Modern Wallpaper

Wallpaper has been going through a huge resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to high-profile fans like designers like Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan of HGTV Canada’s Home Heist.

While wallpaper went through a period of disfavor – thanks to tacky borders, dull patterns and an abscence of color – it has regained popularity for two reasons: wallpaper adds instant life to a room and it also helps unite a color scheme. In this day and age, few of us hire professional decorators. Wallpaper does much of the difficult work for you. You simply choose an attractive pattern, and then pull colors from the design to use in decorating the surrounding space. As an added plus, more and more companies have been designing contemporary patterns.

Still, even with fabulous modern papers, you’d be wise not to overdo it. William Morris, one of the most prolific wallpaper designers of all time, preferred simple whitewashed walls to wall coverings, and used wallpaper sparingly in his own homes. In this, as in most cases, less is more.

One big no-no (if you are looking for a more modern, streamlined look) is ornate borders. Borders look lovely when you are looking through wallpaper sample books, but they are largely unnecessary, especially if you have wainscotting. In fact, I would argue that, unless you are doing an historical reproduction, its best to forgo borders altogether.

I think William Morris would appreciate the “accent wall” approach to wallpaper. Use decorative papers on one wall to highlight it, and keep the rest of the room simple. I love looking at wallpaper, but entire areas covered in patterns can make me feel a little dizzy. Having an accent wall also makes it a lot easier to remove wallpaper in case you tire of it.

Another thing I like about the modern approach to wallpaper is that many designers are taking advantage of the brilliant new colours that are being used in decoration today. One company that has been taking traditional floral designs and giving them a new lease on life is Flavor Paper. I love their designs! This is not your grandmothers wallpaper. I first ran across Flavor Paper a few months ago on the William Morris Fan Club blog. The design featured below is called “Party Girl.” I love the way it has been paired with the modish Eero Saarinen Tulip table and chair:

Flavor Paper is hand printed, which makes customization much easier for them. Their website advertises that the the ink colors from all their patterns are interchangeable, and that designs can be printed on any stock grounds without additional fees. Of course, the initial price tag is rather hefty, with designs starting at $150 a roll, although trade discounts are available.

Another company that has adapted well to changing times is Sanderson and its sister company, Harlequin Harris. Sanderson’s PomPom collection, designed by Maggie Levien, is both beautiful and relevant. This photo from the Sanderson website (below), illustrates a modern approach to using wallpaper. You can see how the designer has pulled the colours from the wallpaper and used them to decorate the room. Also, I love what they have done with the mounted panels of wallpaper. It makes the paper look more like art, and less like traditional wallpaper. A nice trick for an accent wall, especially since great wallpaper can be rather pricey!

Images courtesy Sanderson and Flavor Paper.

Christopher Dresser: Industrial Design Pioneer

Considered by some to be the first industrial designer, Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was a contemporary of William Morris and is best known for popularizing Japanese minimalism in the West. A designer who had also been trained as a botanist, Dresser was drawn to the simplicity and natural inspiration of Japanese design. Like Morris, Dresser was dissatisfied with the excessive ornamentation used in Victorian design. However, when it came to applying technology to design, Dresser and Morris parted ways.  
As you may recall, Morris was highly suspect of any sort of technology that removed production from the hands of the craftsman. While Morris’ low-tech approach can be considered more romantic by some, it is interesting to note that Morris himself struggled with the necessarily high price of his designs. It was not until companies like Liberty began mass producing Morris’ work that it became affordable to the general public.  Dresser, on the other, saw that technology would play a crucial role in design. His dedication to industrial production methods made his work more accessible and affordable.

A quick review of Dresser’s design portfolio reveals numerous products that were far ahead of their time. Many appear strikingly modern, and it is difficult to believe that designs like this watering can (pictured above) were produced 134 years ago! 

In addition to his brilliant industrial design work, Dresser was an early champion of the notion of neutral backgrounds in interior design. After his tour of Japan, Dresser became convinced that walls and flooring should be done in neutral tones, and that bright splashes of colour should be reserved for accessories and accent pieces (Rompilla, 52).

A true innovator, Dresser’s designs still seem fresh and new today. His design mantras, like “maximum effect with minimum means” continue to inspire contemporary industrial designers. Today, one of Dresser’s philosophies–that design should address current needs with cutting-edge technologies–is more relevant than ever.  It’s surprising, then, that (unlike Morris) Dresser is not particularly well known outside of design circles. Nevertheless, his work is worth revisiting, and I hope that museums will take note! It would be wonderful to see an exhibit of his designs. Please contact me if you know of one in the works!

Photo courtesy Please visit their website for more information, and for many more photographs of Dresser’s work.

See also: Ethel Rompilla, Color for Interior Design (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005).

Review: Classic Design Styles

In an effort to familiarise myself with basic interior design periods, I picked up Henrietta Spencer-Churchill’s book, Classic Design Styles. It’s a beautifully illustrated volume, filled with lush photographs (I freely confess that I’m all about glossy picture books).

