PHOTOGRAPHY: KEN HUNT
For a couple of decades, wallpaper was the home-decor equivalent of the schoolyard outcast: snubbed and ignored, and spending most of its time hiding out at grandma’s house. Since then, wallpaper has had a gradual and serious makeover, suddenly becoming the most popular, best-dressed kid in class. Think hand-painted, artisanal, designer. Think Gucci.
Just as technological advances remake our smartphones every year, they’ve led to similar upgrades in wall coverings. “European technology has really changed the way we wallpaper today,” says Katie Hunt, a wallpaper installer and the owner of Toronto-based Katie’s Wallpaper Installation. “The technology behind it has drawn it to the forefront.”
There are two main reasons. New substrates – the “paper” in wallpaper, the material that the designs are printed on – have come on the market made of multiple fibres and layers, making a whole new range of design effects possible. The second reason is the rise of digital printing. “You see lots of murals now, things that are custom, not like rolls of wallpaper sitting in a warehouse,” Hunt says. “You can print on demand and ship worldwide.”
It’s led to an explosion of new designs, materials, textures: grasscloths made of natural fibres, metallics, geometrics, florals, murals – across all price-points, from the big box stores and online home retailers to specialty workshops that hand-paint designs to order and ship them worldwide. That easy ability to order custom, one-of-a-kind looks or iconic fashion-house designs, such as Gucci’s tiger, has made wallpaper especially popular with designers.
“Florals have made this gigantic comeback,” Hunt says. Especially popular are large floral murals, often on black or dark backgrounds, or more monochromatic floral-inspired murals with a watercolour-wash effect, brands such as Ellie Cashman, Anewall, Emma Hayes. “This is not your grandmother’s wallpaper.”
Contemporary designs are very artsy, she says. “They use watercolours, they layer paper, it has so much more depth and character that old papering just couldn’t do. Digital printing brings so much lifelikeness to them.”
Choosing a wallpaper can be a jumping off point for the design of a whole room: setting a mood, inspiring other colour and fabric choices. “You can build your whole colour scheme just from the sample, pick a blue or a soft pink out of it,” Hunt says.
Another advantage of the new technologies, she adds, is that most wallpapers are washable, easy to clean, non-flammable, odourless, non- toxic, and VOC-free, a concern for clients who want to use wallpaper in a nursery or their young children’s rooms.
If you’re looking at online designs, Hunt recommends ordering a sample first, if it’s available, just to be sure. If you’re feeling tentative, she suggests starting small, doing a powder room or foyer, or one accent wall. Many of the clients and designers she works with are going bold now, she says, doing whole rooms, entire houses in wallpaper. It’s also showing up in places it never used to be – on ceilings, for example. “Ceilings are one of the places where I think we’ll see more (wallpapering),” she says. “Not everything will work on a ceiling though.”
As someone who spends her days and makes her living installing wallpaper, Hunt says there are advantages to having a professional do it for you. Those oversize patterns and murals can make installation tricky – they come in numbered rolls and there aren’t any pattern repeats; messing up can cost you. Older-style products still come pre-pasted and need to be soaked, making it difficult to hide seams. The European-style substrates go on more seamlessly, but the paste must be applied to the wall first, then paper added. Wall preparation is also important: in new construction, walls need a primer and at least two coats of paint first. Using a sealer will make eventual removal much easier. Some companies make tintable primers specifically for coloured wallpapers.
There are professional hazards to hanging wallpaper for a living, Hunt says, it can get addictive. She often gets tempted by new designs she sees and regularly repapers rooms in her own home. She put her latest find, a Phillip Jeffries wood-veneer geometric pattern, in her foyer. “Yes,” she laughs. “My whole house is papered.” •