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Wallpaper adds another layer to home decorating

Modern looks are bolder, more exotic and easier to use

By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun

4:55 PM EDT, June 29, 2012

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There was a time when wallpaper was reminiscent of grandma's parlor and furniture with plastic slipcovers, but those days are so over. What's haute now: the era of wallpaper 'wow.'

Wallpaper is experiencing a renaissance, design aficionados say, one that eschews staid and stuffy designs and ushers wallcoverings into the 21st century.

The current crop of wallpaper is more sophisticated, incorporating bolder, exotic and art-inspired palettes. Sheila Bridges, the celebrity designer to stars like P. Diddy, has a tongue-in-cheek historical line of wallpapers. There's even peel-and-stick wall art such as WallPops, a new line from trend-setting decor guru Jonathan Adler. And that's just a taste of the wallpaper craze.

"It's a very exciting time for wallpaper," says Carey Jacobs, an interior designer who heads Carey Lind Designs in Hunt Valley. "In the '80s and early '90s, it wasn't uncommon to see an entire house wallpapered. … Then the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme, and the trend was no paper and only paint. Today there's a better balance."

Jacobs not only designs wallpaper, she's got it in her DNA. In 1895, her family founded York Wallcoverings in York, Pa., which the company promotes as America's oldest and largest wallpaper manufacturer.

York produces nine designer wallpaper brands of its own, as well as for top names including Brunschwig & Fils, F. Schumacher, Thibaut and Anthropologie.

York's team cranks out more than 15,000 designs, using myriad colors and such materials as flocked fiber, Swarovski crystals, sand and recycled glass.

Those collections are just one example of the vast selection of wallpaper available from suppliers nationwide. Locally, Plymouth Wallpaper Co., also founded in 1895, has two Baltimore-area stores that carry millions of rolls.

Consumers considering wallpaper have aesthetic options galore to explore.

Think one-of-a-kind hand-blocked designs, classic Chinoiserie, plaids, stripes and Asian-inspired florals. Then there are retro and tropical designs, as well as novelty themes. And whimsical trompe l'oeil looks that mimic concrete, brick and library bookcases.

"Wallpaper has come such a long way," says Darlene Molnar, an interior designer in Washington, whose eponymous firm works with clients in Maryland and beyond. "It's more affordable, there's a broader selection and it's quicker to put up."

Autumn Conrad, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Interior Designers, notes that many of its members report they are increasingly using wallpaper for residential and commercial projects.

Molnar turned to chic wallpaper to add extra style to a model townhouse in National Harbor that was later spotlighted on an HGTV segment. And not long ago, the designer chanced upon a roll of vintage 1940s wallpaper at Housewerks, a Baltimore warehouse that carries salvaged architectural, industrial and decorative objects. Molnar was giddy about her find, and she framed the delicate paper as art.

"Wallpaper can help any room make a statement," she says. "It can be simple, or very opulent, very luxurious."

That's true of the designs coming out of New York City, a hub for interior design trends.

Among the wallpaper purveyors with buzz is the Andrew Martin Showroom in Manhattan (there's also a location in Los Angeles), where the wallpaper lines mimic natural elements such as stone, wood and leather.

At Eskayel, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based design studio, expensive custom wallpaper is adorned with graphic, whimsical patterns, such as the Poolside collection, inspired by the suburban pool culture of the 1960s.

"Wallpaper is making a comeback because it is a form of accessible and affordable art," says Shanan Campanaro, an artist and textile designer who leads the firm. "Designers, some with formal artistic training like myself, experiment with and constantly apply new techniques and textures when reproducing hand-painted watercolor pieces."

Eskayel's colorful wallpapers and fabrics start out as paintings, Campanaro notes. She takes small sections of those works, then digitally reinvents and manipulates them into designs.

Meanwhile, the team at York Wallcovering says it's one of the only companies in North America that still produces surface prints — using its original century-old presses — alongside state-of-the-art printing technologies.

They use simply colored designs to lend visual depth to designs in two or three colors. At close range, they have a distinctive painterly effect.

Such touches make wallpaper suitable for every room of the house, says Jacobs.

"There are no rules about using wallpaper. My clients are having fun experimenting with scale, texture, and pattern," she says. "It's all about layering and choosing the areas you want to highlight."

While some designers prefer to use wallpaper as an accent — for instance, to punch up a powder room — designer Molnar says she's not averse to using wallpaper throughout the entire room.

"It takes some convincing because many homeowners are nervous," she says. "But you can go for it all the way and get beautiful results."

Another thing that wallpaper newbies may find intimidating, experts say, is the process of putting it up.

Design pros stress that improved methods now exist.

"The old school way was slapping glue on the paper and applying it to the wall like that 'I Love Lucy' episode where they get trapped in the wallpaper," Molnar says.

Yet the industry has worked to make improvements. The glues are different, for example, since you apply them to the wall and then the paper. And many of the newer nontoxic adhesives can be removed rather easily. "You're not stuck with them forever."

Wallpaper has also become more eco-friendly. York now utilizes nonpolluting water-based inks and uses paper from managed forests in its manufacturing process.

And Eskayel offers an eco-friendly commercial-grade wallcovering containing over 20 percent recycled content.

With so many options, Jacobs says, it's a cinch to find wallpaper that matches your style and budget.

"Homeowners are looking to personalize their homes and express their personality through their decorating," she says. "Wallpaper offers so many choices."