Design 101: Wallpaper


By Paul Miller

Interior Designer, IDS Professional Member

Read Time: 5 Minutes

For anyone who grew up with a lot of it, or even just a little bit, but it was not their taste - or certainly for anyone who has ever stripped it on their own - wallpaper can be viewed with a little skepticism. Yet it has never been more relevant, more transformative, or varied. Wallpaper has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity over the last few years, with designs for any taste to compliment any space.

Here is my advice for picking wallpaper that will please your senses year after year. But, first, the things you need to get over.

Photo : Matthew Lofton

Not Your Mom’s Wallpaper.

The Hangup: “I don’t want my wallpaper to look like my mom’s house.”

Start by unpacking that knee-jerk reaction. What was it about your mom’s house that makes you shutter when you remember the paper? Did she have it in every room? Was there one paper on the bottom half of the wall and another on the top? And a border running around the top? Was it inspired by English gardens, with lots of big pink cabbage roses?

The truth is that any style when it becomes too excessive tends to age poorly, so with all due respect to your mother, she got caught up on the trend train. Your designer should be able to pump the brakes before that happens to you. A good wallpaper should enhance the home and not fight the architectural style. When it tries to make a 1980s ranch house into an 1890s cottage in England, the results usually ring false. We’re looking at you, cabbage rose paper.

More importantly, there are so many styles, colors, textures, and patterns in wallpaper, you never have to choose anything that brings your mom’s house to mind. With an open mind, the world of wallpaper is your oyster.


When it tries to make a 1980s ranch house into an 1890s cottage in England, the results usually ring false. We’re looking at you, cabbage rose paper.

The Hangup: “What if I get sick of my wallpaper?”

Making a gutsy choice always takes an ounce of courage and a pound of planning. If you’re looking at doing a wallpaper with a bold pattern and a range of colors, make sure that the pattern scale is a compliment to your room and the colors are ones you love.

If you stick the landing on the supportive details, like plucking out color from the paper in pillows and lamps, the chances are that you’ll find the room pleasing for years to come.

Alternately, paper does not have to be a graphic element in a room. Small scale patterns in fairly neutral hues can be a great supporting player without having to be the star of the show. Interesting textures like grasscloth or cork can give a room added visual warmth and complexity while improving the acoustics.

Lastly, know that wall paper is most impactful when it is not used in every room. It should be selected as a contrast to other spaces where simply paint decorates the walls.

The Hangup: “Wallpaper is such a pain to remove.”

When in doubt, pay a professional to put it up and take it down. An expert installer will know the right way to prep for hanging and how to get it down quickly and cleanly. If you make the right choice, you shouldn’t have to worry about the take down for a long time.

This is a great segue to what else you need to know: how to make the right choice. Wallpaper should solve design problems and never cause them. Here are a few tips to narrow the search.

The Tips You Need To Get Wallpaper Right.

Know The Problem You Want Your Wallpaper To Solve

Wallpaper can compliment the proportions of a room or even correct them. It can be the focal point your room doesn’t have on its own - or the mix of colors that makes sense of the sofa and chair fabrics you love that never quite hit if off. It can set the tone. So before you go looking, consider the benefit you want from your paper. Here are some pointers on what to look for in wallpaper.

 
In this example at our studio, we used a meandering floral mural wallpaper to provide a focal point in the space. The soft blue background played as a neutral while we pulled some of the accent color out with furniture and accessories.

In this example at our studio, we used a meandering floral mural wallpaper to provide a focal point in the space. The soft blue background played as a neutral while we pulled some of the accent color out with furniture and accessories.

When it was time for a change, we chose texture over pattern, but the dark charcoal color of this paper still provided that focal point contrasted with the bright molding. Plus, this wall covering is vinyl!

When it was time for a change, we chose texture over pattern, but the dark charcoal color of this paper still provided that focal point contrasted with the bright molding. Plus, this wall covering is vinyl!

 

Left Photo : Andrea Hubble ; Right Photo : Matthew Lofton

Organic Movement

In a room where the fabrics are solid and the furniture is a bit boxy, a paper with organic movement, such as a leafy pattern, can soften the design. If the room is big or if you want to up the energy of the space, the pattern can be fairly large. When the room is smaller and the desired vibe is restful, bring the scale of the print down a bit.

Texture

Paper that adds texture and color without a graphic impact can be the very thing to warm up a space and provide a richer backdrop to art and furnishings. Two classic choices are grasscloth or string cloth, which are woven from a variety or organic elements and set on a paper backing. Natural variation in the materials and weaving makes each panel of the paper unique and distinguishable once installed.

