Chasing Paper

Lead by vibrant color, quirky patterns and tactile textures that awaken the senses, wallpaper has made a remarkable comeback. Forget the kitschy flowers, vertical plaids or those hokey nautical patterns your grandparents cherished (unless of course, that’s your thing), this is art torn straight from the canvas and turned into décor.

After its boom in the 1970s, wallpaper developed a stigma that it could not shake despite its versatility to either dress up a room or create a statement-making accent wall. “Back then homeowners were all using the same wallpaper design—some variation of flowers,” said Long Island-based Larry K. Cohen, owner of Van Go, Inc. “Naturally, the next generation of homeowners ran the other way. They did not want the same patterns in their homes as their parents and grandparents did. Wallpaper was also seen as an investment, so prices kept people away as well.” Cohen should know, a professional paperhanger for more than 35 years, installing wallpaper for celebrities like Bette Midler and Gwyneth Paltrow along the way, he’s seen his fair share of trends.

Over the last 10 years manufacturers have started introducing new products such as grasscloth paper made from natural grass fibers, as well as fresh patterns, color combinations and other textures that are more appealing to the eye and wallet.

“Once manufacturers adopted this trend and started making more affordable options with a modern spin, wallpaper took off again,” Cohen said.

Contemporary Trends
Grasscloth is as popular as ever but papers with metallic inks and embroidery—as well as designs infused with glass, mother of pearl and even sand—are hot right now. Such textures not only lend a fresh look and feel, but also a whole new layer to a room’s overall appearance. “Anything with a handmade element is wildly popular right now,” said Cohen, who cites Maya Romanoff and Gracie as a few higher-end manufacturers leading the way. “A lot of clients are opting for papers that incorporate handpainted designs layered over textured papers made from hemp or jute. It’s unlike anything this industry has ever seen.”

Two other manufacturers known for their modern and dramatic offerings are Brooklyn-based Flavor Paper and NYC-based Trove. Flavor Paper gained popularity thanks to its unique roster of handscreened prints by contemporary artists and designers featuring bold colors, tropical prints and quirky names such as Love Monkey. Trove’s newest collection was inspired by the owners’ recent dabbling with photography and light. For art lovers who seek more than just patterns, these sources offer designs closer to murals and large-scale works.

Traditional with a Twist
Although contemporary designs are in the spotlight, LeRue Brown, marketing manager for York Wallcoverings, is seeing a renewed interest in more traditional designs, albeit with a twist. “Damask, a classic pattern, continues to be highly requested, thanks to its availability in bright, vibrant colors,” he said. “Really, any type of graphic pattern that makes a statement is extremely popular, especially when adding a special treatment to it such as Mylar, foil or flocking. These techniques are being used to add dimension, interest and texture.”

Florals are also enjoying a resurgence but this time there are plenty of new interpretations to choose from. From botanical illustrations to restored archival prints of big, blossoming blooms in modern hues, there is a floral print for everyone. They are especially popular for those using wallpaper to dress up a single accent wall or as an architectural element transitioning one room into another. “A big open floor plan is a larger home trend in general,” said Brown. “Homeowners are turning to wallpaper to help them delineate where one room stops and another begins.”

Ready to Install
Once the endless options have been sorted through and a selection has been made, both Cohen and Brown agree it’s always best to hire a professional to install the wallpaper (budget permitting). For the DIYers, these tips will go a long way.

1. Read up. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations thoroughly. This ensures the best supplies will be on hand before beginning the project. “The manufacturer often recommends a particular wall primer or paper adhesive that works best with its product,” said Cohen. “If you don’t use their recommendations, the manufacturer won’t stand by its guarantee.”

2. A Proper Prep. “Typically when it comes to wallpaper, a homeowner feels it should last forever yet come down easily, so it’s important that the wall is prepped to achieve both,” said Brown. A wall’s condition is the key to the strength of bond and smoothness of finish. It needs to have a proper combination of sealing and the right surface for wallpaper to adhere to. “If a wall is too porous, the paste will get sucked right in and once paper is placed over it, that’s when bubbles form,” explained Brown. “If the wall is too slick—think glass—the paper just won’t adhere properly.” Once the wall’s condition has been assessed, remove any electrical plates or rogue nails from wall art, fill in any holes and prime accordingly.

