Wallpaper is ready for its next act. The polarizing paint alternative and longtime decorating taboo has returned to fashion thanks to ultra-stylish prints, dimensional fabrics, and new materials that make it easy to install and, yes, to remove. Offering more drama than paint, it’s a fun way to transform a room and reflect your personal style without breaking the bank. Some designers even liken it to contemporary art for the mass market.
“It’s a risk,” said Kati Curtis, a designer with offices in New York and Los Angeles. “But, boy, can it pay off.”
What’s caused the big comeback? It’s easy to attribute the sales spike to style bloggers, HGTV and Instagram, but at the core of wallpaper’s new popularity is a hint of rebellion.
Curtis says the renewed interest is in part a backlash to the “sterile grays-whites-neutrals” of the ’90s and early aughts, and the more recent obsession with the layered rugs and clustered collectibles of the California bohemian aesthetic. Wallcoverings offer a personal touch and less stuff. “People want their homes to feel special and unique,” she said. “Wallpaper is the perfect toy to do that with polish.”
Paulina Berberian, a creative director at Brewster Home Fashions, a wallcovering company, credits millennial consumers with driving the trend, as they’re new to the housing market and to wallpaper itself. “Young people who grew up in the clean, minimalism era have never had wallpaper,” she says. It’s likely they know it only as a design punchline, the busy ’80s florals popular with dentists and grandmas.
“So, naturally, I think they’re drawn to it because it feels new and exciting,” she said. “And they’re making it their own.”
Indeed, today’s popular papers are vastly different from the old school. The prints are dramatically oversize and fantastically whimsical, with characters that feel pulled from a storybook and patterns right from the runway. The colors are richer. The fabrics are textured and sometimes three-dimensional. And the images have a lifelike sharpness thanks to advances in digital printing.
Speaking of which, we’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to custom-printed papers. Erin Burke, who runs the contemporary home furnishings website Burke Decor, frequently receives requests to scale and print wallpapers made from personal photos that can be tiled or enlarged to mural size. “It sounds strange, but remember, wallpaper is a conversation piece,” she said, adding that hotels and restaurants already do this in bar areas and bathrooms.
If there’s a common thread to modern wallpaper application, it’s restraint. Designers suggest using it sparingly and purposefully, in one or two rooms or perhaps a single accent wall (though fabric papers such as grass cloth should cover a whole room). For consumers, that’s low-cost and low-maintenance. Says Curtis: “An artsy, adventurous print can speak for itself.”
Low-maintenance is key. Installing and removing wallpaper used to be a notorious headache, so technology – including new adhesive formulas and stick-and-peel fabrics that strip off walls without leaving residue – has done wonders for its reputation. “The days of scraping and steaming are over,” Berberian said. “Less mess, less stress.”
Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams, says wallpaper has never been more affordable or more convenient. Sherwin-Williams, the country’s largest wallpaper distributor, is planning to release four new books of wallcoverings this year, putting its total catalogue at more than 100,000 options.
Those numbers aren’t exactly comforting for folks who are already overwhelmed by all the patterns, textures, fabrics and materials to choose from. Where do you start? And when prices range from $25 to $500 per roll, generally, how do you set a budget?