Brave New Walls

The new wave of wallpaper design puts the focus on sophisticated graphic prints.

Two years ago, Cole & Son, a British wallpaper firm founded in 1873, introduced a new line of wallcoverings. Called the New Contemporary Collection, it featured patterns of flamingos and hot-pink paisleys culled from its fifties and sixties archives. This was a dramatic change of pace for a company known for damasks and traditional offerings. Before long, however, these new designs were snatched up and hung on the walls of some of London's most exclusive clubs (Soho House, for one) and fashionable shops, such as those of designers Paul Smith and Stella McCartney. The latter created the effect of a contemporary-style parlor by papering her London flagship with Cole & Son's graphic orchid, butterfly, and dragonfly prints, which helped accent the building's original Georgian moldings.

Once considered hopelessly outdated, wallpaper has reestablished itself in today's interiors as style aficionados develop patterns reflecting their particular aesthetic. The prolific Karim Rashid, for example, has created numerous graphic papers in bold colors, most recently a bright pink organic one for the new Singapore restaurant Nooch. Petra Blaisse, an Amsterdam-based interior and landscape designer best known for her collaborations with the architect Rem Koolhaas, devised a collection of eight patterns made from photographs of fur, felt, and textile threads, all enlarged to a grand scale. And last fall the vanguard Dutch designer Marcel Wanders made a custom run of wallpaper—featuring a lacy pattern of large abstract hexagons—to adorn the entryway of New York's Hotel on Rivington.

"Wallpaper has really taken on a modern attitude," says the New York interior designer Steven Sclaroff, who also owns a shop of the same name. "It's now being used in contemporary settings to make a decorative statement."

While the increased demand for pattern-rich wallpaper seems to have coincided with the wane of nineties' minimalism, other factors are fueling the trend. "Fashion is now a big influence," explains Karen Beauchamp, the design director of Cole & Son, which recently launched a follow-up collection of delicate graphic flowers in periwinkle on taupe, large textured circles, and overscale lilies sketched to resemble beautiful botanical drawings. "And on the catwalk," she continues, "there's pattern everywhere."

Cole & Son's latest papers reflect the design world's ongoing infatuation with the mid-20th century, emphasizing organic shapes and soft colors such as mustard, avocado, sky blue, pink, and brown. Others, like those from the New Orleans firm Flavor Paper, recall the seventies with their geometric patterns and vibrant swirls printed on Mylar. (Foil and metallic finishes have also recently gained in popularity.)

Still others—among them Glasgow's Timorous Beasties, New York's Studio Printworks, and Brooklyn-based designer Wook Kim—have thrown into the mix fresh takes on lush historical motifs. Euro Damask paper, by Timorous Beasties, has a maplike motif fashioned from the rearranged borders of European countries.

A selection of these wallpapers are printed by hand, produced in small runs, and available in custom colors. "People always want to personalize their spaces in a unique way, and wallpaper really allows them to do that," explains Kyra Hartnett, who with her husband, Robertson, launched a successful wallpaper and textile company called Twenty2 two years ago. Offering a variety of hand-silkscreen patterns (grids broken at regular intervals and circles filled out using thatched lines, for example), the Brooklyn-based firm recently ventured into innovative territory by introducing an array of wallpaper strips that can be oriented horizontally, vertically, or even diagonally.

The versatility of these contemporary papers is seemingly infinite. More exuberant interior decorators have been known to cover every possible surface with it, from walls to ceilings and even furniture. Wallcoverings are also often being applied to just a single wall so that, Beauchamp says, "it becomes like a painting."

Adventurous patterns are also well suited to less spacious areas—bathrooms, foyers, and the like—where they can add liveliness to an interior without overpowering it. For the Manhattan home of the fashion accessories designers Kate and Andy Spade, Sclaroff installed the same grand zebra pattern that the couple had admired in the 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. "It was great for their small hallway space," says Sclaroff, who had the paper custom-printed for the pair in a bright apple green.

Those who aren't quite ready for giant zebra stripes or extravagant Mylar still have plenty of options. New types of fibers, monochrome grass cloth, faux leathers, and even cork wallcoverings offer a modern yet subtle look.

"There's a suppleness and richness to these papers," says Twenty2's Hartnett. "They're perfect for people who are maybe a little afraid of pattern but want something more than just a basic wall."

Such textured wallpapers provide a pleasingly neutral background. Others allow you to combine patterns and styles. "I like mixing periods," Beauchamp says. She finds that Cole & Son's modern collections work especially well with, for example, 18th-century-style furniture.

"It's funny. We used to be considered traditional with a contemporary twist," Beauchamp says. "Now our company is contemporary with a traditional twist."

Cole & Son wallpaper is available through Lee Jofa, 201 Central Ave. South, Bethpage, NY; 800-453-3563; www.cole-and-son.com. $ Flavor Paper, 4213 Chartres St., New Orleans; 504-944-0447; www.flavorleague.com. Twenty2, 888-222-3036; www.shoptwenty2.com.


Artist-Designed Wallpapers

For those seeking truly unique wallcoverings, the best place to look may be a gallery. "Artists have been designing papers since at least the time of Albrecht Dürer," says Gregory Herringshaw, an assistant curator at New York's Cooper-Hewitt museum, which last year mounted a show of top examples. The more famous artists include ANDY WARHOL, with his yellow cows printed on a cobalt-blue background, and the seemingly ubiquitous TAKASHI MURAKAMI, who recently featured googly-eyed balls on bubble gum-pink paper. VIRGIL MARTI's bold orange flowers, KIKI SMITH's weeping willow branches, WILLIAM WEGMAN's famous Weimaraners, and the work of disparate artists from JENNY HOLZER to JOHN BALDESSARI have also made their way to the wall. Most of these papers come in limited editions and can only be acquired through the artists' galleries.

Printed Matter sells papers by both emerging and established artists. Prices upon request. Printed Matter, 535 W. 22nd St., NYC; 212-925-0325; www.printedmatter.org.


Beyond the Basics

Utilizing everything from buttons to fishnet stockings, a few designers are reinventing the entire concept of wallpaper.

LOUISE BODY
Trained as a painter, London-based Louise Body creates delicate papers populated with fluttering butterflies and dainty birds. All her work is finished by hand—she colors in the berries and birds herself—which makes for a very custom look. $ Pavilion Birds, 11-yard roll, from $140. 44-1273/711-601; www.louisebodywallprint.com

TRACY KENDALL
She first gained attention for her wallpaper printed with single feathers and cutlery. Now Tracy Kendall, who works out of London, fashions paper lined at the edges with buttons and buttonholes, ready to be fastened together. Others are stitched together corset-style, embellished with sequins, or made of layered abstract shapes. $ In the White Room. Papers, from $180 per image. 44-207/640-9071; www.tracykendall.com

WILLEM VAN ES
The Dutch-Canadian designer's rich work incorporates the unconventional: banana bark, fishnet stockings, even eye shadow. New York-based Willem van Es makes his reptile-skin patterns by stretching hairnets onto paper, which is then pigmented and shellacked. A more subtle option is the fibrous wallcoverings speckled with mica flakes. Tatami Splits in Pewter, ten-yard roll, from $500. www.wvedesign.com

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