3. Choose your weapons. A work surface such as a table or a piece of plywood laid over two sawhorses comes in handy when it’s time for measuring, cutting, pasting and activating a pre-pasted paper. Aside from the requisite rags, brushes, blades and tools, have a water box handy that’s big enough to dip the paper in to activate the paste.

4. Made to measure. Pre-trimmed wallpaper is a help for DIYers, but whether or not the paper is pre-trimmed, it’s always best to start in an inconspicuous place, such as a corner or behind a door. Armed with a level, create a vertical plumb line, which will ensure the paper is hung as straight as possible, then work from there. A ½ inch to 1 inch overlap of the paper is a good safety.

5. Apply, Repeat and Clean. If using a pre-pasted paper, activate the paste by applying water to it or by using an activator paste (which according to Cohen will give the paper more of a glide when applied). Starting from the top down, apply and adhere the paper to the wall. A roller and/or clean rag will smooth out any wrinkles or air bubbles. Finally, be sure to wipe away excess paste quickly with a clean sponge and hot water.

Taking it Down

Although it’s made to last for years, there are times when we just want that paper to come down. “One of the biggest barriers to people redecorating with wallpaper is their fear of it—especially when it comes to taking it down,” said Brown. “But there is much better quality today.” Of course, most often we are dealing with paper from an earlier time, without the knowledge of how it was mounted or the condition of the wall underneath. These five tips will make removal easier.

1. Protect the room. Before getting started, Cohen suggests emptying the room of furniture and covering floors with a large canvas or plastic drop cloth. Be sure to tape the covering to the corners of floor space to catch any water used in removal. Also, immediately throw removed paper into a bag, he warned. “Otherwise the still-moist paper will stick to the floor, molding or anything else that’s not protected.”

2. Test the bond. It’s important to do a preliminary check before diving into the job. Pick a small spot and gently break through the surface with a scoring or perforation tool that will poke tiny holes in the wallpaper. When moistened, this will allow water to seep through the paper and loosen the bond. If the bond seems stronger than the paper itself, additional tools may be needed (more on that below). But if the paper seems to release easily, remove it by stripping it off dry. Start in a corner and use a putty knife to lift the paper and remove it strip by strip.

3. Assess the paper’s finish. Just as the adhesive bond can predict how readily paper will come down, so can the finish. For example, if dealing with a heavy coated paper such as vinyl, said Brown, water does not penetrate easily. In this case Cohen suggested using “80 grit sandpaper to sand down the wallpaper, which will allow water to be absorbed.”

4. Removal Tools. If the paper still won’t budge, all is not lost. Here again, a scoring or perforation tool can be used, or a water blanket placed over the paper will further moisten it. A steamer is an old-fashioned yet still effective tool for removing wallpaper—hot water helps loosen the adhesive. Once the paper is down, wipe away any residual adhesive using mild detergent, warm water and a terrycloth towel. For tougher jobs, a cleaning agent such as Formula 409 works.

Designs for Windows
Self-stick window film and clings add pretty accents to windows, glass cabinet doors, shower doors, mirrors and other similar surfaces. As an added bonus, their opaque finishes and intricate patterns obscure views and offer sun protection. The installation is easy, requiring little more than a spritz of water and a squeegee. While pretty yet functional embossed patterns are becoming more popular, colorful stained-glass inspired designs continue to lead the way. Other trendy options include white frosted finishes, intricate mosaics, geometrics, colorful florals, bamboo and clear etched glass styles.

The Weight Issue 

Choosing the right wallpaper weight may not be as exciting as say, selecting a bold new pattern or quirky color combination, however, this is central to choosing a paper that lasts. Some papers are heavier simply because the press being used to create the designs requires it; a heavier paper ensures the ink is properly absorbed. More often however, a heavier weight paper means a more durable product. The heaviest ones (a 54-ounce vinyl being the most durable), are often reserved for commercial-grade projects such as hospital corridors that need to withstand high volumes of traffic. Cohen estimates that heavy vinyl wallpaper installed in a commercial space should last approximately 10 years, while a paint job may last only three.

This durability, while a pricier option, is attractive to homeowners as well. It’s often the choice for high-traffic areas such as a hallway or a bathroom where steam would affect a lighter, more-porous paper. On the average, a 15- or 20-ounce paper will hold up well in a residential home. However, the heavier more durable paper can be more difficult to remove.

lauren debellis

A former magazine editor, Lauren DeBellis has been writing and producing stories about home decorating and design for nearly ten years. She resides in East Northport with her husband.