[Mieke ten Have] Making way through the seemingly endless circuitry that comprises the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (think mouse in maze, hunting for gruyère), I was searching for that elusive visual moment of pure design lust. Not s
urprisingly, given my predilections, I discovered it in a set of wallpaper panels by the artist and designer Deborah Bowness.
I had been captured by trompe l’oeil, that centuries-old precursor to Surrealism, manifested in what appeared to be a wall of books and a neo-Victorian living room. It was indeed wallpaper — silkscreened, then hand painted by Bowness — and upon this realization, I quickly filed this work under my “paper porn” category. From afar, my eyes told me the wallpaper was indeed the set of 3D objects it sought to represent. It is this idea of a departure from reality in panoramic and trompe-l’oeil wallpaper that has me defending certain manufacturers as not just artisans, but artists.
My first wallpaper coup de foudre occurred in childhood. My grandparents’ Federal-style dining room was papered in Zuber Cie’s Vues d’Amérique du Nord, designed in 1834. Vues presents a Utopian vision of blacks and whites, dressed elegantly and industriously, marveling at the site of Niagara Falls, surveying bustling trade in Boston Harbor, and viewing the beauty and commerce of West Point and the New York harbor.
Zuber supposedly spent time in the newly established country; whether he did or not, this depiction of the nascent nation was surely designed as a model for his own country to emulate. Monarchy-less France was still negotiating the terms of its tenuous government, and I can’t help but think Zuber wished to portray the emancipated neighbor across the pond as a beacon of hope.
Even in the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy recognized the national ideals inherent in this paper, selecting it for the diplomatic reception room of the White House.
Of course, it wasn’t the interpretation of Jacksonian America that enthralled me as a child. It was the activity, the expression and the self-possessed world it presented that held my attention. Looking at it was like viewing a moving feast of peoples and scenery, transfixed in an immobile world that went on without end or reference to the room it surrounded. I thought it transgressed its own vistas.
This was sort of the point, too. Wallpaper had come a long way from its role as a substitution for those who couldn’t afford rich tapestries to hang on their walls. It now presented an immobile way to see a largely inaccessible world, and to celebrate new ideals of nationalism and patriotic pride.
The dining room at the Wentworth Gardner house, in Portsmouth, N.H., boasts another example of panoramic wallpaper that I am completely enamored of. Papered in Dufour et Cie’s Fêtes de la Grace et Jeux Olympiques, the dining room panels were installed in 1919, supposedly transplanted from a house somewhere in Massachusetts. As with Zuber, Dufour was capitalizing on growing tastes and demands for wallpaper — and this burgeoning market also signaled the recognition of wallpaper as an art unto itself.
Fêtes de la Grâce et Jeux Olympique celebrates Classical Greco–Roman ideals in the form of an ornate chariot, carrying the presumptive Olympian, pulled by leopards. A host of women, men and cherubic children serve as entourage, indulging in Bacchanal pleasures and playing a myriad of instruments. It’s truly lyrical. This neoclassical tableau was another example of state ideals manifesting itself in interior decoration and the arts.
Dufour was perhaps best known, however, for Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, above, which depicts the travels of Captain Cook (though it really was a mélange of Cook’s accounts and more recent discoveries). It is entirely neoclassic in spirit, despite its exotic subject matter. The colors are exquisitely vivid, and as with Zuber’s panels, it was completed entirely by hand with hundreds of woodblocks. If Vues de l’Amérique du Nord presented a Jacksonian ideal, Les Sauvages presented a Rousseauian ideal. That idea of the noble savage, existing beautifully beyond the trappings of civilization, was of course a Western construct that Europeans thirsted for. Sauvages is a perfect example of the purpose of panoramic wallpaper — it serves as escape.
Though Dufour is no longer in existence, Zuber is still thriving in the high-end niche of the interior design world. While I can’t be more elated to see firms maintaining the quality and vision of the panoramic papers of the early 19th century, I would like to see more artisans re-envisioning the genre. This surely is one of the reasons I was struck by Deborah Bowness’ work. While her subject matter does not have the scope of a grand world tour, it re-imagines everyday objects in the most perplexing of ways; her subversion of the banal offers a dimension beyond our own. Bowness’ wallpaper presents an alternative reality equally escapist as Dufour’s.
Handmade wallpaper ought to transform a space beyond simple decoration. Paper has the capacity to take us beyond the walls it covers, and that surely is an artistic feat worthy of study, admiration, and in my case, complete obsession.
Mieke ten Have, formerly with Domino magazine, is the decorating editor of the recently launched mydeco.com U.S. She also publishes a blog, The Paper Trail, which we recommend for students of the paper arts.
Image credits, from top: 1 & 2, Deborah Bowness; 3, 4 & 5, Zuber Cie; 6, Philip Case Cohen