Whatever Happened to Wallpaper?

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

When was the last time you saw wallpaper? Seriously. The thought just popped into my head suddenly a few weeks ago as I was driving. “It’s been a long times since I’ve seen wallpaper.”

Wallpaper played a subtle but ubiquitous role in my childhood. It was, well, wallpaper. I remember the younger sister of my babysitter telling me how she was stuck in bed for days after a serious bout of appendicitis from which she had almost died (according to the breathless narrative she gave me and my wide-eyed little sister). “It was really boring,” she said, “So I tried to make shapes with the wallpaper,”

“How do you make shapes with wallpaper?” my sister asked.

“Just, well, all I could do was lie there and stare at the wall,” my sitter’s sister replied, “And I tried to connect the little hearts on my wallpaper and make shapes.” She sketched out the wallpaper pattern while my babysitter explained it further to us. “You know how you can make shapes by drawing sort of mental lines between the dots?”

In those wallpaper-covered pre-iPad days children had a high tolerance for boredom.

“and a crack on the ceiling had the habit/ of sometimes looking like a rabbit.”

My own memories of wallpaper are happier than my babysitter’s sister. When I was four I had a bedroom with modest blue patterned wallpaper. During my early childhood I would occasionally have terrifying nightmares. They weren’t frequent, thank goodness, but they were traumatizing enough that I remember a couple even to this day. My mother still recalls (with annoyance) how I would constantly wake her up at 1am complaining of the haunting sounds of “gooses” (our house was located near a bird sanctuary) or the moaning of the wind. The night time was scary for me. The main themes of my nightmares usually revolved around my parents dying. When the nightmares dissolved as I woke up, I would see the dull blue pattern of my bedroom wallpaper rise through the grey mist of my opening eyes. It was the signpost to my reassuring reality, the assurance that the dream of death was not real at all and never had been. My parents were not dead, just asleep down the hall. Everything was happy and comfortable and secure and that happy security was the ultimate reality. For four-year-old me, the sight of my blue wallpaper told me that everything was okay and would stay okay.

I think that people, especially now, see death and suffering as the ultimate reality. I don’t disagree. When I see the optimistic philosophies of some religions saying that happiness, Heaven and God are the ultimate realities it rings a bit false. If Heaven does exist, however, I think it would take the form of my old bedroom wallpaper. My old blue wallpaper pattern would be, to me, the ultimate symbol that death and suffering were just shadows and happiness and loved ones nearby the true reality.

A few weeks ago, while watching some terrible 70s movie through the safe comedic filter of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I was struck by the interior decor in the film. The 70s was all about paneling (which my childhood home also had) and the 80s was more about wallpaper. In the 90s wallpaper disappeared and we just had white walls. White walls were cooler, more airy, more roomy and more free. When we moved into our first wallpaperless house my parents worried about how our white carpets and walls would start to look “dingy” quickly. White showed the dirt. There were a lot of grey fingerprints on the corners when my sister and I grabbed the walls automatically to twirl ourselves from the hallway to the staircase and scamper up to our rooms. When my mother served us hot chocolate with cinnamon sticks, we would take the sticks out of the chocolate and blow them like trumpets, spraying the white wall with hot chocolate droplets. White walls were an adjustment from paneling and wallpaper.

70s living room
80s living room
21st century, really nice living room

Since moving into that house in the 90s, wallpaper seems to have disappeared from my life. Every place in the US where I have lived seems to have the same white walls. Paneling is gone. Wallpaper is gone. In any state and any city, whether it be houses or apartments, the walls are white. As Dushko Petrovich, a Rhode Island School of Design instructor stated in his 2012 Boston Globe article , “What images does the phrase “1950s wallpaper” conjure in your mind? Tiny flowers on a light green ground. OK, how about “1970s wallpaper”? Overlapping brown oblongs with rounded corners. Now try this: “1990s wallpaper.” Drawing a blank?”

50s Wallpaper
70s Wallpaper.
90s Wallpaper

So what happened to wallpaper? Petrovich has his own ideas. “One practical explanation would be that the fashions started to move too fast for wallpaper: It wasn’t worth the hassle to peel and paste again and again. Or maybe, as a population, we started to move around too much and didn’t want wallpaper devaluing the property. What seems more likely is that as we found other outlets for our imagination, and as we spent more and more time staring into televisions and computer screens, we didn’t need so much stimulation on the walls. As our screens got bigger and more immersive, our walls became a relaxing backdrop rather than competition.”

Petrovich wrote this in 2012, before we all had our brains melted by our phones. Screens were already taking all sources of joy from our lives two decades ago. Wallpaper given way to painted walls (usually white). A few people are bringing back wallpaper by trying to have the adhesive sheets branch into areas that are not confined to decoration. In 2013 scientists in Germany at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology developed a fiberglass-infused wallpaper that can cover masonry and keep walls from collapsing in the event of earthquakes. The wallpaper is made of “stiff, high-strength glass fibers woven together to form a strong elastic covering, with the fibers running in four directions to distribute energy evenly when the walls are shaking (.)” Wallpaper saving lives is awesome but this does not exactly indicate a comeback for the beloved background patterns of our youth for those of us who live in seismically stable areas. The way things stand now in 2020 wallpaper is not coming back. And that’s a real shame.

I write, I draw, I have opinions

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