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Expert Advice: Wallpaper & Paint

Experts lend advice on getting patterned wallpapers and trim colors to coexist for maximum effect. By Brian D. Coleman

    Color genius: Note how the many colors in ‘Fairyland’ (Trustworth Studios) blend to become an analogous and near-neutral background for warm oak tones and the brilliant green of the lantern. “White” woodwork, actually a coffee-and-cream color, is a brightening frame.

    Note how the many colors in ‘Fairyland’ (Trustworth Studios) blend to become an analogous and near-neutral background for warm oak tones and the brilliant green of the lantern. “White” woodwork, actually a coffee-and-cream color, is a brightening frame.

    Taking our cue from a reader question about how to choose trim color that “goes with” the wallpaper, we spoke to wallpaper experts, colorists, and designers. I’ve been surprised at how much interest there is in the topic, and how much effusive advice was offered.

    It’s not a new dilemma. William Morris (who liked to give advice on this and many other topics) was a strong advocate for woodwork that does not match the wallpaper. (He often suggested that trim be painted “a quiet green.”) He felt contrast was critical: “Rooms with wood-work and walls of equal tone are sometimes very tame, and even dull.” More recently, artist and muralist C.J. Hurley echoed Morris’s sentiments, explaining that the best interiors do not have wallpapers and woodwork too “safely” coordinated. Think of your room as a musical composition, C.J. suggests—one that has a careful combination of notes arranged harmonically, but with enough dissonance to make it compelling.

    Here’s an example. If you have a tripartite wall with wallpaper in the frieze (top), don’t necessarily use paint in similar colors for the fill (center) and dado (bottom). Be adventuresome! If the frieze is predominantly green, how about the wall fill in an earthy yellow and the dado below in a richer yellow-brown that leans toward red? Create interest and a sense of movement, not flatness. A simpler bipartite Arts & Crafts scheme might have a frieze in naturalistic blue tones, with a russet orange-brown or silver-tone gray below, varied in tone (light or dark) between frieze and wall for visual relief and balance.

    Color and pattern in the Victorian era were layered together for a textured palette that nonetheless was balanced to the eye, says 19th-century wallpaper guru John Burrows. Tastemakers didn’t shy away from strong and contrasting color schemes, “scientifically” basing their choices on the color wheel. Analogous colors (say, amethyst purple and sapphire blue) or contrasting ones (hunter green and madder red) could be “pleasingly combined.”

    C.J. Hurley created a contrasting scheme with a Swedish blue-green paper accented with pink irises and yellow cartouches against a handpainted frieze above. The neutral ivory trim creates harmony. Note the subtle coordination of the window shade with the color scheme.

    C.J. Hurley created a contrasting scheme with a Swedish blue-green paper accented with pink irises and yellow cartouches against a handpainted frieze. The ivory trim creates harmony. Note the subtle coordination of the window shade.

    Tertiary colors produced softer, more subtle tones and were popular, such as an olive-green paper accented with burgundy and gold; perhaps a dash of peacock blue would highlight the terra cotta on woodwork and trim.

    For a more sophisticated approach, Burrows advises using a paper’s neutral ground—such as “drab” (a warm gray), tan, or putty—as the base of the painted walls or woodwork, then adding one or two tertiary accents as narrow bands or stripes.

    Maryellen Mantyla of California Paints reminds us that neutrals carry undertones of yellow, blue, green, or red, something to consider when deciding on complementary or harmonious colors.

    Christopher Dresser’s 1859 botany textbook was titled Unity in Variety, which suggests a design concept as applicable to interiors today. Wayne Mason of Mason & Wolf Wallpapers (specialists in artistic period papers of the late 19th century and Arts & Crafts era) likes to keep Dresser’s philosophy in mind when combining wallpaper and paints, interpreting their unity in terms of music. That is, if the same red is repeated throughout the room, it’s like hitting the same key on the piano over and over.

    Farrow & Ball’s ‘Rectory Red’ is echoed in the firm’s ‘St. Antoine Damask’ wallpaper.

    Farrow & Ball’s ‘Rectory Red’ is echoed in the firm’s ‘St. Antoine Damask’ wallpaper.

    Variation produced by combining brick red with burgundy and soft rose creates the equivalent of a musical chord. Mason often uses stenciling and painted bands of color to unify and define busy paper patterns on both walls and ceilings. For example, the transition between a ceiling painted a light sky blue and the wallpaper border surrounding it may be highlighted with a band of gold stenciling, carrying the pattern onto the painted portion of the ceiling as well as softening the hard edges of the wallpaper border.

