wallpaper trend to the artistic extreme with Front's collection for Droog, called The Design By Animals. Front's all-female design team decided to allow a menagerie of animals to help in the creative process - which included a snake squeezing a clothes hanger out of clay and a dog's track in snow forming the shape for a ceramic vase. However, what really created a buzz was the wallpaper, which had its rather intricate - and admittedly attractive - design nibbled out by several (supposedly design-savvy) rats. Just too outré? Probably - but you can't help thinking that Oscar Wilde might have approved.