As in any field, in the world of interior design, trends come and go. There’s a special trend that I’ve often admired, although its heyday is long past, and I doubt it will enjoy a revival anytime soon: hand-printed panoramic scenic wallpapers.
I’ve been lucky to visit old townhouses and apartments that featured these beautiful papers, probably hung generations ago. Panoramic scenic wallpapers are especially interesting because they’re a hybrid, wallpapers that imitate paintings, yet are hand made in a way that sets them apart from murals.
This post features my favorite scenic wallpapers, the European panoramas produced between 1800-1859, before manufacturers figured out how to move away from laborious hand crafting to mass production. This is a panoramic scenic wallpaper below.
Long before panoramic scenic wallpapers were developed, wallpapers originated with a wish to bring the outdoors in. They were inspired by landscape paintings in the 16th century, and as the cost of paper fell, these images made their way onto wall coverings, combining popular culture with the lure of exotic travel. Exotic wall coverings appealed both to those who had visited distant shores and those who dreamed of such journeys.
Early wallpapers and the panoramic papers that followed were printed with woodblocks. Woodblocks are just that, pear wood blocks that are carved by hand to the desired design, with one block carved per color. The block would be inked and printed along a length of paper. The paper then dried before the next color was applied. A complex design could be built up using this method, creating both patterns and landscapes. Inexpensive papers used only a few colors, while luxury papers used elaborate designs.
This is a close-up of a paper featuring a pastoral scene with cows. From a distance, the colors appear blended, but as we approach, they break into their separate colors. Do you see how the colors are flat colors, distinct from one another? There’s no blending between the colors, they’ve been printed next to one another. Look at how many colors there are! Amazing detail.
European wallpapers developed at the same time as Chinoiserie papers (see my post here), whose sensational designs and handwork inspired the European industry to up the ante. European wallpapers quickly evolved.
In the late 18th century, artists began painting panoramic landscapes on canvas and walls. Recognizing an opportunity, France began creating panoramic scenic wallpapers. Produced at an enormous size and featuring 360-degree views and designed to line all walls of a room, these papers provided a non-repeating scene from the ceiling to either a chair rail or the floor. The wallpapers quickly took over the high-end market.
The first, “Views of Switzerland,” was printed in 1804 by Zuber Manufacture de Papier Peints.
It required 1,024 woodblocks and 95 colors. Like Chinoiserie papers, panoramic scenic wallpapers could be adapted to any size room while transitional devices like rocks and trees could be eliminated to allow for doors and windows. The skies on these papers dominated the tops of the sheets, allowing for any room height. The skies were often painted by hand with big brushes before the woodblock printing took place. A set of blocks for a panorama like this could take 20 engravers a full year to complete.
Between 1804 and 1860, Zuber designed and produced over 25 of these fantastic panoramic papers. This photo shows how sheets were printed to fit together seamlessly.
Other than travel and exotic locales, paper topics included mythology, military history, literature and daily life. Italian scenes were among the most popular. Papers depicting scenes in New York, Boston and other American locales were also produced. Here we are at Niagara Falls. This scene was just one part of an elaborate design.
The view below is from West Point, NY.
The White House has a scenic panoramic wallpaper installed in the Diplomatic Reception Room, thanks to Jackie Kennedy. It’s an 1834 antique French paper from Zuber called Scenes of North America, which includes the West Point image. Here’s the room.
One of the most ambitious papers was Zuber’s “El Dorado,” first manufactured in 1848 and still available today. It incorporates landscapes from four continents and was designed by two illustrators who specialized in botanical renderings, taking two years to complete from inception through production. Here’s part of the paper.
This is a close-up. Love those birds! And look at that extraordinary detail, all hand printed. Would you want to be responsible for making sure that all of those colors registered perfectly? No, thank you! The precision is incredible.
Scenic wallpapers were produced as full-color or monochrome, known as grisaille, meaning “shades of grey,” although tones of blue, sepia, yellow ochre and olive were also used.
I cut this out of a magazine because I loved the color combination of steel blue, white and plum.
Here’s another beautiful use of a scenic wallpaper.
In 1839, machine printing was introduced in England, allowing a much faster process. However, since the circumference of the rollers was small, this reduced the size of the repeat, changing the scale of papers. Although French manufacturers continued to produce hand-printed wallpapers, fashion trends pressed onward, and with these new affordable designs available to all, tastes moved away from panoramic papers. By 1850, England and France supplied almost all of the Western world’s wallpaper, printing two million rolls per year.
This post was inspired by a fantastic show on landscape wallcoverings that I saw in 2001 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in NYC, which holds the largest collection of wallcoverings in the country and is an all-round sensational place to visit. The Cooper-Hewitt is housed in a beautiful old mansion and is the country’s only museum dedicated to historic and contemporary design. They feature all sorts of excellent exhibits. Always worth a visit!