A&C Wallpapers: An Unexplored Collecting Niche?

One could argue that no element of the early 20th-century Arts & Crafts home was originally so ubiquitous, and yet today so frequently overlooked, as wallpaper. Despite the fact that William Morris – godfather of the Arts & Crafts movement – made some of his most lasting contributions to the decorative arts through his justly famous paper design, few of us (if any) consider wallpaper as a collecting category.

So, why is that?

Well, this is probably for two reasons.

The first is that wallpapers, while produced literally by the millions of rolls, were remarkably ephemeral. Even though the vast majority of rooms decorated between 1900 and 1915 – whether in humble Craftsman bungalows or great English mansions – were papered, very few intact interiors or remnant rolls survive to reveal how stunning these rooms truly were.

The second reason is more a dirty little secret…

Many of us carry a strong ambivalence about wallpaper. Fueled by a mixture of Modernist moral suspicion, Apple-marketed minimalism, and deep-seated doubt about those cheap pink flamingoes on the walls in our grandmother’s bathroom, we just aren’t sure there is real beauty and value in wallpapers.

My hope at this year’s Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference is to break through these challenges of perception, scarcity, and presentation to unlock interest in a whole new area of Arts & Crafts collecting – antique wallpapers.

For example, W. B. Brown of Bluffton, Indiana, was famous for his all-wood light fixtures, but he produced furniture, art glass windows, and even complete store fronts and interiors in the Craftsman style. And decorated his 1912 home in Arts and Crafts wallpapers. At this years Arts and Crafts Conference, I’ll be presenting rare examples of original wallpapers from American companies like M. H. Birge & Sons, the Robert Graves Co., and Janeway & Carpender.

They range from embossed and stained imitations of tooled leather and hand block-printed landscapes, to the charming surface-printed and gilt-accented friezes and sidewalls that provided a backdrop to the Arts and Crafts furniture, art pottery, and hammered copper we all appreciate.

Some will be offered as framed artwork, others built into folding screens, or sold loose and un-mounted for your own collection — or creative use.

Regardless, I hope you’ll stop by and take a closer look at something we’ve all taken for granted.

I look forward to meeting you.

– Bo Sullivan