Up Against The Wall

Panorama wallpapers

One of my great pleasures as a child was walking 'into' the wallpaper and imagining myself among the forms, completing their story," recalls fine artist Elizabeth Murray. "I always sensed wallpaper was something beyond mere decoration." Some of the world's most transporting wallpapers to "walk into" are the sublime landscapes of Zuber et Cie. Designed in France in the mid-1800s and still handcrafted in the same manner today, they surround a room with a panorama of up to 24 different panels, extending the visual space of the interior and bringing the outdoors in.

Between 1804 and 1860, Zuber Manufacture de Papiers Peints produced more than 25 of these panoramas. At the time, European industrialization had inspired a romanticization of landscapes, and the wallpapers luxuriated in scenes of exotic countries real and imagined, ancient ruins, and pastoral idylls.

The 19th-century process by which these papers are still made at Zuber et Cie in France is labor-intensive, requiring hundreds of hand-carved pearwood blocks. (These blocks were recently deemed an historic monument by the French government.) Unfortunately, the method of carving the blocks is virtually a lost art; a set for one panorama took up to 20 engravers a full year to complete. For some panels, 70 to 80 different woodblocks might be required, applied one by one in an exacting order. To create the horizon, four people work simultaneously using a complex hand-brushing technique, producing a velvety matte. The papers are then refined by hand and dried on huge racks.

One of Zuber's grandest panoramic papers is El Dorado. Its 24 panels depict idealized views of Europe, Asia, Africa—an homage to the Grand Tours young aristocrats took in the 1840s, when the design was first produced. Another panorama of American landscapes, Les Vues de L'Amérique du Nord, requires 1,690 different woodblocks and 223 colors. Jacqueline Kennedy was so taken by its beauty and historical significance that she had it installed in the White House in the 1960s.

Zuber et Cie's wallpapers are astonishing in their scale and painterly attention to coloration, shading, and detail. Adorned with classical architecture and ruins, lush flora and wide skies, mythological themes or aristocratic pastimes, the papiers peints give the illusion that a room contains a work of art, becoming in effect fine paintings themselves.

Prices upon request. 979 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022; 212-486-9226.