Wallpaper as Art

Nov 19, 2009 (Updated Nov 19, 2009)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Gorgeous examples of art


The Bottom Line: Excellent history of an artwork.

If you think wallpaper is all about simple flower designs and destined to remain a coverup for damaged walls, you might want to take a good look at the marvelous “Wallpaper: A History of Style and Trends,” which shows us just how artistic it can be.

Though beautiful to simply leaf through, the book is a serious and fascinating study on how wallpaper went from shelf paper and very ordinary design that required little planning to richly illustrated and colored artwork that shows complex, panoramic scenes, religious motifs and historical figures. Decorative wallpaper had its origins in China, described by Marco Polo in 1298 and then reinvigorated by block printing in the Netherlands in 1418. From Asia, where handpainted design was the rule, Europe turned to printing of its artwork.

A steady infusion of wealth allowed the upper middle classes to imitate world artistry suddenly visible to them but not affordable; wallpaper stood as a substitute and cheaper way to re-create artwork in the home.

The variety of content is stunning: an Etruscan-style wallpaper made in 1790 is displayed in the Tuileries Palace in France; a panel from a wallpaper called Les Incas shows Pizarro’s arrival in Peru; one entitled Les Rives du Bosphore shows the trees, waters and people of the Bosphorus Strait region in Turkey, done sometime before 1812; a ceiling wallpaper depicts the goddess Diana in her chariot and can be found in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris; George Washington is one of four American heroes in a design made about 1856 and now on display at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

The designs range from the relatively simple to the intensely complex, with all manner of color and shading.

And while there are some that are just flowers and geometric shapes, many of the designs are quite detailed.

Author Carolle Thibault-Pomerantz ties together such developments as the invention of movable type to the exploration of the New World and Asia to show how those events fed the growth of the art form.

She describes her discovery of the vintage craft at an auction house in Paris in 1986 and how she eventually became an expert on the craft. And in recounting her path, she explains the history of the artform itself.

The materials shown here feature contemporary artists, such as Calder, Warhol and Murakami, but even more come from the old European manufacturers Reveillon, Dufour and Zuber and many other independent artists.

“Wallpaper: A History of Style and Trends” would make a great (though expensive) gift to an interior decorator or someone interested in cultural history. We’ve got a hallway with an Asian theme in our house; some of these vintage designs would fit very well in that space.

This review is part of the Lean’n Mean writeoff. Please join in.

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