Designer wallpaper: a history

Chinoiserie wallpaper by de Gournay

After the early wall paintings of the Egyptian and Roman murals, it took several centuries for designer wallpaper as we know it to feature in contemporary homes. Read on to discover the history of designer wallpaper, and how it transformed from tapestries in the Middle Ages to today’s digitally printed designs, created by modern artists.

The first wallpapers

In Medieval times, tapestries adorned the walls and windows of European palaces and grand homes of the wealthy, to keep drafts out.

Medieval tapestry

Wallpaper began as a cheap substitute for these tapestries and panelling, believed by some historians to be as early as the 1400s. The designs of these wallpapers usually mimicked fabrics, like damasks.

Flemish craftsmen created the first wallpapers, which were decorations for wood panels. These papers were printed by wooden blocks and coloured by hand, and were very expensive to produce.

Wooden blocks for printing

As demand increased to find a less expensive alternative to the wall-hangings of the rich, printers produced simple yet decorative paper panels.

The earliest known wallpaper in England dates back to 1509, it was an Italian-inspired woodcut pomegranate design, printed on the back of a proclamation issued by Henry VIII. In general, wallpaper of this period depicted floral designs and murals. The wealthy continued to cover their walls with more luxurious materials including brocades, velvets and even embossed leather.

Floral block print

Exotic influences

In Elizabethan England, wallpaper’s popularity continued to increase. The wallpapers offered protection against dampness and were able to handle fireplace smoke better than before.

The Chinese began to produce wallpaper in the early 1600s, printing rice paper with painted birds, flowers and landscapes, formed in rectangular sheets. This style became known as chinoiserie and was soon imitated by European designers.

In the 17th Century, flocked wallpaper was developed. This involved printing a background colour onto paper, then applying adhesive in a pattern, and sprinkling the paper with dyed sheep wool trimmings. The end result was a luxurious textured imitation of cut velvet.


Wallpaper was an increasingly popular addition to the home in the 18th and 19th Centuries, with designers creating different wallpaper styles including chinoiserie wallpaper, flock wallpaper, scenic wallpapers, and wallpapers made to look like swags and tassels.


Simple black and white papers had virtually disappeared in Europe by the 1700s. Colored papers were in vogue, especially imported paper from China.

In France, wallpapers in marbleized designs evolved from the end papers used in bookbinding. They were first printed in small squares, and eventually, the squares were glued together into a long sheet and rolled up for convenience.

Grand designs

Wallpaper was by now so popular that a tax was introduced in England by 1712 on paper that was “painted, printed or stained to serve as hangings”. English wallpaper designers simplified their designs to cater to the mass market, to compensate for the tax. This meant that the French could continue to be at the forefront of developing the most elaborate, fine wallpapers in Europe.

Wallpaper became a royal requisite throughout Europe, and in 1778, Louis XVI issued a decree that stated that the length of a wallpaper roll be about 34 feet.

Patterns imitated scenic tapestries, brocatelles and patterned velvets. Wallpaper designs were often topical, for example in celebration of the revolutions of 1776 and 1789. It was common for wallpapers to be made in separate panels and depict a single scene.

Great exhibition of 1851 wallpaper

The French continued to innovate and invented a machine to print paper in 1785. Artists began to create wallpaper designs in addition to the traditional woodblock printers. Chinoiserie wallpaper remained popular in manor houses, palaces and chateaux. The elaborate designs were usually applied in panels, sometimes edged with gilt. Designer wallpapers created by the French were the most sought after.

Floral block print

Borders around wallpaper were originally used to hide the tacks used to hold the wallpaper in position. These became a design feature in the late 1700s, and often included florals and architectural friezes.

Industrial developments

By the beginning of the 1800s, it was fashionable to divide the wall into three parts – the dado, filler and frieze. This style is often seen in Victorian homes.

Victorian wallpaper

Striped wallpaper became popular in Napoleonic France and in England, and often extended to the ceilings as well. Panoramic landscapes were also popular in France, but not so much in England as portraits of people were often hung on the walls.

Massive amounts of time and energy were needed to print huge landscape scenes, using thousands of hand-carved blocks and hundreds of colours.

The industrial revolution in the 19th century brought about huge technological developments in wallpaper production. Wallpaper printing machines were refined and steam power was applied to the printing process. This meant designer wallpapers could be printed much faster and cheaper than ever before. Inventors also developed industrial methods for printing multiple colours.

Unfortunately, focus on production meant that the design phase of the production process was often neglected. 19th century wallpaper Design Reformers shunned badly made factory-made products, and dismissed trompe l’oeil, panoramic scenes and imitations of textiles and architecture as being tasteless and without integrity.

Art as wallpaper

Wallpaper designers like William Morris created flat, two-dimensional patterns in nature inspired designs, often featuring abstracted florals. These were based on pre-industrial prototypes and created using pre-industrial methods.


During the Aesthetic Movement, in the late Victorian era, designer wallpapers were often printed with complementary patterns for each different section of the wall, with borders between them. The wallpaper patterns and colours were often inspired by designs from the Islamic and Far Eastern worlds.

In the beginning of the 20th century, wallpaper remained very popular in homes, though the influence of mid-century Modernism brought about a lot of white walls.

Wallpaper became more durable and with longer lasting dyes. It was easier to apply and remove. Futurist and cubist designs were created in the 1920s, and wallpaper patterns became more modern. Fabric wall coverings became popular again with the elite, such as silk wallpaper and hand painted finishes. Vinyl wallpaper grew in popularity in the mid 20th century, due to its durability and practicality for commercial applications.

Cubist wallpaper

Wallpaper designs have been given a new lease of life over the last few years, as recent developments in digital printing and production have allowed space for artists of all kinds of disciplines to create innovative and original wallpaper designs. Traditional patterns and styles have made way for experimental, abstract and unusual artwork of all different scales and sizes. Feature walls and bespoke murals are becoming increasingly popular in contemporary homes, and a modern alternative to hanging framed artwork on the walls.






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