For decades, wallpaper was uncool, the wallflower of interior decoration. How and why it became the trend climbing the walls (in the best ways).
White walls used to be it.
From 2010 to 2018, every upscale home magazine seemed to feature at least one house or apartment with brilliant white walls. White dominated the page, spreading from floor to ceiling. Baseboards got it. Mouldings, doors too. Design writer Kyle Chayka coined the term “AirSpace” in 2016 to describe this aesthetic, which seemed to have moved across the globe like a virus. The semi-industrial, rustic-chic, Nordic-inspired look felt refreshing. The ultimate neutral read as youthful and contemporary, imbued with the feel-good simplicity of avocado toast. We told each other white would never get old.
But then it did. That minimalist look, with its mid-century modern chairs, clean lines and natural fiber rugs began to feel algorithmic, pre-determined, predictable. In its place an even more surprising trend has started to blossom. Wallpaper, that old-fashioned décor trend that dominated American homes for so many years, that relic, is back. Only this time around with bold colors and geometric designs, more akin to your grandma’s Pyrex than what was on the walls of her fussy guestroom.
Wallpaper is one of America’s oldest decorative arts. As soon as people began settling in New England, they began to paper their walls. By the 1780s, Americans had started producing wallpaper of their own, according to historian Richard Nylander, one of several authors of Wallpaper in New England. “It’s surprisingly early, but paper was a commodity that was being made in this country. It could be easily manufactured, and Boston was the early center in New England for producing wallpaper,” he explains. While much of the first American wallpaper copied the designs popular in England (think florals and chintzes, lots of pink, red, blue and yellow), there were patterns that were unique to our country. One of Nylander’s favorite examples showed an American handing the Declaration of Independence to “Britain,” who was shown with her head down and her hands on her forehead, he explains. “This, of course, was fully American.”
As the styles shifted and changed, Maine homeowners papered their walls with whatever was in vogue, from the primary colors of the Colonial period to the lush florals of the Arts and Crafts Movement to the conservative pastels popular during the Depression era. But before the internet and the rise of Pinterest and Instagram, design trends moved a lot slower. Nylander points out that some wallpapers were just viewed as part of the scenery. Multiple generations of a family would live and die in a home without ever changing out the décor. (This might have been a practical choice; wallpaper is hard to remove and is sometimes holding back old walls from a serious case of the crumbles.) In the 1780s, Sarah Orne Jewett’s grandparents installed a red-flocked wallpaper in their South Berwick Colonial, and this same pattern remained in place for hundreds of years. (You can still see it today, though it has faded thanks to the bleaching effects of sunlight and time.) “From the 1890s to the 1940s, every house in New England had wallpaper in almost every room,” says Nylander. This began to change in the 1950s with the rise of modernism. “You wanted white walls, a cleaner and less fussy look,” he explains. As the demand for wallpaper slowed, manufacturing began to sputter. What was once a relatively cheap commodity, sold at general stores and available to all, became far less so. For the later half of the 20th century, people moved away from papering their bedrooms and dining rooms, favoring the ease and changeability of paint to the commitment of wallpaper.
For some people, though, wallpaper remained in style. Interior designers continued to use the decorative art in their high-end projects throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Portland designer Rachel Ambrose doesn’t call this a resurgence. “It’s never gone away,” says Ambrose. “I’ve used wallpaper throughout my life,” she says. “I love repeated pattern and anything that repeats, really.” But Ambrose has a slightly looser definition of wallpaper than most. For her, it means any paper that has been hung on a wall, including city maps, botanical prints or old New Yorker covers, the last a trick she deployed in the bathroom at Home Remedies, her Portland retail store. Years ago, she lived in an apartment in San Francisco that featured two huge maps spread out across the kitchen wall. “It sounds silly, but there is something about attaching a piece to the wall that makes it feel different somehow,” she says. “It has a sense of wow and awe.” Visitors to her apartment would often comment on those sprawling old maps. She speculates that wallpaper impresses people because it expresses a certain confidence and commitment to one’s aesthetic. Wallpaper says: I know who I am. Wallpaper says: I’m unafraid to be bold.
