THE ZUBER "Scenic America" wallpaper in the President's Dining Room at the White House seems destined to survive the Nancy Reagan-Ted Graber $200,000 redecoration of the family quarters. "I love the paper," Mrs. Reagan said. "Brooks Astor gave it during Jackie Kennedy's redecorating."
Clement Conger, White House Curator, is relieved. He said, "You'll remember that Betty Ford had it taken down when they were in the White House and Rosalynn Carter put it back up again."
On the ground floor, another wallpaper from Jean Zuber et Cie in Rixheim, Alsace, this one a real antique, is a very early version of the 1834 paper, removed from the demolished Stoner House in Thurmont, Md. The paper was installed in the Diplomatic Reception Room in 1961 by Jacqueline Kennedy.It shows American landscapes: Natural Bridge, Niagara Falls, West Point and Boston Harbor.
The White House wallpaper is Washington's best example of antique or reissued 19th-century panoramic or mural wallpaper, now undergoing a strong revival along with wall-coverings in general.
The wall covering in the President's Dining Room is a 1960 edition of Zuber's 1834-wallpaper, which was based on engravings made in the 1820s. The scenes are more fanciful than historic. On one wall, General Washington enters Boston in triumph in 1776. On another, soldiers fight a battle that never was, around Natural Bridge in Virginia. On still other walls, Washington fights another imaginary battle near Niagara Falls, Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, Lafayette and his French volunteers capture Wechawk Hill.
At Oak Hill, the wonderful old home near Aldie, Va., built by James Monroe according to a design by Thomas Jefferson, the present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jospeh Prendergast, installed editions of the Zuber wallpaper in both the dining room and the library. They chose "Eldorado," a botanical design, for the dining room, and for the library, "Scenic America" -- the sections with Monroe connections: Virginia's Natural Bridge (which Mrs. Prendergast points out has Spanish moss -- a lot those Frenchmen knew about moss) with the Indians looking like Hindus.
On another wall, the West Point scene has a connection because Monroe, as secretary of war, reorganized West Point. Mrs. Prendergast notes that the artist put in mountains for Brooklyn Heights. But the artist was quite correct in showing Lord Cornbury, governor of New York, in a full dress, hat and beard. This cousin of Queen Anne's partroled the fort in women's habits.
After World War I, white walls devoid of plaster ornament became an article of faith of the Modern movement. White walls were the flag you flew to show that you knew what was new. Colored walls were thought old-fashioned and wallpaper was considered tacky by those who considered themselves Modernists.
With most Modernists, I would have as soon danced in the street in a topless toga than put wallpaper on my walls.
But today, a great many people, especially the so-called "Post-Modernists" (who are really "Repro Pre-Modernists"), are thinking again about what the Modernists would have called "messing up the walls."
All of design swings eternally between classic and romantic. We've just been through a long period of classicism, expressed by the rigid orders and dogmas of the modern. So it should come without astonshment that things are loosening up. Decoration is back in town and no longer considered a flat-foot floozy.
One of the first kinds of decoration to be rehabilitated is wall covering. Wall-covering books reach to the skies in Washington's stores. (See Help on Page 1.) Coordinated wall coverings and fabric are commonplace. Some decorators, such as Suzanne Shaw, even commission matching hand-blocked wall coverings and fabric for their clients. Bob Walden, who is redecorating Princess Sham's apartment for John Connally, is a devoted user of hand-painted Oriental wallpaper. Even architects, for heaven's sake, such as Michael Graves of New York and Hugh Newell Jacobsen of Washington (if only in restorations), have come to terms with wall ornamentation.
Today, flowers, from tiny field blossoms to large and frightening tropical blooms are blooming on people's walls. Lady Henderson, wife of the British ambassador, has just recently done up the residence's prime rooms in Laura Ashley wallpaper. Ristomatti Ratia of Marimekko will soon redecorate the Finish embassy on Woodlawn Drive. It would not be surprising if he included some of his new wall-coverings.
With the wallpaper revival comes a new book, the first comprehensive study to be written in our times.
"Had this book on wallpaper been published 10 years ago, it would have reflected, in a vaguely apologetic tone, the still-prevailing climate of Modernist scorn for the subject," writes Catherine Lynn in "Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War I" (A Barra Foundation/Cooper-Hewitt Museum Book; W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.).
Being an expert on antique wallpaper is not the easiest task, Lynn admits, and she should know, having served as curator of the great Cooper-Hewitt collection. The prime problem is trying to collect antique wallpaper. As all of us know who've ever tried to strip wallpaper, the old paper (not today's sissy quick-release) clings of ivy wrapped around the drainpipe.
Even so, old wallpapers have been found and studied, enough to make a book for Lynn of 533 pages, 102 color plates and 245 halftones.
