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Peeling back the wallpaper

Grandma's wall coverings are making a classy comeback in the most unexpected ways

Wallpaper. For some, the word connotes grandma's house. Mothballs. Mind-numbing patterns. And a lot of effort spent removing it.

But, like so many trends, at some point, wallpaper was bound to make a comeback. Today, the politically correct word for wallpaper is wall covering, and it is making a splash in some unique ways.

Heidi Wright has been hanging wallpaper, or rather, wall coverings, in the Bay Area for 35 years. She explained that "wall covering" is a more descriptive word now, especially since she has hung coverings made out of a variety of materials besides paper, including mother-of-pearl, beads, feathers and even linen-covered magnets.

Fannie Allen, an interior designer and founder of Fannie Allen Design of Atherton, has noticed an increase in wall coverings in design showrooms.

"I feel like wallpaper was not particularly popular for a long time, but has since had this resurgence," Allen said.

According to Allen, in the late 1970s, trends in minimalism fueled a focus on texture, which she believes helped to increase a desire for very tactile coverings like Phillip Jeffries' grass cloths.

Since then, wall-covering technology has evolved, allowing for infinite design possibilities that are both faster to make and install. This convenience means that wall coverings have become less expensive than some traditional wallpapers. Options such as removable wall decals and peel-and-stick wallpaper -- which Wright compares to a Post-It for your wall -- also allow for more flexibility, a convenience for those who rent.

In the last few years, Wright has noticed a shift from the neutral grass cloths and natural fibers to colorful patterns that make a bold statement.

"Patterns are coming back in a big way, and a feature wall with a pattern that pops -- I do a lot of that -- just a headboard wall, something that's gorgeous and interesting," Wright said.

Allen corroborates Wright's observations, adding that other wall-covering trends include large abstract non-repeating designs, photo images and ethnic-looking texture. Both Wright and Allen noted that these designs are increasingly installed on what has come to be known as the "fifth wall," or the ceiling.

"Ceilings are getting a unique treatment to go with the rest of the room," Allen said, adding that she recently saw a bedroom with orange and pink walls and a multicolored geometric graphic wall covering on the ceiling.

Even though technology has made wallpaper more accessible and convenient, recently Wright has noticed a shift from large manufacturers to smaller boutique wall-covering companies that focus on creating a customizable handmade product.

"I think it's because artists can get themselves out there. Now, with Instagram and Pinterest and Houzz, there are so many ways for these small companies to get seen. It's a lot easier (for them) to find their niche," Wright said, adding that many are also represented in design showrooms, which also contributes to their success.

Amy Mills, the wallpaper designer behind Paper Mills in Oakland, is a prime example of an artist who makes a custom product.

"What I'm doing is old-fashioned," she said, explaining that her process involves block printing which harks back to the mid-1800s.

In an age when technology is king and the digital wall-covering trend is on the rise, Mills offers something unique: a human-made product.

"One drawback to digitally printed wallpaper is that it all looks and feels the same. (My wallpaper) has a thickness to it. You can tell that a person made it. There's a rustico quality to it that you could never achieve with a digitally printed thing," Mills said.

It would seem that wallpaper has moved from the background to the foreground, becoming the center of attention rather than a muted afterthought. Allen notes that often clients are more open to using wall coverings than to buying a piece of art for the wall. Perhaps this is because wall coverings seem more accessible than a piece of art.

Or, maybe, it's that wall coverings are a pieces of art in and of themselves.

Editorial Intern Anna Medina can be emailed at

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