At the beginning of the book, each section examines an historical period in English and American interior design, covering the basics, such as furniture, art, moulding and window design. The latter half focuses on “The House Today” and is considerably weaker, in my view. The author’s commentary can also get a bit ponderous at times. Regarding the contemporary tendency to reserve the formal dining room for special occasions, she writes, “[o]ur hectic lifestyles and the lack of inexpensive and easily obtained domestic help have led us to adopt the originally American style of one room living.” Ah, for the good old days, when we could rely on indentured servants to do the work for us. Perhaps Ms. Spencer-Churchill can look with fondness on the days of yesteryear, when the supply of desperate domestic workers exceeded the demand; however, since I probably have been stuck working for her, I can’t be quite so wistful.

This book would be useful for anyone looking for a basic introduction to period design. But don’t read it too carefully…unless you find the author’s troglodytic tone amusing (which I did). As the dust jacket proudly proclaims, she is “the daughter of the 11th Duke of Marlborough, whose family home is Blenheim Palace”, so one can forgive her for thinking that her readers may have likewise grown up in palaces. I shan’t burst her bubble by confessing that I picked up her book in the public library. Oops, too late!

The End of an Era–Spode Begins Overseas Production of Blue Italian, Then Goes Bankrupt

I’ve collected Spode Blue Italian since I was ten years old. I have some pretty interesting pieces in my collection, like the Cheese Wedge Dish that I begged for–and received from my dear mother–for high school graduation. People might have thought it was a little odd for a ten year old to begin collecting china, but that’s just the way I was! From the time I was young I recognized the beauty of the products and I still remember reading about transfer ware in Victoria Magazine and being fascinated with the time consuming, labour of love involved in creating each piece of porcelain.

So, it seemed natural to use my wedding registry as an opportunity to complete my collection. I set up my registry at Caplan Duval, here in Canada. I ended up waiting over a year due to some mysterious “reorganization” at the Spode factory. Finally, 15 months later, my first shipment of china arrived.

I was completely crestfallen when I opened the box. I hardly recognized the china. It was an odd, almond colour, with an indistinct blue-ish pattern that seemed like a caricature of the original. Moreover, the plates in the 5 piece place setting did not even stack properly with my old set because they were sized incorrectly.

Spot the knockoff:

Businesses seem to apply a “one size fits all” solution to economic challenges. Outsourcing is viewed as the universal cookie-cutter response to poor sales. In their letter to my mom, the people at Spode suggested that outsourcing was their only option. For legal reasons, I cannot quote their letter on The Earthly Paradise, but their overall argument was that customers would prefer to purchase Spode products at a lower price, than spend more for Spode that had been made in England.

The next day, we discovered that Royal Worcester, the maker of Spode, was bankrupt. I wonder why!

Outsourcing is a difficult concept for me. I would personally much rather spend twice as much for a quality product made by artisans than a cheap knockoff produced by workers in a foreign factory being paid pennies an hour. I firmly believe that unhappy workers cannot create beautiful work. It doubtless comes from reading too much William Morris, but I firmly beleive in artisan work, and I don’t care whether it’s profitable or not! Morris and Company was always a profitable business, in that it did not lose money. But it also did not make the kind of obscene profits that most business today seem to believe they require in order to compete in the global marketplace.

I continue to hope that whichever corporation purchases Royal Worcester has better businesses ideas, but I’m not holding my breath. It seems that the world’s former luxury goods producers have completely lost sight of what made their products worth having in the first place.

You can read more about Spode/Royal Worcester’s financial difficulties in the Tri-City Herald.

Charles Rupert

Charles Rupert in Victoria, B.C. is recognized as one of the best resources in the Pacific Northwest for historic home furnishings. The company specializes in William Morris textiles and wallpapers, in addition to lovely tiles by William de Morgan (pictured right) and products from a number of other historic designers, including C.F.A. Voysey, Mackintosh, and more general Art Nouveau patterns. Rupert has a catalogue of historic wallpapers that date back to the 1740s, so you can find a designs that are appropriate for almost any age or style of home.

Charles Rupert has also helped provide historic interiors for a number of film productions, including Little Women, King Kong (the remake) and 3:10 to Yuma.

As part of their commitment to the environment, Charles Rupert Design’s wallpapers are all printed on 100% paper (formaldehyde-free mechanical wood pulp paper produced from sustainable managed forests, and produced in highly regulated European paper mills), rather than vinyl, using traditional equipment and water-based inks. Finally, the papers are installed using traditional wheat paste or cellulose paste, which have a minimal impact on the environment and are non toxic.

In addition to their historic wallpapers and textiles, most of which are available on their website, the Charles Rupert showroom on Victoria’s Selkirk Waterfront has a has a number of Arts and Crafts carpets available for purchase.

visit the Charles Rupert website for more information. Images courtesy Charles Rupert.