Stripping away wallpapers' dowdy image

Two years ago when I started stripping the wallpaper from the first of six papered rooms in my 90-year-old house, I would have never suspected that today I'd be checking out wall covering design houses online and asking decorator friends if they knew a good paper hanger.

I've lived in old houses my entire adult life, and they've all had bad wallpaper in common. English ivy climbing the walls. Tiny pink and yellow flowers suspended in a burgundy field. Sometimes layers had been applied one on top of the other, strata of bad taste. As for removing wallpaper, I'd rather unclog a toilet. After hours of spraying stinking chemicals, running the steam machine, scraping, and filling trash bags with wet, sticky paper, the job is not even half done. Gluey residue still needs to be wet-scraped and sanded away or new paint will "alligator," and the nail holes, cracks, and missing chunks of plaster all need to be repaired, smoothed, and primed.


My many experiences with removing wallpaper have resulted in a more than strong aversion to the material. So imagine my surprise when I started saving images of wallpapered spaces, loving designer show house rooms that let big, bold printed papers set the tone. It's true: My name is Dennis, and I like wallpaper.

An antidote to boxy, cookie cutter rooms lacking in architectural interest, fresh, fun wallpaper designs offer an elegant solution. To get some insider perspective on what's new with wallpaper design, I spoke with interior designers Michelle Miller, Dana Tydings and Nestor Santa-Cruz.


Washington-based designer Nestor Santa-Cruz suggests that he's been using more wallpaper of late, "because companies are coming out with more modern, larger, fresher, patterns."

Similarly, Michelle Miller of Baltimore's Jenkins Baer Associates observes, "Wallpaper designers are beginning to embrace bolder geometries and looking at historical archives to find patterns that worked years ago and remake them in a fresh new way. Gone are the days of heavy floral patterns — and if they are used, they tend to be more dramatically scaled and in bolder colors."

One my favorite rooms that we've published in Chesapeake Home lately, was designed by Miller for a client's hip Federal Hill bachelor pad. The house itself featured great art and contemporary furnishings as well as a glamorous dining room — walls papered with a metallic Osborne & Little geometric pattern.

"The dining room was nearly complete with furniture when I discovered the new wallpaper collection from Osborne & Little," Miller says. "The space needed something unique to lift it up and pull it together, and wallpaper was the perfect solution."

Another way wallpaper designers are overcoming 1980s stereotypes is by featuring more negative or "white" space in the overall pattern. A recent show house room by Dana Tydings with the Gaithersburg firm Tydings Design featured the Robert Crowder & Company "Birch Tree" mural depicting a stylized grove of winter trees set against a pure white background.

"A lot of people are surprised when I use wallpaper," Tydings says, "but I am seeing some really great, fresh designs from companies like Elitis, Anya Larkin, and Cole & Son, as well as the Robert Crowder paper I used in the show house room. When I use wall coverings, it is usually to expand or contract a space, to change the spatial quality of a room. The tree paper helps create an expansion like you might feel in a glass enclosed vestibule."

Some of Santa-Cruz's favorite lines include Lulu DK, Elitis, Ralph Lauren for what they are doing to make wallpapers hipper and more fun.

"I like Farrow & Ball," Santa-Cruz says, "even though they tend to be more traditional, they are developing larger scale patterns and updated colors to create a more modern look. The 'Lotus Papers', for example, derive from a 19th century French archival print, but Farrow & Ball has adapted the design and size of the pattern to make it more contemporary."


Santa-Cruz also suggests wallpaper can infuse a fairly non-descript space with character. "In a condo," he says, "I might use the same wallpaper as an accent wall in different rooms to make a statement — to substitute for the architectural interest something like an exposed stone wall might provide."

To diminish installation and removal frustrations that have pushed many a homeowner toward paint, new paper and adhesive technologies make such tasks easier than ever. But the best reasons to give wallpaper a second chance are today's fresh new designs. Once upon a time, a certain amount of wallpaper was expected throughout the home, but today, using wallpaper is unexpected, which is exactly why it works.