History of Wallpaper and the need for coloured walls

Have you ever viewed one of the houses of Pompeii or shops of ancient Rome or Greece? They were all frescoed and colourful, as were the statues. The tomb of Philip II of Macedonians clearly shows how the temples of the past were coloured.

In the Middle Ages the walls of the castles were covered with tapestries and frescoes and in the Renaissance they freshened up the walls of all the villas and palaces with paintings and hangings. Then came the industrial revolution, the birth of the bourgeoisie and the need for colour extended to a large number of people who resorted to a new invention, ‘wallpaper’. But when was it born and what is its history?

 

History of wallpaper

Paper first appeared in China in the second century BC and was produced from tree bark, hemp and other fibers. From China, it arrived in Korea, Japan, and then to Arabia from where it landed in Europe. In 1190, Sicily had the first document on paper and from 1233, Fabriano became one of the most important Italian production centres.

The use of wallpaper began in China in the 1st century AD where it became a true art form. It was used as a support for paintings and then for wall decorations, today as then.

In Europe, a document from 1481 lists a French Louis XI comic that refers to wallpaper. But it can be said that the first copies of wallpaper came from 1509 when the English printer Hugo Goes imprinted paper with flowers using a wooden mold. These sheets of paper were used to cover boxes, wardrobes and wall coverings and were miraculously found intact.

In 1600 one of the most sought-after producers was the Dutch Herman Schinkel, who made sheets decorated with woolen ribbons spread on paper previously decorated with coloured designs. This was the century of economic progress of the Netherlands and the bourgeoisie was growing rapidly: from this moment on, wallpaper became essential for every home of a certain prestige. The wallpaper was still being made with single sheets to be pasted onto the walls of the houses.

A real curiosity is the ‘wall-paper tax’ introduced in England by Queen Anne in 1712, which declared it a luxury good. The tax was circumvented by making the paper with designs but without colours as an artisan was able to fill these designs after applying paper onto the walls.

The true diffusion of this fashion came, however, with the technological advancement of the industry and the introduction of rotary processing, i.e. a paper production machine continuously with rollers. Decorators could then make more detailed and complex designs repeated at some distance on the roll.

In 1785 in France, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf invented the first machine to print wallpaper and in 1839, in England, Charles Harold Potter created a four-colour printing machine, adapting it to the one used in textiles. In 1874 prints were made with 20 different colours.

With the new technology wallpaper had a golden age and began to be demanded by the high bourgeoisie and emerging prestigious businesses in England, France and Italy. Each country had its own fashion: classical and mythological landscapes, views of Roman and Greek ports and ruins.

In England, floral decorations were fashionable and they had to be so ‘intrusive’ that Oscar Wilde came to declare, ‘Either leave that wallpaper or I’ll go’!

One of the best examples of wallpaper in Italy is at Casa Massimi Berucci in Piglio, the famous land of Cesanese del Piglio DOCG wine not far from Frosinone. The wallpaper comes from France over 100 years ago and repeats scenes of countryside with pastures around classic ruins and in the background the sea with a ship entering a harbour.

In the twentieth century, the wallpaper had its own particular charm with modern style art designs such as cubist and futurist decorations. Many fashion names have started their career decorating wallpaper, remember Mary Quant, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Lucienne Day, Peter Hall, Laura Ashley, and Vivienne Westwood.

 

A curiosity: White House wallpaper

Few have noticed it, but the important White House Diplomatic Reception Room is adorned with marvelous wall decorations made by the famous Zuber Wallpaper Producer. The walls of this room tell the story of the “Conquest of the New World”.

The room was furnished by Jackie Kennedy who wanted to turn a simple boiler room into a reception lounge. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier substantially renewed the interior style of the White House and, to give greater importance and solemnity to the environment, chose a card called “Vues d’Amérique Nord” – views of North America, on the recommendation of a historian.

The map reproduces monumental panoramas, it seems to be the travel journal of the conquerors who have created America and is based on sketches dating back to 1820. Thirty-two scenes are depicted, including the Natural Bridge of Virginia, Niagara Falls, the bay of New York and the port of Boston. At first glance it seems more like an artist’s drawing than simple wallpaper.

Zuber was a famous wallpaper maker founded in 1797 in Rixheim, Alsace, and was the last to produce this kind of hand-made upholstery and to use traditional methods. It has an archive of over 100,000 carved motifs in wood and today this historical archive is protected by law.

 

Wallpaper Museum

The Wallpaper Museum is located in Rixheim, Alsace, the region of the three borders between France, Germany and Switzerland. Many of the original wallpapers and all the machinery and technologies that were created here are collected and exhibited here. There are two of these machines dating back to 1877 and 1881, practically among the first examples of industrialization of wallpaper.

The collection includes 130,000 documents and an exhibition in which in rotation are presented paper with scenic pictures and with landscape motifs printed since 1804 with scenes from all over the world.