 
We wrapped this dining room in a soft grasscloth to add texture and warmth to the space while making sure our clients family heirloom table takes center stage.  See more of Snowden Bridge…

We wrapped this dining room in a soft grasscloth to add texture and warmth to the space while making sure our clients family heirloom table takes center stage. See more of Snowden Bridge…

The grasscloth’s soft hue showcases the bolder texture of the weave as the sun shines in through a window.  See more of Snowden Bridge…

The grasscloth’s soft hue showcases the bolder texture of the weave as the sun shines in through a window. See more of Snowden Bridge…

 

There are a host of other textures, such as cork, thinly shaved wood, and even vinyl, which is ideal for rooms where wipe up is important, like kitchens and baths. The important thing to know about the use of textured papers is that to get longevity out of the material, you have to match it to the wear and tear of the space. On the walls of a busy staircase, a vinyl paper that looks like grasscloth is probably better than the real thing.

Geometric Design

Wallpaper with geometric pattern can be an organizing element in a design. For the room where there are lots of curving lines in the furniture and a variety of styles in the fabrics, a simple stripe or a modern spin on a trellis motif can double down on the eclecticism while providing a clean and calming backdrop. A small geometric pattern with subtle contrast will often appear more as texture from a distance, providing a discoverable detail once one has taken some time to relax in the space. This can also provide more lasting flexibility for a design that will evolve.

 
A subtle geometric with a bit of shine is a fabulous backdrop to this client’s antique collection.  See more of Stewart Cottage…

A subtle geometric with a bit of shine is a fabulous backdrop to this client’s antique collection. See more of Stewart Cottage…

In the same home, we went bold and beautiful with a large scale paper with organic movement for the powder room.  See more of Stewart Cottage…

In the same home, we went bold and beautiful with a large scale paper with organic movement for the powder room. See more of Stewart Cottage…

 

Photos : Matthew Lofton

Color

Wallpaper can be the connecting element that makes disparate elements come together. In a room where an orange sofa has been bickering with a green chair, a wallpaper with each of these colors and more can be the diplomat that brings the peace.


In a breakfast nook where you want to keep the energy at three and a half cups of coffee, a sunny pattern with warm hues might fit the bill perfectly.

In general, my opinion on the use of color in design is to either tread softly or come in swinging. For a design that is meant to be soothing and elegant, I might use less color or less saturated color. When the space wants a more vivacious personality, I want it to have a host of hues.

Overall, I would suggest that when you are open to color, pick a wallpaper design that has a lot to offer. This will provide something for everyone to enjoy and give you colors to hone in on later, when you itch to make a few changes to the fabrics and accents.

Night and Day

Consider when you spend time in a room. If it is largely a night room, perhaps a media space you rarely visit during daylight hours, it might be the right choice to commit to a paper that is darker, moodier, embracing rather than denying those restful evening vibes. Conversely, in a breakfast nook where you want to keep the energy at three and a half cups of coffee, a sunny pattern with warm hues like yellow and orange might fit the bill perfectly.

 
This dining room was made for drama and lengthy evening dinners. The dark, striated wallpaper on the ceiling invites guests to feel cocooned, cozy and to pour that second glass.

This dining room was made for drama and lengthy evening dinners. The dark, striated wallpaper on the ceiling invites guests to feel cocooned, cozy and to pour that second glass.

Here, both flexibility and drama were important. A bold and happy yellow medallion floral reflects the daytime energy. But, when the sun sets and the interior lights flick on, the shadows play handsomely on the walls.  See more of Stewart Street…

Here, both flexibility and drama were important. A bold and happy yellow medallion floral reflects the daytime energy. But, when the sun sets and the interior lights flick on, the shadows play handsomely on the walls. See more of Stewart Street…

 

Right Photo : Matthew Lofton

Depth Perception

A trellis-like design can make a room seem larger, as the eye travels through the pattern to the background color. The softer and cooler the background color, such as a misty grey or mellow ivory, the more distant it seems from the pattern on the foreground. This is often true of large-scale florals as well, providing the background is paler than the pattern.

While the prevailing wisdom for years was that smaller spaces should be painted in light hues, another tactic for implying space is to use dark, cool tones that recede from the eye and seem to push the walls back and away from the furnishings. A dark grasscloth, for instance, can have this effect.

Wallpaper is a cherished tool in a designer’s bag of tricks. With the proper thought and planning, it can be just the thing to make a room sing. Knowing how to use pattern, texture, and color to improve your design is at the heart of making the right choice.