In the beginning, as you'd expect, most early American wallpaper came from Europe, England, France and the Orient. These papers helped set the style for all of the decoration of the colonial period. They came from the design capitals of the world, carrying with them the latest word on who and what was what. Thus Lynn's book, despite its title, is really a history of all wallpaper, an immense and worthwhile undertaking.
The oldest wallpaper to be found is dated 1509, a pomegranate imitating a 16th-century textile, signed with a rebus of its maker, Hugh Goes, a printer. The wallpaper was actually printed on the back of a text. It was uncovered in 1911 in the Master's Lodge of Christ's College, Cambridge.
Up until that time, stone walls were often left bare on the inside, though some were covered with paint, plaster or wainscoting. If you had enough money, you would have your maidens (no shortage of them with all the men off to the crusades) weave tapestries or heavy woolens, damasks and other textiles. If the men, to everybody's surprise, did come back from the wars, they often brought with them Turkey carpits, as oriental carpets were sometimes called. These made fine wall hangings, being thick and more impervious to the winds through the cracks.
Lynn points out that the gentry who had such falderal were very limited -- she figures about 200 or so families.
But the poor folks needed to stop the drafts as much as the rich. So they pasted printed picture papers on their walls as substitutes for the paintings and hangings of the wealthy. The book illustrators provided the papers, which evolved into long rolls.
In the American colonies, tapestries would have been even scarcer. But Lynn found a New York upholsterer, Stephan Callow, who in 1749, advertised he would hang rooms with "Paper and Stuff [textiles] in the newest Fashion."
Leather was another luxury wall hanging and so were painted canvases and textiles. The wallpaper that was most often used was imported from England, considered the best European manufacture of the day, even in France, where it was not produced with much success until the 18th century.
The patterns, as explained in an advertisement from The Blue Paper Manufacture of Aldermanbury, London, were "in imitation of Irish Stitch, Flower'd Springs and Branches: Others Yard wide in Imitation of Marble, and other colour'd Wainscots, fit for the hangings of Parlors, Dinning Rooms and Staircases. And a Curious Sort of Imbossed Work Resembling Caffans and Bed Damasks; with other Things of Curious Figures and colours; Cloth Tapestry Hanging Etc."
Some of the early patterns were black-and-white abstractions or geometrics which Lynn finds had an "overpowering optical effect when pasted in repeat across large surfaces."
Wallpaper was made in the United States beginning about 1756 when John Hickey, a "silk dyer and scourer, lately from Dublin," advertised that he "stamps or prints paper in the English manner and hangs it so as to harbour no worms."
Lynn thinks that American paper in the beginning was "cheap rather than fine." But, she adds, such a statement would disturb the shade of the long-buried John Dickinson of Philadelphia, who advertised in 1786:
" . . . notwithstanding some fallacious reports that have been propagated by foes to this country that Paper cannot be made equal to European, I am determined to prove the contrary and willing to shew colour for colour, paper for paper, cheaper than can be imported from any part of Europe."
In the spring of 1793, Burrill and Edward Carnes of Philadelphia advertised "15,000 Pieces Paper, in 600 different patterns, from two to twenty-six colors."
Oriental wallpapers were then and are now highly prized. Some of the best can still be seen in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum at Wilmington, Del. In the Chinese Parlor the wallpaper with its exotic plants must have attracted Du Pont's gardener's eye.
Many of the Chinese papers, Lynn points out, were actually hand-painted murals, not multiple prints, and were correspondingly expensive. "The panels were sometimes mounted on silk and individually rolled on wooden rollers like scroll paintings." The clever Chinese always enclosed an extra bird or butterfly to cover a strain or a hole, and they do to this day.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferrson alike bought wallpaper. And Washington even sent instructions for hanging paper to a friend, Lady Shipwith of Virginia.
Wallpaper was often used to cover valances, as well as books, and the inside of drawers.
In the 19th century, wallpapers were even more popular, going from the rich to the middle-class homeowners. With mass marketing, more people could afford such luxuries as wallpaper.
Lynn points out the influence of John Ruskin, who believed that "moral virtues like 'honesty' in the expression of structure, or straight-forwardness'in the treatment and revolation of the materials from which an object was made, would be perceived by and would act upon the minds and souls of those who lived with true and beautiful things." In America, Charles Locke Eastlake in his "Hints on Household Taste" encouraged a smilar view.
The movement brought forth a group of artists/craftsmen, who believed in a return to handmade domestic art. Among the great practitioners were William Morris, whose designs are being produced today, and Augustus W. N. Pugin. They admired Gothic design. But their wallpaper designs were abstracted and stylized natural forms.
In 1885, Newsom and Newson in "Picturesque California Houses" wrote: "White walls unrelieved by any color are relics of barbarism and are almost a thing of the past. House-papering is now incorporated in building contracts, and a house is considered incomplete without these adornments."
In 1981, we are coming full circle. Like it or not, decoration is coming back to walls.