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Nathalie Atkinson.
Nathalie Atkinson.

Nathalie Atkinson: Today’s wallpaper producers are taking their cues from its original glory days Add to ...

Production designer Arwel Wyn Jones’ strategy (also his actual social media bio) is, “It’s all about the wallpaper!” It’s what makes BBC’s Sherlock such a visual feast. No wall is safe from the cacophony, though none is more famous than 221b Baker Street’s sitting room. Here, Jones – who should by rights be named wallpaper person of the year – chose the contemporary Navarre by manufacturer Zoffany, a flocked fleur de lys trellis and acanthus pattern in burgundy-brown, the colour of dried blood. Every other wallpaper on the show is modern and, often, symbolic, but Sherlock’s rooms are deliberately stylistically neo-Victorian – just one more creative meta nod to the series’ Victorian roots, which also happen to be wallpaper’s original heyday.

Today, wallpaper is shaping up to be the new letterpress, or at least the new temporary tattoo, with dozens of smaller-scale and artisan producers popping up in the last few years offering a cleaner, retro modern aesthetic at a more affordable price. And they’re taking their production cues from wallpaper’s original glory days.

English painter and graphic artist Edward Bawden’s 1920s wallpapers, for example, printed from lithographic plates from his linocuts, were issued in such small quantities by the Curwen Press that few samples survive. Because of the small production runs, they were printed in the traditional manner of sheets rather than rolls, and this is how several of today’s emerging made-to-order firms go about it – with one important difference. Digital printing technology serves both new creators and, at the other end, the indecisive or capricious decorator. Companies like Chasing Paper offer affordable, removable low-tack adhesive wallpaper tiles – in patterns by emerging designers they find, and cultivate – made to order in 2x4-foot square panels that can be removed with no residue (or regrets).

The openness to new designers with on-demand print runs and everchanging, even seasonal decorating tastes makes it possible for creatives who are curious about the wallpaper medium to explore it without the financial risk of having to go either into mass production or become artisan screenprinters themselves. With her Los Angeles-based design studio Parker Barrow, for example, stylist Janette Ewen recently ventured into wallcoverings that translate the wit and wink of the firm’s signature preppymeets– surreal lobster lattice pattern onto wallpaper (ditto a chevron with a clever, biting Jaws touch). Illustrator and printmaker Alanna Cavanagh will also be adding wallpaper to her portfolio of book covers and other home design products this year, as a new client of Boom, Anna Cartwright’s British boutique licensing agency helping designers expand their reach through new partnerships.

Artist Kate Golding moved to Canada from England in 2000 with a fine art degree and for years worked in advertising, but now lives in the Southern Ontario countryside. “To create work that is of a personal meaning to you, and moving here and immersing myself in this new landscape has been a huge inspiration,” she says of her debut collection of patterns. Like Bawden’s rural vignettes, they feature local landmarks and regional details, like the specific sand dune topography of Sandbanks provincial park, nearby woods and village water tower, or the Crystal Palace at the local fairgrounds. The designs, initially available as home textiles, will make their way onto walls later this year. “The real passion, to be honest, the true eye of the needle, it’s really wallpaper,” Golding confides. “Ever since my school graduate project back in the U.K. of screenprinted papers it’s been something I have wanted to return to. I grew up steeped in that [English] culture, surrounded by it.”

Golding draws each pattern with sketches and reference photographs using a fine line pen or brush and ink, coloured by hand in separate layers as though for screen printing, even though they do eventually get scanned and recombined in the computer. “I like the feeling that the registration is not exactly perfect, it’s more organic and it’s something I really want to stay true to, as opposed to that very computer-generated feel.” Golding’s hand-drawn designs have that quality in common with Chasing Paper’s vibrant, bestselling Greenleaf pattern; regardless of the state-of-the-art process, it intentionally looks handmade, not too crisp or perfect.

The long wall at Fantail, a newish Toronto bakery café, is an elegant and otherwise unadorned swathe of soft gold and duck-egg blue damask print paper that wouldn’t be out of place on Sherlock. Fashion designer Michelle Turpin opened Fantail in partnership with her brother Jarrah and cousin Holly Mayclair. When I asked about the lovely antique-inspired modern decor, Mayclair, who chose the paper pattern, told me about their original, rather more nostalgic idea for the café interior.

“We like bringing the old into the new again, and we both grew up in really old houses that had all the old wallpapers,” she explains. The last time all three made the trip home to New Zealand together, Mayclair says, they went to Amberley, outside Christchurch, and visited their grandfather’s former home. “It’s now condemned and abandoned in the middle of a field, but we managed to salvage some wallpaper from one of the living areas.” Turpin framed the remnant and Mayclair, who is also an artist, did a watercolour interpretation of its black and richly coloured oriental design of orchids, traditional Chinese architecture and dancers. They ran out of time before opening the café last fall, but the trio plan to have it custom reprinted. That way they can be surrounded in their new venture with a piece of their personal history. For them, too, it’s all about the wallpaper.

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