Heritage Home Series – Wall Coverings
By Johanne Yakula
What are appropriate wall coverings for my heritage home?
Faux painted wall finishes have taken center stage for the last dozen or so years, therefor it is good news for owners of heritage homes that this is slowly changing. Nothing creates the perfect backdrop for a restored or period – style house like appropriate wall coverings.
Few original wall coverings have survived intact due to the constant changes in fashionable taste throughout the years. Changing wallpaper, or rather adding another layer onto an existing one, was a relatively quick and inexpensive way to create a new look in one’s home at the turn of the century. This was not always the case.A BRIEF “BACKGROUND” ON WALLPAPER
As early as the mid sixteenth century, it was discovered that a design made on paper that was pasted onto a wall in a repeating pattern provided a pleasing backdrop. It was not until the early years of the nineteenth century that a commercial paper rolling machine replaced the painstaking overlapping of sheets of handmade paper to create a sheet of wallpaper.
Designs were first hand painted, then eventually hand blocked to create images of amazing complexity. Realistic murals could use over a hundred blocks, each representing a different color. Today, existing wallpapers of this caliber are preserved as works of art. Manufacturing wallpaper was incredibly labor intensive, therefor it is not surprising that few except the very wealthy could afford it in their homes.
Most wallpaper was imported from England and France until the mid 1850’s, when factories opened on this side of the Atlantic. The burgeoning middle class Victorians embraced this decorating element the way they did every other outward expression of newly acquired wealth – without restraint. Decorating gurus preached about the benefits of wallpaper and soon it embellished every inch of walls that were not covered by woodwork.OTHER WALL COVERINGS
Just as today, homeowners in the last century had choices in what to use to decorate their walls. A few of these choices deserve mention here since often they were used in conjunction with wallpaper:
Lincrusta - Walton Created in 1877 by the man who invented linoleum in the mid 1850’s, Frederick Walton .Lincrusta was the “ultimate in imitation”, and it sought to be bring upper class elegance to middle class walls. It was made of a putty - like compound of linseed oil backed by heavy canvas. Praised for its durability, it even decorated the exterior of Pullman cars! Its heavily embossed surface could be painted, glazed, and made to emulate wood, leather, and metal finishes. Compared to carved wood, leather paneling on walls, Lincrusta provided a lower cost alternative.
Anaglypta Anaglypta was invented in 1887 as a less expensive alternative to Lincrusta. It was a heavy weight paper that got much of its strength from its high cotton rag content. It was embossed in many designs and could be painted just like Lincrusta.
Tin Walls and ceilings could be covered in light metal sheets that were embossed to imitate plaster designs. Attached to a framework of furring strips, tin covered walls could be painted or left bare. Although some homeowners used this treatment in kitchens or service rooms, it was especially favored for commercial and institutional use.
Fabric: Arts and Crafts interiors featured panels of burlap, silk or grass cloth on the walls which were painted and often stenciled.DESIGN INFLUENCES
In a previous article, I discussed the division of walls as a decorative element in a room. The tripartite wall featured a dado or wainscot,(above the baseboards) a field, (the center portion of the wall) and a frieze (next to the ceiling). This division of walls quickly identifies a Victorian room C1875. In order to create pleasing proportions, ceilings were at least 10 feet or higher. Wallpaper in designs which both harmonized and contrasted with each other covered each element in the tripartite wall. Ceilings were not ignored, but rather became the “fifth wall”. Often wallpaper was used in conjunction with stenciling.
Arts and crafts inspired interiors had higher wainscots or dados, along with a frieze eliminating the “field’. Wainscots were made of panels of natural wood, or painted fabric or simply painted. As the twentieth century progressed, especially after the first world war, the field predominated .
Patterns in wall coverings followed the fashions of the day. Rococo and Renaissance revival styles each created their own stylistic influences, dominating the world of interior decor into the late 1880’s. This led a group of late 19th century writers on decorative arts to set out to reform design. They sought first to educate the industrial designer, and eventually the public on the evils of excess ornamentation.
The Aesthetic style, and the Gothic revival styles were the first attempts at simplification which paved the way for acceptance of the even simpler Arts and Crafts style. The influential “Art and Decoration” magazine in the late 1880’s conceded, saying that “excess ornamentation is more suitable in theatres and other public buildings but decorating in the home should be of a more restful nature”.THE HERITAGE HOME TODAY
Never before has there been such a bewildering array of wallpapers to choose from when decorating one’s home. Instead of making this easier, it makes it even more difficult unless the heritage homeowner has done some research.
If you are fortunate enough to have existing wallpaper in the room, this will provide you with some information. Closets are a great place to check for original designs since they were not papered as often as the rest of the room. Removing wallpaper may just be one of the most difficult task you may face in restoring a house. As technology improved, the types of papers and glues used to bind them changed as well. Overall removal of the wallpaper using steamers, or solvents may be impossible if the wallpapers were weak and well adhered to a porous plaster or wood surface. If you do manage to get to the original wall surface, it will probably be necessary to paper the walls with lining paper just as our ancestors did to provide better adhesion and even out the walls before papering with the design of your choice.
If your home is of significant historic importance, professional help from a paper conservator may be just the answer. Even if it is not, and like many homeowners, you choose to remove the wall to re - insulate, and update electrical functions, saving bits and pieces of wall covering will provide you with excellent information on what used to be there. Documenting the designs, and saving the pieces in a scrapbook will serve as important information for the future.HINTS FOR THE HOMEOWNER
Keep the following in mind when preparing to choose your wallpaper:
- Be careful of creating divisions where none existed. I.e.: a
tripartite wall in a room with less than a ten foot ceiling. Keep the
proper proportions because nothing throws a room off balance more than
incorrect wall divisions.
Wallpapers can be found through specialty sources. From Times Past can special order lincrusta, anaglypta, and a new product called “Retro Art”. Check out the premier specialist of reproduced wallpaper Bradbury and Bradbury online. Knowing the essential design elements that are appropriate for your home will also enable you to sift through contemporary wall covering books to unearth possible choices.
Original wallpapers or appropriate facsimiles contribute immeasurably to the identity and historic integrity of a room. The effort expended in the decision making process will ensure compatibility for years to come!
Written by Johanne Yakula
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