- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Wallpaper isn’t just paper anymore. Even the term “wall covering” hardly suffices to describe the range of offerings available to brighten walls.

Choices have gone way beyond rolls of pretty repetitive patterns to be pasted upon plain walls. Today’s cutting-edge styles have texture and even 3-D effects impressive and ambitious enough to qualify for art galleries.

Continuing a tradition, contemporary artists have embraced the form — to the point of including works on wallpaper in museum shows such as the one on view through Sept. 13 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in downtown Philadelphia. Called “On the Wall: Wallpaper and Tableau,” it features designs in varying sizes and styles by 29 artists.

Hand-painted custom-styled wall coverings come from a tradition that still is popular — at least among residents of luxury homes and hotels. In past centuries, the French and Chinese excelled in the art, with their work considered a rival to oil paintings in the 19th century.

Washington consumers need only visit the Design Center at 300 D St. SW for an update on current modes. Showrooms there are open for window shopping from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, but sales normally are made only through professional interior designers and architects. Useful Web sites for interested shoppers include www.wallcoverings.org, sponsored by the Wallcoverings Manufacturers Association, as well as www.wallpaper wallpaper.com and www.villagehom .com.

The range available in the Design Center indicates that something of a wallpaper revival is under way. Fanciful papers, damask designs and garden-theme papers such as the trellis look are in vogue, as well as textures of every kind, showroom managers report. Decorators and clients who look to wallpaper for special effects can buy hand-blocked wallpaper as easily as buying a lamp. No subject appears off limits for a wall.

At Hinson and Co., where the entire showroom is covered in natural straw fiber, a paper-backed vinyl covering from the Albert Hadley Collection called “Freshwater Fish” features outsized fish complete with instructions in longhand for the fisherman intent on catching one.

“You would be surprised at how popular wallpaper is,” says Karen Verenes, manager at the center’s Brunschwig and Fils, where some 1,700 wall-covering samples are on view. The price per roll ranges from $30 to $300. Most are sold in rolls 27 inches wide and 5 yards long, but size varies according to whether it is a so-called American or European measure. The latter roll is 21 inches wide and 11 yards long. At KirkBrummel, expensive hand-painted paper from China is sold in 3-foot-wide panels that can be framed like a painting.

An especially colorful and whimsical pictorial Brunschwig and Fils pattern resembles a trompe l’oeil version of bookshelves filled with books of all sizes. Called “Biblioteque,” it is meant mainly for bathrooms and libraries but also has been used to cover doorways. Some of the book titles have been left blank so the owner can fill in whatever names he likes — real or imaginary, serious or facetious.

Another fanciful selection is an old English pattern showing female figures doing laundry, most of them standing over ironing boards, which is just right for a laundry room as long as the woman of the house has a sense of humor.

More sedate choices, appropriate for common rooms in a house, include arresting modern imitations of art deco masters in luminous bronze and green shades. Toile — a floral or scenic design printed on fabric — often is used in conjunction with a similar pattern in fabric for upholstery and curtains.

A lot of what people choose often relates to what they had in their childhood homes, Mrs. Verenes says, but if sentiment plays a part, so does the size of the home being decorated.

“There is not any one place in a house to have paper; when people select paper, they tend to have it throughout the house,” she says.

Wallpaper plays a role on television and in films, as well, with some of the ivy print and damask wallpapers found in the many period shows of late helping drive the consumer market.

Los Angeles set decorator Leslie Pope searched out vintage wallpaper designs in Los Angeles and New York City to use in Universal’s movie “Seabiscuit.” One of them was a simple gray-blue floral and stripe pattern for a kitchen/dining area in a 1909 San Francisco apartment. It was chosen, she says, because it was typical of popular styles at the time and also because it worked best for the overall color progression of the film.

Another had a horse theme, appropriately enough, although the original green shade favored in the mid-1930s was considered too bright and was toned down by the movie’s graphic designer.

For most people, the taste and opinion of professional interior designers are key when it comes to deciding what goes on interior walls.

Frank Babb Randolph of Georgetown, who helped revitalize the interior of the vice presidential mansion, has definite opinions in the matter. He says he likes paper on ceilings, powder rooms, hallways and maybe a guest room, but nowhere else. A brilliant silver paper on a ceiling or dining room gives depth, he says. For a gentleman’s room in Vice President Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney’s house, he chose a gray-beige copy of an early 19th-century American pattern called “Spatterware,” originally found on floors. For the library, he chose a beige William Morris design. Through research, he discovered that the design was first shown in 1888 — the same year the mansion was built.

“I love using wallpaper, because I love a mix in a residence. And I love the warmth a wallpaper gives next to painted trims,” says Beverly Malatesta of Beverly Malatesta Interiors in the District, who characterizes her taste as mainly traditional. “You open your door and somehow it reads, ‘I’m baking cookies so come on in,’ even if it is a fairly formal house. It takes a huge Great Falls residence down a notch or two.”

Textured papers such as linen and grass cloth that project warmth are back in style, she confirms. “People today want homes to be as cozy and inviting as possible,” she says. Wall coverings also can provide a sense of richness and luxe. For one recent commission, she chose gold leaf paper for the bathroom to go along with a burgundy berry color and gold imprint on the walls of a nearby retreat room.

The downside of choosing wallpaper and coverings is the difficulty of finding paper installers who know their craft, says Mrs. Malatesta, who makes an exception for the Washington area. Often, she employs local craftsmen on out-of-town jobs rather than risk using unknown talent.

True believers find wallpaper adaptable in unusual ways. “I use leftovers for wrapping paper,” she says.

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