Home & Garden

A fresh look at wallpaper

This wallpaper used in a hall bath is called Aviary by Schumacher and features a variety of whimsical birds. Wallpaper offers more styles than ever.
This wallpaper used in a hall bath is called Aviary by Schumacher and features a variety of whimsical birds. Wallpaper offers more styles than ever. THE WASHINGTON POST

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 home in Leesburg, Va., chocolate brown, but they immediately regretted their choice. Desperate to cover it up, they met with a succession of decorators. Finally, one firm, the Mill Co., suggested wallpaper.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Wallpaper?'" Reich said. "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, wall coverings 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 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 in Washington, and writer of the popular blog DC by Design.

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 might be lined with grass or other natural fibers, beads or raised patterns, and might or might 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 in Washington.

It doesn't have to break the bank, either. Sure, there are firms such as the United Kingdom-based Farrow & Ball — whose classy, Victorian-inspired prints are enough to get any home decorating devotee's mouth watering — that charge more than $200 a roll (covering about 50 square feet) or more than $3,000 to cover an average-size room.

But most are much more affordable. Schumacher, Thibaut and Graham & Brown, for example, offers beautiful cutting-edge designs that sell for less than $50 a roll. Not all can be bought online without going through a decorator as an intermediary, but most are available in stores.

And for those on a budget, papering a room can get even more affordable, decorator Sandra Meyers said. "I use a lot of commercial wall coverings, which are less expensive," she said; one of her favorite firms is Wolf Gordon Wallcoverings. Meyers said that commercial papers are designed to be used in public places such as restaurants and hotels, so 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 feel like a major commitment. Although today's options are lighter and easier to put up than in the past, papering a room is 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 carefully.

"If you've done tiling or wood floors, it's pretty simple," said Michael DiGuiseppe, a professional wallpaper hanger who has 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, although convoluted spaces or fickle papers can raise 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 — although 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 firm J.D. Ireland.

Still, some people, such as 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 rowhouse and wound up papering the entire space with an outsize 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 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," Reich said. "It started with a colossal mistake. And now we're really pleased with how it's turned out."