What is it about wallpaper that inspires giddy hopefulness mixed with dread? Perhaps it’s the vast number of options—each so easy to take, each holding the potential to be wrong. Given that the average local retailer can access some 620 sample books, wallpaper truly offers a “misery of choices.”
The phenomenon is not new. By the 1820s, consumers were already complaining about the paralyzing effect of the multitudes of colors and patterns. These days, the old-house decorator has the additional impact of “sticker shock,” since most reproduction wallpapers suitable for historical interiors tend toward the nosebleed end of the price scale. Another jolt comes with the bids from professional paperhangers. On the other hand, if you want to economize, you can buy lots of relatively cheap paper, pretrimmed and prepasted, but it is likely to be woefully unhistorical, fitting your rooms no better than a fluorescent light fixture fits a Gothic study.
How to make sense of it all? How, from this wonderful array, do you single out the one paper meant for your room? Then, how can you prevent what you imagine to be a weekend-long project from becoming the wallpapering job that ate your checkbook? Every old house is different, but after consulting on many historic interiors, I’ve found the following background to be valuable information for anyone getting serious about a wallpaper project.
1. Be Realistic
Do your homework to create a budget and timeline that supports a good project-not an expedient one. Trying to do wallpaper on the cheap is a good way to get—what else?—a cheap look. Homeowners should expect that, like good ceramic tile, flooring, or roofing, good wallpaper costs more than mediocre wallpaper—in many cases, far more. While a lot of wallpaper is still relatively inexpensive, the types appropriate for old houses are sometimes anything but. Ironically, a product that was once both cheap and abundant is now neither. Pity the poor old-home owner!
Nonetheless, with some creative thinking, historically appropriate wallpaper can be surprisingly affordable. For example, there has been a rash of new, paintable patterns (often embossed or raised) that can be decoratively painted or color-matched in such a way as to offer customized wall treatments at a fraction of the screenprint cost. With handprints, you are paying for patterns and colors. Sixteen colors means 16 screens, so if there are no colors and no patterns, the cost can be reduced drastically.
Another way of reducing cost is through careful study. If you can identify a certain documented look, then find no-name papers to re-create, for example, a paneled effect with a textured paper in a field surrounded by plain rails or stiles, you may be able to save big time.
2. Be True to Your House
Don’t fall in love with a pattern, then shoehorn it into a room; take time to find the paper that is right.Good reproduction wallpapers, like good reproduction lighting fixtures, are not interchangeable. An elaborate frieze that may perfectly set off the front hall of an 1890s town house would be a disaster practically anywhere else. Your house will provide plenty of stylistic hints but, again, take time for a bit of study before you buy. The key is to link up the clues in your interior with documentary evidence so that you have a sound direction before wading into the marketplace.
Remember too, don’t be too uptight about upkeep or the “cleanliness factor.” Wallpaper is meant to be enjoyed. Nothing is sadder than seeing a fine room that has been fussed over to the point that it resembles a museum. In fact, museums have learned to make their rooms “homey,” so don’t forget to keep your rooms livable.
3. Search for a Winner
Most “historic” patterns at retail fail because of color, design, or scale. Wallpaper is easy to find, but the right wallpaper is not. It seems that the better and more appropriate the wallpaper pattern, the harder it will be to locate. This goes double for historic patterns and old houses. Many hunters of reproduction wallpaper come to a belabored and puzzling conclusion: There doesn’t seem to be any. That’s because they’ve started looking in the most accessible places—mom-and-pop retailers, “big box” outlets, and trendy design collection stores, such as Ethan Allen and Ralph Lauren. Reproduction wallpaper is not readily identifiable even in showrooms, and it is less available by mail order.
The reality is, most “historic” patterns sold at retail are not meant for historic houses. They’re meant for mainstream consumers who want to dip their toes in history. If you’re a regular reader of Old-House Journal, though, you’re probably already knee-deep in the historical pond and looking for ways to go deeper.Noting if a product is prepasted and pretrimmed can be a tip-off on historical accuracy. Real reproduction wallpapers use the correct width, maintain the original scale, and try to get the colors right. In contrast, most retail wallpaper products come out with updated colors every two to three years, just as you would expect from a fashion industry. They are colored for today’s consumers, not yesterday’s, and that’s not you. Beware also of the words “adapted from” (textiles, cups, pottery) and “inspired by” (artwork, furniture, gardens). Even if these patterns are based on collections from the finest museums in the land, they are not reproduction wallpaper.
4. Cast Wallpaper Carefully
It’s a peculiar blend of the utilitarian and the stylish that can play many parts.In the drama of home decoration, you are the director. Wallpaper is a member of the ensemble of furnishings onstage in the room. As you orchestrate your project, ask yourself what role the wallpaper will play. Starring, supporting, or background? Along with aesthetics, this is an important budgetary decision that helps allocate resources. There may even be a place for wallpaper as character actor in one room that is obviously unique and proud of it.
5. Listen to Your Walls
They come in wide assortments of sizes, shapes, and materials, each with its own needs.There’s an old saying in the wallpaper trade that you never do exactly enough wall prep; it’s always a little too much, or not quite enough. As you plan your wallpaper installation, be sure you err on the right side. The wet/dry cycle of papering puts stress on a wall that never occurs with paint. Proper wall prep is a must, and taking shortcuts or skipping this step is only false economy.
Lucky indeed are many old-house owners because they have traditional plaster—the time-tested gold standard of wall finishes. Plaster resists damage, absorbs sound, and has great character of its own, often with a bit of roll that provides more visual interest than flat-as-a-pancake drywall. Plaster is an ideal base for paper, but even it needs to be properly cleaned and primed. Drywall is simply gypsum encased in cardboard. New drywall is suitable for wallpapering, but it must first be sealed in order to isolate the cardboard. Use a primer specifically developed for wallpaper—not a paint primer. Wallpaper primers contain adhesion promoters as well as sealers, and these all-purpose products suffice for most situations.
Painted plaster walls and painted drywall may both be papered but, again, a good job almost always requires an acrylic wallcovering primer to help with adhesion. In some cases (particularly for thin, all-over handprints and English pulp-type papers) a blankstock lining paper may be advisable, but not to bridge wall defects as you might think. In this case the purpose of the liner is to absorb the paste quickly and evenly, allowing for quicker drying and hanging.
6. Honor Your Paperhanger
Cost and complexity put many reproduction wallpaper projects in the professional’s league, so learn how to work with your installer. Professional paperhangers seem to be a vanishing species. Many of them work almost exclusively for decorators, especially in the big cities, and many are appropriately expensive. Yet with a little digging in a small town or city, you can probably locate more than one to bid on your project. As with any trade or profession, personal recommendations from clients with work similar to yours count for a lot. Ask the prospective paperhanger about the projects he or she has done, and especially if they are familiar with your type of paper and installation. Most professional paperhangers are highly creative. They might suggest options for wall prep—or even border placement and centering, and pattern placement—that you may not have thought about. The best approach is to find the right person and work with them in a collaborative way, rather than shop prices.
Paperhanging is a highly individual field. One installer may not have the skills of another, and prices for hanging seem to be all over the map. With all this in mind, a good rule of thumb is to “trust, but verify.” Get the right person involved early, then work together toward a creative, rather than cookbook, installation that brings out the best in your historical wallpaper.
Robert M. Kelly is the principal at WRN Associates in Lee, Massachusetts.