    Architectural elements are unified with paint and pattern as well.  Mason painted the plaster corbel of an archway in his own bedroom with soft yellow, red, green, and pink, the palette drawn from the Morris ‘Fruit’ paper applied to the walls of the room. Darker shades of these colors were then repeated on the picture molding to better define the woodwork and make it appear more substantial. Finally, a band of salmon paint was used to separate the ceiling paper from the wallpaper and provide a visual break between the busy patterns.

    Trick of the Trade

    John Burrows suggests using lining paper on walls, then painting trim before hanging the wallpaper. Allow the paint to overlap slightly onto the liner so that minor gaps in the wallpaper will not be evident. Hang wallpaper last. This sequence also avoids paint splatters on the paper.

    As for painting plaster ceiling medallions, Heather Cole of Bradbury & Bradbury Wallpapers says to avoid the “paint-by-number look” by using only one color, perhaps with tonal variation or gilded highlights. She suggests glazing to add softness and glow.

    The ‘Silvergate’ damask paper from Farrow & Ball repeats swirls of classical decoration in the mantel; the look is serene rather than busy because of the neutral colors and similar tones.

    The ‘Silvergate’ damask paper from Farrow & Ball repeats swirls of classical decoration in the mantel; the look is serene rather than busy because of the neutral colors and similar tones.

    “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint,” said famed decorator Elsie de Wolfe as the Colonial Revival took hold.

    Despite her famously successful use of white paint, it takes skill to use white, warns David Berman of Trustworth Studios. Berman specializes in design (including wallpapers) based on the work of English Arts & Crafts designer CFA Voysey, who favored light-toned, airy interiors with woodwork either left natural or painted white.

    But “white” is relative. Berman favors Benjamin Moore’s ‘White Coffee’ as a trim color, which is closer to a beige and has the tonality to complement tertiary colors. He claims that a common mistake is trying to “brighten” a room with white paint, which flattens the room and overwhelms its other elements.

    Berman advises that color be chosen, too, according to the light in the room, and particularly whether the room is to be used primarily in daylight or under artificial illumination. The light source dramatically alters how paint and wallpaper colors are perceived.

    Woodwork in a room acts as the frame for its walls, says nationally recognized designer Barry Dixon. He used Morris’s ‘Apple’ wallpaper from Sanderson in a custom colorway for his own kitchen and adjoining breakfast nook, creating an autumn palette.

    Benjamin Moore’s ‘Startling Orange’ joins three colors by Farrow & Ball:  ‘Cream,’ the warm-brown ‘Wainscot,’ and ‘India Yellow’ (a color that in the 18th century was made from the bright-yellow urine of cows fed mango leaves). Inspired by Lutyens’s Castle Drogo in England, Dixon limed and waxed the quarter-sawn oak banquette to create a quiet frame for the richly colored Morris wallpaper.

    In an authentic period decorating scheme, note how the trim paint brings out the ‘Arbella’ wallpaper (J.R. Burrows) without exactly matching any of its colors.

    Striping pulls colors together and offers relief in this installation of Bradbury wall and ceiling papers.

    Finally, it’s important to consider how different rooms relate, says designer Leta Austin Foster, who works with her daughter, Sallie Giordano. Known for their comfortable interiors for historic homes, they like to create an enfilade of rooms, with enticement room to room, and often combining wallpaper with painted woodwork in complementary tones.

    Farrow & Ball’s pale, sky-blue ‘Borrowed Light’ works well with period papers in creams, whites, and chocolates. Another suggestion from the pair: paint baseboards black or marbleize them (an English approach) to hide scuff marks and dirt.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors January/February 2010


    Jackie July 7, 2010 at 2:22 am

    I can’t seem to find a color called “White Coffee” in any of the Benjamin Moore lines. Is there an error in the name?

    Patricia Poore July 7, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Jackie,
    That’s the long-time name of the trim color preferred by David Berman of Trustworth Studios (aka Voysey Boy). Perhaps B Moore has changed it . . . I’ll ask David for an update.

    Apparently the color is excellent in old houses (a) because it has an almost aged or patinated look, not bright and (b) it is a chameleon color that works with both a cool palette (greens and blues) and warm (browns and russets). Stay tuned–I’ll write again.

