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Wallpaper makes a statement in home design

By Amanda Abrams,

You could say Amy Reich and her husband John Pracher entered the new world of wallpaper by accident. Based on advice from a designer, the couple had agreed to paint the large hallway of their Leesburg home chocolate brown and immediately regretted their choice. Desperate to cover it up, they met with a succession of decorators. Finally, a Falls Church firm, the Mill Company, suggested wallpaper.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Wallpaper!?’ ” remembered Reich. “We both grew up in the 1970s with flocked wallpaper, but they found us beautiful wallpaper and we thought, ‘They’re right. It will cover our mistake and introduce beautiful color.’ ”

Welcome to Wallpaper 2.0. In case you haven’t been paying attention, wallcoverings have undergone a revolution. Those chintzy flower patterns or tiny polka dots from grandma’s living room? Gone. In their place are textured papers and big, bold designs in strong colors that can add depth, warmth and more than a little personality to a room.

The patterns aren’t the only change. These days, wallpaper is easier to put up and take down, and it’s often used more sparingly than in the past. Think of it as akin to a piece of artwork or a new throw pillow: an adventurous accessory that can pull a room’s elements together and give it some zing.

No one’s quite sure why the wallpaper trend — which is particularly popular among young Washingtonians — caught fire. It could be the “Mad Men” phenomenon: the sudden rush for all things reminiscent of the 1950s and ‘60s. More likely, though, it’s part of an overall increased interest in home decorating and the effort to find something to distinguish one’s home. “There are hundreds of design blogs, shelter magazines — everywhere you look, you’re seeing new ideas. I think people are more aware of their options,” said Jennifer Sergent, marketing director for the Washington Design Center and writer of the popular DC by Design blog.

David Passerell, an IT manger, was looking to make a unique statement in his U Street corridor apartment. “I wanted something different,” he explained, adding that a friend of his is a professional wallpaper hanger and suggested he go with paper. Passerell wound up with a rectangular design in gold and black on one wall by the kitchen, to match his black table and brown walls. The wallpaper covers a small space, but “it really adds a totally new character to the place,” he said.

That’s the goal these days. Many of the new patterns are designed to pack a graphic punch: Imagine tight geometric shapes in contrasting colors; blown-up damask prints in hot pink or orange; or stark black-and-white trellis designs. Equally popular are textured papers, which may be lined with grass or other natural fibers, beads or simply raised patterns, and may or may not be printed with a design. “Even if you do a solid color, the texture gives more depth than just paint,” said Sally Steponkus, an interior designer located in the District.

It doesn’t have to totally break the bank, either. Sure, there are firms like the U.K.-based Farrow & Ball — whose classy, Victorian-inspired prints are enough to get any home decorating devotee’s mouth watering — that charge more than $200 per roll (covering about 50 square feet), or over $3,000 to cover an average-size room. But most are much more affordable. Companies like Schumacher, Thibaut and Graham & Brown, for example, offer beautiful, cutting edge designs that sell for under $50 a roll. Not all can be purchased online without going through a decorator as an intermediary, but most are available in Washington stores.

And for those on a budget, papering a room can get even more affordable, said Rockville-based decorator Sandra Meyers. “I use a lot of commercial wallcoverings, which are less expensive,” she said; one of her favorite firms is Wolf Gordon Wallcoverings. Meyers added that because commercial papers are designed to be used in public places such as restaurants and hotels, they’re made of vinyl and therefore tend to wear better over time than traditional paper.

But no matter how much that roll of wallpaper costs, it can still feel like a major commitment. While today’s options are lighter and easier to put up than in the past, papering a room is still pretty tricky for the inexperienced. The majority of wallpapers require paste to adhere to the wall, and the patterns on each sheet must be lined up very carefully. “If you’ve done tiling or wood floors, it’s pretty simple,” said Michael DiGuiseppe, a professional wallpaper hanger who’s been in the business for 25 years. “But if you’re clueless and don’t do home improvements, it could be a challenge.” DiGuiseppe charges an average of $650 to paper an entire room, though convoluted spaces or fickle papers can up that price.

Still, some of the new developments can somewhat offset its daunting-ness. First, most wallpapers these days are easier to remove than they used to be, which means a bad choice is far easier to reverse. That’s particularly valuable to renters, who can usually just peel off the paper when they’re ready to leave without fear of damaging the walls — though finicky landlords should probably be consulted first.

The other upside is that wallpaper doesn’t have to cover all four walls of a room. It can be used as an accent: as backing for bookshelves, on a single wall in the bathroom or even on the dining room ceiling. “It’s a great way to customize a space, and the wallpaper won’t bust the bank,” said Edith Gregson, an associate designer with the D.C. firm J.D. Ireland.

Still, some people, like J.D. Ireland client Louis Cardenas, decide to go bold and paper an entire room. Cardenas was looking to spice up the dining room of his Adams Morgan rowhouse and wound up papering the entire space with an outsized floral print by Neisha Crosland. He’s fully satisfied with the result. “It really adds texture and warmth to the house, much more so than paint could ever do,” he said. “It’s probably the first thing people notice when they come in, and they always comment on it.”

That’s nothing compared to Reich and Pracher, the Leesburg family. After papering their hallway, the two went on to add wallpaper to several other rooms: The kitchen walls are now covered in a mid-century floral design, one bathroom features whimsical birds and another is lined with a tropical fish pattern.

“I love it. We’re judicious: We put it in places that are strategic, and it really works for our family,” said Reich. “It started with a colossal mistake. And now we’re really pleased with how it’s turned out.”

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.

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