Wallpaper designs proliferated in the 1950s in patterns that ranged from bold and brassy to surprisingly subdued.
The post-World War II building boom had a thundering impact on wallpaper designs of the 1950s. As young couples and returning veterans moved out of cramped urban apartments into roomy new houses in the suburbs, they didn't want to take their traditional cabbage rose wallpapers with them. "People wanted modern papers for more modern houses," says Suzanne Lipschutz, owner of Secondhand Rose, a New York City antiques store with a mid-century paper collection. Consumers were suddenly offered a lot of choices by a wallpaper industry rebounding from a wartime manufacturing slump, when many printing rollers were melted down for the war effort. Eager to get business flowing again, paper companies started producing a flood of new patterns designed to appeal to a wide spectrum of consumers, so there were plenty of modern options.
Grass cloth weaves brought subtle textures to mid-century walls, and their horizontal lines created a spacious feel. Often nondescript and in earthy colors, grass cloth papers were a perfect backdrop for artwork.
Photo Courtesy of Atomic Ranch, Gibbs Smith
For many homeowners, modern meant subtle. "The typical wallpaper was probably so low-key that it blended into the background," says wallpaper scholar Robert Kelly. Small, repeating floral motifs were big in the 1950s, as were plaid patterns. Grass cloth wall coverings, which were textured and made of woven plant fibers on a paper backing, were a big hit and a fitting backdrop for tiki bars. Subtle geometric patterns repeating square or circular themes across a predominantly plain background were also common. For a time, there was even a resurgence of so-called traditional designs loosely based on patterns out of Colonial Williamsburg, thanks to the Colonial Revival craze. But you can't wrap the wallpapers of any era into a neat little package so that it defines a decade, cautions Kelly, because papers had to appeal to such a broad range of consumers. Average homeowners likely bought mass-produced wallpapers at mom and pop shops or at huge retailers like Sears, while those with high-style houses often sought out designer wall coverings. And in the 1950s homeowners had plenty of designer wallpapers to choose from.
Everybody's Doing It
"The 1950s was the last time that everybody used wallpaper. It was a high point for wallpaper design," says Gregory Herringshaw, assistant wall covers curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Fabric designers such as Vera and Elsa Schiaparelli had their own lines with wallpaper manufacturer F. Schumacher & Co.; Vera's line featured her signature oversized botanical themes. "Vera was a real trendsetter, with designs resembling op art 10 years before that was even a word," says Avodica Ash, Schumacher's archivist.
Some famous architects jumped on the wallpaper bandwagon, too. Le Corbusier created a bold wallpaper graphic resembling a giant checkerboard, with alternating black and white squares that seemed to fade into each other; the effect was nearly three dimensional. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a collection of papers called the Taliesin line. One of Wright's designs bore a repeating triangular theme that played tricks on the eyes. A different spin on geometric themes evolved from a growing fascination with nuclear fission, resulting in papers with atom-inspired graphics of concentric ovals or ameba shapes that seemed to be moving.
A visual impact of another sort was made with fine art murals. These took the masterpieces of famous avant-garde artists-Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, and Antonio Matta, to name a few-and pasted them on the wall in sizes ranging from 4' x 6' to 6' x 9', creating striking conversation pieces. Likewise, papers printed in complementary patterns that were meant to be mixed in one room-a bold graphic on a highlight wall, accessorized with three walls of color-coordinated, subdued prints-were actually called conversationals by their manufacturers.
It wasn't just the designs that were noteworthy, but the papers themselves. Technological advances in wallpaper manufacturing during the 1950s changed the way that decorating was done. Pre-trimmed paper, which eliminated the selvage edges, appeared for the first time, and it made hanging wallpaper much easier for the average homeowner. Washable papers, coated with a durable varnish, were available in unlimited quantities and practical for high-traffic areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. Some manufacturers created paper that was meant to be hung horizontally for a more streamlined effect. Some even experimented with papers that could hang in any direction, making it possible to alternate the pattern around the room for a personalized décor. Colors changed in the 1950s, too. Wallpaper companies learned to print intense shades such as hot pink and chartreuse, as well as glittery metallics, which were an instant hit. Other popular color combinations included earth tones mixed in unexpected ways, brown combined with pink and orange, for instance.
Kitsch Is King
The category most associated with the 1950s has come to be known as kitsch papers-bold, brassy graphics with informal themes intended to be fun. A kitchen paper might feature chickens and eggs or a pan frying bacon. The kitsch papers, formally known as novelty papers, had over-the-top, playful designs and were meant for children's rooms, kitchens, and sometimes game rooms or bars. One 1950s Schumacher ad shows Desi Arnaz in his living room with walls papered in a pattern of oversized liquor bottle labels. Wallpaper for a child's room might have cartoonish astronauts, nursery rhyme characters, or giraffes and monkeys playing leapfrog. French poodles were a popular theme, as was Paris. One pattern even combined the two, showing poodles sitting in cafes and strolling down boulevards.
Many novelty papers were landscape designs, patterns bearing four or five different scenes that repeated across a wall. Landscapes virtually told a story: cowboys riding horses, cowboys lassoing cows, cowboys at a campfire, followed by a sunset over cacti. The most outlandish landscape patterns were reserved for children's rooms and kitchens, and in the latter case featured tableaus of the perfect cocktail party or barbecue in vignettes.
Art world trends made their mark on designs, too. Many wallpapers with floating, geometric shapes owe their existence to the popularity of Alexander Calder's mobiles. The influential, ground-breaking styles of artists such as Matisse and Miro were also knocked off in wallpaper patterns.
In 1995, Cooper-Hewitt put together an exhibit on 1950s wallpapers called Kitsch to Corbusier: Wallpapers from the 1950s. The range of the collection was extensive and included a popular wallpaper series of black and white calligraphic line art by Saul Steinberg, who illustrated covers for the New Yorker for half a century, proof that bold papers weren't always about funky colors and funny landscape patterns. The exhibit also emphasized the enduring impact that abstract expressionists of the day had on wallpaper designs. As a review of the show in The New York Times put it, "The most important quality the often anonymous wallpaper designers absorbed from these modern masters was the sense of individual forms floating freely in a shallow but open-ended space."
It's ironic that novelty papers are remembered as the décor of the decade, despite the great variety of wallpapers more commonly used in the 1950s, but it's not surprising. Poodles on the wall made an impact that was hard to forget, unlike the plaids, tiny florals, and grass cloth weaves that faded from memory as easily as they blended into the background of most suburban ranch houses.
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