Her apartment in the India Street neighborhood makes a similar statement. The moment you arrive, you’re greeted by a burst of cool color. Chartreuse, slate blue, cornflower and olive dance across an ivory background, forming a rhythmically repeating landscape of willowy trees and feathery grasses. Ambrose chose this wallpaper because it went with her overall design scheme, which was inspired by a gift from her mother in 2015, the first Christmas after Ambrose’s father had died. It was their wedding china, a Royal Doulton that had been her parents’ pattern when they married in 1962. “That year became the inspiration for my entire apartment. I wanted it to be mod, kind of streamlined,” Ambrose says. The wallpaper spoke to her. It came in more subdued hues but she opted for the bright one. “Everything in the space goes with it,” she says. “It doesn’t match, but it goes. I wanted to highlight the foyer and create an interesting way to step inside. It’s like the overture in a musical. Bam! It sets the tone for my home.”
Interior designer Heidi LaChapelle also uses wallpaper to set a tone in her entryways. “We use wallpaper on almost every project,” LaChapelle says. “It can add that extra special detail to a project.” But most often she uses it in small places, where the pattern can feel like less of a commitment, the places people pass through. Vestibules, bathrooms and other small, enclosed spaces where wallpaper can create a vibrant burst of color. Ambrose particularly likes putting wallpaper on areas with corners, so you feel like you’re “swimming right into the pattern,” she says. “It envelops you.”
Like Ambrose, LaChapelle has been using wallpaper for years. The biggest recent shift, LaChapelle explains, has been in what types of patterns are popular. Interior designers aren’t using as much chintz (think: Laura Ashley-esque florals) or chinoiserie (inspired by classic Chinese design) or toile (pastoral scenes). “We’re seeing a lot of graphics,” LaChapelle says. “It’s not the same kind of paper you saw before.” Geometric designs are on the rise, as are abstracted floral patterns, animal prints and splashy colors. Maine textile designer Erin Flett’s wallpapers fit into this mold. Her prints include hot pink roses, olive green pine trees, orange butterflies and bright red circles. The Hilary pattern, which features undulating waves of dots, has long been one of Flett’s best sellers. “Circles are kind of soothing and comforting, and visually interesting,” she says of the pattern. Flett has also made custom wallpapers for clients, including her multicolored chickadees wallpaper. The playful, bright print looks particularly enticing in a bathroom; “When I put that one on Instagram, it got a ton of likes,” she says.
Another design element that is thoroughly modern is the accent wall. According to Nylander, there really isn’t any “period precedent” of using wallpaper on just one plane in a room. “It would be interesting to know when that started, but my gut feeling is that it began in the 1950s,” he says. “I think some people are afraid of pattern.” Accent walls feel like slightly less of a commitment, especially if you’re using a statement-making pattern like Flett’s prismatic birds. Or the leaping bunnies and stylized fox-faces popping up in nurseries. Then there are the leaping zebras, dodging flying arrows favored by New York restauranteur Gino Circiello for more than 50 years. A New York Times obituary for Circiello, who died in 2001, described him as commissioning the wallpaper from a friend to satisfy a craving he couldn’t afford: to hunt on an African safari. It was bold and beloved (replaced twice in the restaurant’s 50 years) and now it’s trendy. There’s a West End entryway that features Gino’s zebras in emerald green.
Perhaps the handiest element that distinguishes 21st century wallpaper from the old fashioned versions? Installers are great but not always necessary. “Wallpaper is finally becoming popular from a DIY perspective,” LaChapelle says. “There are a lot of nice removable options available now that make things less intense. I think companies are trying to make them more accessible, and I think it’s finally reached the masses.” All they need to do is be willing to trust. Themselves. “Wallpaper is a personal exploration of what you love. There’s really no right or wrong way to choose,” says Flett reassuringly. “If you love it, and you love the color, you’ll make it work.”
Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor who lives in Buxton with her two dogs and one husband. Her work regularly appears online at The Paris Review and Longreads, and in print for Yankee magazine and others.