Paper Thin

Wallpaper makes a comeback \\ Faire Le Mur is at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris until 12 June 2016.

Love it or hate it or indeed learn to love it again: wallpaper is showing its face once more. There has actually been quite a long stretch since its former time of glory, so it seems only natural that wallpaper is now back in favour. Compliments of the current exhibition at the Decorative Arts museum in Paris, we are able to peruse and absorb the gamut of types that exist. What’s more, as these are presented in careful combination with historic samples through the ages, we also gain a much richer understanding of what this very particular accessory means to the décor of a room.

Anna Sansom February 2016
While wallpaper enjoys an interiors revival, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris chronicles four centuries of wallpaper design in its exhibition Faire Le Mur. On display are 300 examples from the museum’s collection of 400,000. These include a zebra pattern by fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, spatial silver swirls by Zaha Hadid, faux-malachite plates by Piero Fornasetti, and two collections by Le Corbusier, as well as numerous historical creations.

“Our new director [Olivier Gabet, who joined the museum in 2013] wanted to exhibit this exceptional collection of wallpaper without any outside loans”, explains curator Véronique de la Hougue. The starting point, she says, was to simply ask the question: What is wallpaper? “For me, it’s a paper or a support upon which one puts a drawing or a colour, which varies from one era to another, with the size of the motifs changing too”, she clarifies.
The idea of wallpaper dates back to the 1400s, when hand-painted paper was adopted in Europe as an alternative to tapestries or panelling by the lower echelons of society. Early wallpaper comprised of small squares of woodblock-printed paper; the more complicated the design, the more costly the paper, since more blocks were required. In the 1600s, the French made wallpaper more acceptable through imitating stylish fabrics and needlework. Towards the end of the 17th century, a new innovation led to sheets of wallpaper being joined together to form a roll. Then, in the 1780s, the French invented machine-printed wallpaper, which heralded widespread usage.
Rather than taking a chronological approach, the exhibition is structured around six themes. These are based on ennobling, imagining, disguising, storytelling, inspiring, and playing with the wall. The first room examines wallpaper’s ornamental capacity, with pieces including 18th century arabesque wallpaper by Réveillon, along with Studio Job’s recent skeleton motif.

The subsequent room explores how artistic genres have been reinterpreted. This moves onto 18th and 19th century optical tricks, such as using painted lace and drapery to create the illusion of texture and volume. How art historical references such as Etruscan, Neoclassical, Neo-Gothic, and Oriental- ism have inspired wallpaper designs, are also investigated. One of these exhibits is a trompe-l'oeil effect by Maison Margiela, a pale grey wallpaper depicting a pair of embossed doors.
How the idea of embellishing a wall has been adopted in more ambitious ways is displayed in the last two rooms. Here we get to see how cardboard, leather, and metallised materials have been employed, in addition to mural installations by the publishers of Piero Fornasetti and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Two prevailing ideas emerge: the role of wallpaper in evoking desire and the fascination that today’s creatives have for making it. “Wallpaper was used in the 19th century by the bourgeoisie and people living in cities, which is why, paradoxically, many of the papers depict nature”, says de la Hougue, referring to the popularity of idyllic scenes. Wallpaper manufacturing used to be a specialist domain, but more recently, artists, architects, and designers have been bringing new ideas to this industry. “Le Corbusier said that what he liked about wallpaper was that you could be sure of what you were getting, unlike wall paint, which looked different depending on how many coats you applied and the kind of brushstrokes you used”, she continues. For evidence of the wallpaper revival, look at how British supplier Graham & Brown has been commissioning Marcel Wanders, Kelly Hoppen, and Julien MacDonald (none of which feature in the show) to create wallpaper designs. “Commissioning artists to create wallpapers in small series is emblematic of current production trends”, de la Hougue adds. More daring, however, is Watching the War by Italian artist Francesco Simeti, a Middle Eastern land- scape engulfed in clouds of smoke. It’s difficult to imagine somebody papering a room with it, but, as de la Hougue points out, how we use wallpaper has changed too. “Before, we would use it to decorate an entire room, and now we’re more likely to apply it to only one wall or panel.” Faire Le Mur is at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris from 21 January to 12 June 2016.
This article appeared in DAM54. Order your personal copy.

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Anna Sansom

Anna Sansom is a British-born, Paris-based journalist who writes about art, design, and architecture for DAMN°, Frame, Mark, The Art Newspaper, Whitewall, Art Now and Noblesse (China).

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