A Brief History of Our Walls Part 1- Wallpaper

We fell in love with our house from the bottom up: the century old cement tiles just aching to be polished and the parquet, dusty, but mostly in excellent condition.  From there on, unfortunately, it was a different story.  Our walls, plaster on lath as you might expect in a house built in the beginning of the 20th century, have all seen better days.  Some were painted, but more often than not, they were covered in layers upon layers of wallpaper dating back to the construction of our house in 1910.  In this first part of A Brief History of Our Walls I’ll be focusing on the latter: all the wallpaper I have managed to uncover so far.
And boy there’s a bit of it!

 

Peeling back the layers of time was one of our first priorities as to inspect what was going on below, after all, this house had been uninhabited for ten years.  And sure enough, we did come across few signs of moisture damage caused by a previous leaks in the roof, ranging from minor to severe and several smaller spots to where the plaster had been damaged and had came loose from the lath.  On top of all the damages and the ass-about-a-face patchwork of repairs, our house, was covered in an array of ghastly 90’s vinyl coated wallpapers that quite frankly would have seen the bottom of a bin sooner rather than later.  

 

During the stripping process that followed, it turned out, I am not the only lady of the house* who has had her say regarding suitable wall coverings, in fact, some rooms had been wallpapered up 6 times since this old house was built in 1910.
*I will milk this stereotype dry – despite of currently holding evidence of the male of the species having had their say in decorating this house too: Well, at least my darling James and the previous proprietor, who kicks ass not only in chemistry class, but in wielding a trowel as well. 

We we able to found mere fragments of the original wallpapers that graced the freshly plastered walls over a hundred years ago, and they feature an array of small and detailed floral motifs in bright, airy colours with intervals of light stripes, accented by a narrow floral boarder.  Popular at the time, these wallpapers are typical late-term art nouveau: more subdued and sporting a nodge or two towards old classicism where as early art nouveau, with their swan-neck arches, favoured highly stylised flora and fauna. These motifs were widely reproduced, relatively inexpensive and remained popular for decades.

Excamples of 1910’s wallpapers – what’s left of them anyway.

First of the re-decorators, perhaps the original owners of the house, had a change of heart around 1924 when they repositioned some of the internal partitions in two of the grandest rooms to make way for a set of built-in wardrobes, new plaster medallions and stone mantelpieces.  Perhaps inspired by the grandiose paneling found in the luxurious townhouses of what then would have been one of the richest industrial towns in France, they chose a faux wooden finish with vertical borders in light sage, accentuating the lines of the built-in cupboards and the fireplaces, then finished with a narrow trim in beige and dark navy blue.  This labour intensive job must have cost them an arm and a leg at the time and it would have been a spectacular example of early Art Deco wallpaper.  Sadly – mere scraps remain today, hidden away by the efforts of later decorators.

Dating this early job was made easy by the discovery of their chosen liner – sheets of Express du Midi-newspaper, contemporary to the renovations and dating between 1918 and 1924.

Selection of Art Deco wallpapers with sheets of the newspaper-liner showing through.

 

After the Second World War, a new generation wanted to brighten up the space and updated the whole house, including the electrical work, in the mid to late 1940’s.  Their choices were much more subdued, featuring floral motifs typical of the day in hues of muted greens and browns, blue and sage.  Shortages of dyes and other materials after the grueling war and the general shift towards functionalism, the wallpapers in the 40’s tended to be reproductions of old motifs, often without decorative borders.  Formalist rather than dainty, these wall flowers couldn’t have been more different from the cheerful bouquets of the 20’s.
40’s limited palette reproductions and formalist florals.

 

The limited post-war palette was evidently not groovy enough for the folks taking over the decorating duties in the 60’s as they went and covered nearly every single surface of this house, including the insides of the built-ins, with psychedelic flower patterns in the brightest colours available.  My personal favourites include a crazy pattern of waterlilies, chosen to decorate several of the rooms in the shades of electric blue, bright green and olive.

Out with the old, in with the new – this was the motto of the day, in politics and fashion as well as decor.  The home owners of the 60’s did no longer look up to the grand old homes of the bourgeoisie, but created their own aesthetic with the materials of the modern world: cement and plastic.  An array of fashionable choices was opening up to them as the archaic imitation of classical motifs gave way to a generation of bold designers not afraid to answer to the demand of everything fresh, new and modern.  It was bye bye subtlety in favour of statement motifs, printed as loud and as big as possible.

