Pretty as a picture

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was judged irredeemably naff. But wallpaper has been enjoying a huge revival in recent years. The design press has raved about how its boldness and panache provide a welcome antidote to po-faced minimalism. Bars and restaurants hang flamboyant wallpaper to enhance their theatrical atmosphere; and judging by the huge numbers of wallcoverings at 100% Design this year, it’s a trend that’s really taking off.

Even mosaic, which was also considered aesthetically demeaning a decade ago, is back, as are tiles and glass panels and screens. And adorning all these surfaces are audacious patterns in sumptuous colours.

Two major new trends are emerging. On the one hand, designers are cheekily subverting the convention of politely ordered patterns by distorting their symmetry or favouring sinister motifs over pretty ones. On the other hand, a slew of mosaic artists and designers is reviving the Belle Époque opulence of jazzily patterned interiors from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Cole & Son, which has manufactured hand-printed wallpapers since 1873, is launching its Waldorf Collection in collaboration with the American Royal Oak Foundation, which works with the National Trust and raises funds for the conservation of historic houses. It has reissued several designs from its archives, including the ritzy metallic-foil Paisley Flowers (blue blooms on silver) and geometric Manhattan design, inspired by Manhattan’s Art Deco glory days, which, in black and gold, is redolent of London’s 1970s Big Biba store.

No less sumptuous are the hand-dyed, silkscreened velvet, silk or crêpe de Chine wall panels of Jennifer Hughes. These feature delicate, hand-drawn patterns in the form of painterly mark-making or heat transfer-printing, the latter emulating ghostly, ethereal photograms (images created by placing objects on photosensitive paper, then exposing it to light).

The wallpapers of Natasha Marshall and Neil Fullerton, aka Squigee (which has supplied wallcoverings to London’s Myhotel Bloomsbury), turn jaunty, graphic 1960s-style motifs into calmly sophisticated patterns, thanks to a relatively classical, muted 1970s palette.

In contrast to this fetish for retro romanticism is a contemporary compulsion to debunk polite, suburban wallpaper by creating patterns that appear decorative but, on closer inspection, are disturbingly dystopian.

Lulling you into this false sense of security are the wallpapers of Andrew Hardiman, of Kuboaa. Their genteel hues, such as cucumber green and fawn, make them ostensibly inoffensive. But one paper, Escalating Man, comprises a trellis (a common pattern on posh 1970s wallpapers) that is, in fact, a network of interlacing escalators up which climb tiny human figures against a jungle backdrop. Hardiman describes it as ‘social commentary as well as wallpaper’, whose message (‘the everyday, cyclical monotony of going to work’) is only ‘revealed on closer inspection’. Well, well… Who’d have thought wallpaper had the potential to be existentialist?

Jenny Wilkinson revels in flouting expectations: scrutinise her apparently pretty-pretty Fancy Hammerhead wallpaper and you’ll find a repeat pattern of hammerhead sharks; come up close to her Venus Flutterby design and you’ll see a repeat print of butterflies and Venus flytraps. What’s more, her patterns aren’t uniformly coloured in, an ironic nod to Sunday painters’ paint-by-numbers canvases (the range is called Wallpapers-by-Numbers).

Timorous Beasties – showing at Designers Block as part of 100% Guaranteed – has gone a step further in lambasting wallpaper’s bourgeois, prissy respectability. Take its new paper, Oriental Orgy, which juxtaposes a decorous Japanese-style orchid print with fellating Manga figures. Or Glasgow Toile, an apparently pastoral toile de Jouy-style print that depicts winos boozing on benches or peeing in bushes.

Another trend is for brashly decorated mosaics and tiles that extravagantly envelop everything – floors, ceilings, roofs. Dominic Crinson, of Digitile, whose funky, digitally printed tiles were once created for covering walls, is launching a garden shed coated with tiles picturing jungle plant forms. And Marcel Wanders has adorned Bisazza’s stand by juxtaposing oversized baroque patterns with 1970s imagery, such as loud stripes and sports cars.

Ask these designers why there’s such a craze for wallcoverings and their theories, though hardly earth-shattering, are perfectly reasonable. Most believe it represents a backlash against minimalism – and mirrors fashion’s current flirtation with vibrant prints. ‘Walls have been unnecessarily boring for far too long,’ says Julia MacGibbon of Progetti Italiani. ‘What we’re seeing is a rich feast after a long famine.’

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