Step into any home’s powder room today and chances are good that you’ll encounter bedecked walls that you’ll either find tasteful or tawdry: Wallpaper is back, friends. And it’s not just for trad manses and country-fresh farmhouses. In modern and contemporary spaces—where minimalism once ruled—designers are warming to the idea of wallcoverings, particularly in powder rooms and guest baths.
No less a source than Pinterest has reported a 401 percent increase in searches for "bold print wallpaper" so far this year. It’s the opposite of the reverence for honestly expressed building materials, fetish for Scandinavian simplicity, and preference for paint that has dominated for more than a decade. So, is it sacrilege to ornament architecture with wallpaper? It’s worthy of exploring.
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In some cases, wallpaper is practical. Consider historic homes where there are restrictions on radical structural changes—even if they previously underwent disastrous interventions. In my neck of the woods, Brooklyn, there are a number of historic districts with homes plagued by awkward, outdated floor plans and appendages, oddly shaped and tight spaces, or windowless and subgrade dungeons. Architects and designers are modernizing these to a degree, attempting to respect and preserve the original turn-of-the-century design intent. This is where, just like bold paint color, wallpaper can make a huge impact.
In a Brooklyn brownstone renovation by Urban Pioneering Architecture, for example, a small powder room within the home’s rear extension could have come off as super austere, were it not for the swirl-emblazoned Farrow & Ball wallpaper (and ceiling finished in a coordinating paint color).
Penny-round tiles or the ubiquitous subway tile are more practical in meeting the performance and cleanability needs of kitchens and baths, of course, but the product and installation costs might soar way above a project budget. And anyway, tilework nowadays has a wallpaper-like effect (and serves this purpose, in some instances): architects, designers, and remodelers are using shape, color, and grout lines to produce patterned compositions or murals ranging from herringbones and vertical striations to geometric optical illusions and modern interpretations of traditional motifs. Take this special installation during Milan design week in which H+O created some high visual drama while showcasing different tile applications.
Wallpaper is not only a cheaper option for kitchens and baths, but with a growing stock of removable coverings, it’s also much easier to discard if you change your mind. So when clients tire of the monstera-leaf or cactus motif that’s über-popular right now, they can scrap it and repaint the wall or swap it out for a dreamier backdrop, such as this Fornasetti covering featured in an apartment renovation by Studio Strato. By the way, this same collection manufactured by Cole & Son offers other scenery (e.g. faux tomes on library shelves, opera-house balconies, the architectural landscape of baroque Rome) that you really need to check out.
The aforementioned project illustrates how wallpaper can animate spaces beyond the powder room. Like paint color or a shift in material palette, wallcoverings can accentuate a nook, create a focal point, or inject character, softness, or a pop of color into a super-minimalist—sometimes too spartan—space. This Manhattan pied-à-terre would resemble any other New York City cookie-cutter abode were it not for a striking headboard wall, courtesy of Calico Wallpaper.
I love a clean-lined midcentury ranch or contemporary cabin with walls of stunning, tactile, or raw materials (picture a Tom Kundig house). Let’s not forget gigantic sliding or pivoting glass walls to sate biophilic desires. But I’m not against decorative finishes infiltrating architecture so long as it doesn’t diminish, well, the architecture.
And to be perfectly honest, I’m tempted to DIY-wallpaper a surface in my renovated prewar apartment. My wildlife loving side is leaning toward Aimée Wilder’s Jungle Dream or Star Tiger while my béton brut–admiring side wants a gritty design from Murals Wallpaper, such as the crumbling concrete or D.C. Metro mural.
Honest? Maybe not perfectly. But it could be a strong complement to an otherwise restrained modern interior—just remember, a little "bold print" goes a long way.
Brooklyn-based design journalist Sheila Kim reports on architecture, interiors, and decor, as well as design-centric products that run the gamut from table lamps and home accessories to commercial flooring and acoustic ceilings. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Architectural Record, and numerous other publications.