To transform a space, try new paint or wallpaper

April 19, 2013

If you want to make a major change without a major remodel, you’ll get the biggest bang for the buck with a few gallons of paint.

Up the ante a bit to go with wallpaper, and the bang will increase by a factor of 10.

Not only do you get the enormous range of color that comes with paint, but you also get a mind-boggling choice of patterns, materials and textures to suit every taste. You can add humor with mermaids swimming in the powder-blue seas, optical illusion with lace that appears to flutter in the breeze, a traditional pattern that might have enhanced your grandmother’s dining room or the same pattern blown up in size to become something else entirely.

With such a surfeit of choices, which ones are right for you? The best way to gauge this is to take a close look at the contents of your closet, advised Great Falls interior designer Susan Gulick. If your sartorial preferences run to solid colors, take a pass on pattered wallpaper and focus on textured papers with natural materials such as grasscloth or bamboo instead. If you find some patterned garments and a generally neutral palette with accents of color, start with low-key, low-contrasting “tone on tone” patterns and work up from there. If your clothes are more colorful and you see a lot of pattern, you’ll be comfortable experimenting with bolder colors and patterns from the outset, she said.

The next consideration is room function and frequency of use. The rooms where you don’t spend much time — for most households the powder room, dining room and entry foyer — are opportunities for experimentation and boldness, Gulick said. But a home office where you may spend many hours on a daily basis should have a tranquil cast. A wallpaper pattern that’s “bright and light” will make an office space feel more open and expansive, but Bethesda-based interior designer Skip Sroka said some people feel more productive with wallpaper patterns that create a dark and cozy effect.

For the eat-in kitchen/family room, the place where most households start and end their day, Sroka recommended a low-key, small pattern against a light, soft contrasting background. Patterned wallpaper for the bedroom areas should be similarly “serene and harmonious,” he said. Sarasota, Fla., interior designer Anne Folsom Smith said she occasionally creates a bedroom that is so calming that she calls it a “womb room.” The walls, doors, blinds and lampshades are covered in wallpaper so that once inside, the door disappears and you’re completely enveloped.

The size of a wallpaper pattern is also important because it affects your perception of room size, Sroka noted. A big pattern in a big room can make it feel smaller and more comfortable, while a small pattern can make a small room feel larger. Big patterns can work in small spaces, but Sroka advised caution because this arrangement “can be too strong and overwhelming.”

Once you get a handle on pattern size, which rooms are candidates for bold and brassy and where you want a soothing calm, the real challenge begins: actually choosing the wallpaper.

If your taste runs toward retro, Bradbury & Bradbury offers historically accurate reproductions and “reinterpretations” with a contemporary flair, beginning with the Victorian era and ending with the Swinging ’60s. The “Victorian” and “Arts and Crafts” collections include all the various wallpapers used at that time — friezes, borders and patterns for both walls and ceiling. The “Mod Generation” collection, intended to be installed as a feature wall and not for an entire room, lacks the flamboyance and fluorescent colors associated with that era, but today’s homeowners seem to prefer mellow to outlandish, said Steve Bauer, the firm’s owner and chief designer.

For a singularly bold statement, Rhode Island School of Design professor Oren Sherman’s digitally printed wallpaper is also intended as a feature wall, or, as he put it, “to be the star of the show.” The patterns are 52 inches wide and feature large areas of bold color in organic, floral shapes; the patterns can also be custom-colored. Sherman’s collection will be available in June.

Should your sartorial analysis point you toward textured natural materials, York Wallcoverings, one of the largest wallcovering manufacturers in the United States, offers ones that are dyed or uncolored, striped or woven, plain or printed.

If you’re ready to try anything, York and UK-based Graham & Brown offers hundreds of choices, but the vast majority at both firms are patterned paper, still printed with the same machinery that transformed the wallpaper industry 125 years ago, but to radically different effect.

For example, York’s Aristocrat (ND7057) is a traditional damask floral pattern that might have graced Grandma’s china or her walls, but here the pattern is four or five times as big, printed in cream-colored ink so thick that it creates a 3-D effect, and the silver-blue background is a reflective pearlescent ink.

Many of Graham & Brown’s wallpapers add humor and pizazz. Its Frames (52050), with its playful line drawings of picture frames on a cream-colored background, has been a huge hit with homeowners who routinely embellish it with family photographs, children’s drawings and postcards. Mermaids (50-513) has frolicking mermaids and Mirror-Mirror (50-514) with its overall, silver-gray reflective pattern reflects the colors of the furnishings in the room where it is installed.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. She grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com or salanthousewatch@gmail.com.

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