    Patricia Poore, Editor

    Magdalene Colleen Schram August 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I am trying to repair a corner where my wallpaper pulled away. I have the original paper, but when I held it up, the old paper has oxidized and the bolt I saved has been out of sunlight and is not the same color. Is there any way, I can oxidize the “new” paper, or treat it in some way so it matches what is already on the wall?

    Lori Viator August 30, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Decorative-arts historian David Berman from Trustworth Studios has this answer: Over time, oxidation usually causes darkening of the hung wallpaper—a problem for those trying to patch in wallpaper that has been in storage or purchased new.
    Conversely, bleaching can occur from exposure to sunlight or because ink colors were fugitive.

    First determine which problem you have: lightening or darkening? It is always easier to darken something, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and the task depends on the formulation of the paper, and what colors were used. The answer may be as simple as sponging on a weak tea solution. (This is not the archival or conservation method, but you may get a reasonable blending.) Oxidizing agents are available through conservation suppliers but they do get very tricky to use. Any process will oxidize or bleach the paper at a different rate and perhaps with a different outcome from that of the gradual change seen in the hanging paper.

    I might suggest, if the color mismatch is intolerable, that you repaper the full affected wall from corner to corner, providing the pattern and colorway are available. The eye is more tolerant of color difference when the pattern is seen in two different planes.

    Lori Viator
    Assistant Editor of Old-House Interiors

    Melissa Curry September 3, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    We have White Coffee-painted walls, judging by the label on a jar left over from the previous owners of our apartment. I would like to patch some spots in the same color. But I can’t find White Coffee on the Benjamin Moore website either. The closest I have come is Googling Benjamin Moore White Coffee 215-50 from a discount paint site, but that number currently corresponds to another Benjamin Moore color, Hampton Green, which is very different. Could you let me know if White Coffee is still available, or if the name or number has changed?

    Patricia Poore September 7, 2010 at 10:21 am

    David Berman of Trustworth Studios reports that he has called Benjamin Moore headquarters more than once, asking them to please bring back ‘White Coffee’, or to give him an alternate product number for the color. It was once a pre-mixed color, but is no longer.

    The company says it’s still easy to get that color: simply walk into any Benjamin Moore dealer and ask for it. A conversion chart in the store will give the dealer the custom mix formula.

    –P. Poore

    Dave Wilkinson December 8, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Is there a better time of year to wallpaper or does it matter?

    Thank you.

    Karen September 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    I am putting up wallpaper liner over painted and unpainted paneling. Do I need to prime first (even on the painted paneling?) and do I need to fill in the ridges of the wood paneling (with caulk) before priming/haning the wallpaper lining?? If I have to caulk – do I have to prime over the caulk before hanging the wallpaper liner – can I put the wallpaper liner directly over the caulked paneling (painted or unpainted)?? Thanks

    Lisa Jones February 11, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    I would like you to look at my rental home: 14 Mountain Terrace Upper Montclair NJ 07043 on Trulia and advise what color wallpaper to put into the rooms. The woodwork is chesnut.

    Please advise me.

    I have chosen:

    Subject: What is the cost per unit and what is the unit size of wallpaper that you sell for these patterns listed below?

    Dining Room: York Georgetown Designs Damask Resource page 34

    Living Room: Schumacher Dunwood Ombre Stripe page 70 color sand Stripe Collection

    Kitchen: Thibaut Small Print Resource Lotus page 132
    Thibaut Small Print Resource Primrose page 40
    Thibaut Stripe Resource II page 168 Fraulen stripe

    Bedrom Thibault Strip Res. III Walden Trellis page 162
    Thibaut Fairhaven Stripe page 92
    York Casabella surface pringed wallpaper pattern repeated 6.5 cm straight match width 20.5
    Farrow and Ball BP633

    Master Bedroom: Farrow and Ball – Tented Stripes ST1304

    Carol long August 9, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Question, please.
    Is it appropriate to carry over a small area of wallpaper from one room to the next ?. Not for a whole wall, but for a band above the molding ?. I thought it might tie the rooms together to the eye, or is it overkill?
    1890′victorian, small rooms.
    It is hard to tie the rooms together and not look chopped up. Would the same paper in small quantities do that? Thank you.

    F. Lynn June 29, 2015 at 11:12 am

    We would like to paint over wallpaper. Are there tips for best results or is it recommended to remove wallpaper first. This is a well maintained 1840′s home.

    Donna Blatherwick February 19, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Can you wallpaper over “orange peel” semi gloss paint?

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