In an effort to modernise old buildings and inspirited by the minimal detail and clean lines of the new pre-fabricated apartments, many people living in older homes chose to get rid off the excess decoration, such as ornate ceiling medallions and the crown molding, that was seen as old fashioned and difficult to maintain.  And sure enough, this is what happened here: upon removing the numerous layers of wallpaper, we discovered a ghost line of raw plaster underneath the 60’s florals where a wide crown molding used to be fixed to the top of our walls.

Many old buildings still bear similar scars of sins committed in the 60’s and 70’s, but sometimes the damage done extends beyond a missing detail: the historic infrastructure was being destroyed and replaced with modern construction so fast, the manufacturers couldn’t always keep up with the demand.  Town centres were forever changed, communities  with roots reaching back centuries were run to the grown and packed one on top of one another, one block of flats at the time, just for it to fall out of fashion and in cases, then neglected and knocked down within a few short decades. What is worse yet, we still continue to live in a culture where new is automatically associated in being better, and the tendency to replace rather than repair triumphs.

Groovy, baby: examples of 60’s wallpaper. (Check the middle picture for a speck of early 20th century pattern peaking through.)

 

Next few decades came with minor changes to the general wallpapering of this house, with the exception of the downstairs chambre sporting the most 1980’s wallpaper I have ever seen, sitting on top of a moody Art Deco diamond pattern and a layer of post war blandness. Talking about Miami Cool-vibes with this tropical pastel number! It had it’s brief moment to shine before being covered up with latex-coated salmon orange, mere ten or so years later.

In general the 80’s wallpapers were light and subdued. Pastels and smaller patterns were preferred over the 60’s and 70’s extravagant designs and borders were starting to make a big comeback, often paired with painted walls or a wallpaper in a neutral shade and/or texture.  Wallpapering had become more and more affordable, thus allowing people to redecorate their homes regularly to reflect the current trends.

The tropival 80’s. At this point, allow me to blurt out what the fuck were they thinking. On the right: An earlier take on the jungle fever, found inside a build-in wardrobe.  

 

The 1990’s streching to the millenium gives us the most recent and by far the most boring layers present.  It is evident that the level of craftsmanship and the quality of goods deteriorates the further long we travel in time from the expertly installed and hand finished Art Deco coverings to the off-the-shelf, stain repellent modern papers that were, in most cases, just slapped in on top of antiquated electrical fittings, plumbing and the hastily repaired aging plaster work.

At this point my house, an old crèmerie, nearly celebrating it’s first century, was divided into rental flats.  This had an effect on our walls as the new coverings chosen during the conversion process were picked to cover up blemishes, ward off stains and to stand as a neutral backdrop to any decor.  They were mostly cheap, bland and plasticky – unceremoniously slapped on top of holes, bent nails and trims as a quick fix for what could only be described as a need for maintenance typical in any old dwelling.

Late 1990’s and early 2000’s renter-friendly wallpapers.

 

Two wallpapers from a late 90’s children’s room with adorable teddies and a vibrant blue and white check-pattern, originally separated by a decorative border.

Further advances in both printing technology and development of polymer-based household products for homeowners to use, and sometimes, to abuse have evolved to be more durable, stronger and again, more affordable.  Wallpaper, printed using the traditional methods of the trade, has become somewhat of a luxury these days and a quick tour around any home improvement store quickly reveals that the cost-effective and the most common options are vinyl coated, if not made completely from fiberglass.  These products are great as they are tough, durable and water resistant, but beyond problematic in older buildings.  The polymer-based products do not breath like paper does, thus trapping moisture inside the walls and leading to damp and, in the worst cases, rot.

Vinyl coated wallpapers in salmon pink and bright orange.

The ugly truth is that it’s more affordable to replace rather than restore any hand made damaged or endangered details.  Adding a coat of fresh paint on a cracked piece of molding or wallpapering over a damp patch of plaster will cover a multitude of sins, for a moment or two, but once the cover up fails, it might be too late to start dealing with the underlining problems that puts the structural safety of old buildings in jeopardy.

I feel a slight sense of melancholy in exposing and subsequently removing all these layers of history from my lovely old house.  They tell a story of the people who once lived and loved here.  But change is paramount, as we cannot just keep threading water with the repairs that need to take place here.  It’s impossible to promise whether I will make the right turns along this road of renovation, but I will try my best not to make the future owners of this lovely house, in another hundred years or so, cringe at my choices.

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