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From Past to Present: Wallpaper in the Modern Home

Wallpaper is back, but in a whole new way. Discover how this vintage design element has lasted the test of time in this story inspired by "Blue & White Forever," a feature in the February 2018 Better Homes & Gardens print edition.

Wallpaper has had a steady presence in homes for centuries. Some love it, some hate it, but no one can deny its impressive place in home design history. Dating back to almost the beginning of time, wall art has been used by everyone from the cavemen who drew on cave walls to homeowners who harnessed the beauty of hand-painted paper during Colonial times. Why has wallpaper been so prevalent in the home? Because "the feeling for beauty, and the desire to express it in the adornment of the home, finds one of its happiest and simplest expressions in wallpaper." (Better Homes & Gardens, Wallpaper Aids in Creating Cheerfulness, November 1923).

Design with a Purpose

Wallpaper has been a popular choice for home decorators throughout the years because of its capability for both function and design.

"Wallpapers can make a room larger or smaller, higher or lower, cooler or more sunshiny, a place to read or a place to dance, a place for much furniture or for little. If wisely chosen, they can give to traditional furniture such a thoroughly modern setting that centuries are whirled away while the rolls are being hung." (Better Homes & Gardens, Wallpaper Association Advertisement, March 1930)

The key to this quote is if wisely chosen. It can be easy to fall in love with the design of a wallpaper and to purchase it with the intention of making it work no matter what, but the design of the wallpaper must be carefully planned with the current furnishings and the structure of the room to transform it into the space you've envisioned—without breaking the bank on a complete room makeover. (Better Homes & Gardens, There's Magic in Wallpaper, October 1929) When choosing a design, consider the following:

The size of the room: Light-toned paper with a delicate design often best suits small rooms and can give the illusion of a larger space. On the contrary, strong designs and/or colors can help make a large room seem smaller and more inviting. Design can also help counter structural woes. Make a too-tall ceiling appear lower with a horizontal design pattern, or "raise" a ceiling with a vertical pattern. (Better Homes & Gardens, The Importance of Scale, July 1926)

The current design of the room: If you're completely redesigning a room and have a blank canvas, you have free reign over which wallpaper to choose, and therefore which personality to add to the room. If you're wallpapering a room that already has an existing design flow, however, you'll want to choose a paper that complements it. Take note of the color scheme of the room, and add a design that accents it and brings it all together. Be mindful of existing patterns, as well. If you already have a piece of art or furniture with an eye-catching pattern, choose a plain, subtle wallpaper to avoid overcrowding the room. (Better Homes & Gardens, Wallpaper Can Work Wonders in Your Home, May 1951)

The focal point of the room: Accenting the focal wall of the room with a bold hue or design can draw the eye and focus one's attention on that area. Add a statement wall in your living room or bedroom with a spirited wallpaper design that complements the color scheme of the rest of the room. Try this trick in a small room as well to help it appear larger. (Better Homes & Gardens, What Wallpaper Can Do for You, March 1949)

How often the room is used: Various factors must be considered beyond just the current structure and design of the room. How much traffic a room receives is equally as important. If a small room is used less, such as a bathroom or a small hallway, you can experiment with a striking wallpaper that adds a boost of fun personality that may be too much for a larger, more lived-in room. (Better Homes & Gardens, What Wallpaper Can Do for You, March 1949)

If there are adjoining rooms you want to coordinate with: Create a design that flows from room to room with complementing wallpaper designs and colors. (Better Homes & Gardens, Wallpaper Can Work Wonders in Your Home, May 1951)

Make It Modern

"Today it is enjoying a very decided vogue, for it is a vastly different product from the wallpaper of our mothers' day." (Better Homes & Gardens, There's Magic in Wallpaper, October 1929)

Advancements in design and production have allowed us to step away from the shudder-worthy days of permanent, tacky wallpaper and hours upon hours spent scraping off every last bit of paper and glue. Peel-and-stick wallpapers now allow for easy application and removal without the need for applying your own adhesive, and temporary wallpapers allow you to make bold design moves without the risk of committing to a permanent design woe. Of course, there's nothing wrong with committing to a wallpaper you love and opting for a more permanent option as well. It's all about finding the perfect wallpaper for your space and your personal needs.

Still unconvinced wallpaper can work in your modern home? Try a trendy pattern like marble to add a subtle, modern touch of beauty, a natural texture like grass-cloth or a wood look-alike to create an open and airy space, or incorporate a gorgeous vintage design like a 17th-century French damask pattern for a stunning, timeless look. Or, take a cue from the DiLorenzo family the in February 2018 issue and embrace your home's original wallpaper by giving it new life with contemporary accents and furnishings. (Better Homes & Gardens, Blue & White Forever, February 2018)

Care and Maintenance Tips and Tricks

Keep your new wallpaper looking fresh for years to come with proper care and maintenance techniques. Some temporary wallpapers cannot be washed, due to their design for short-term usage, but routine dusting will help keep yours looking like new. To dust, vacuum the wall gently with a soft brush attachment every few months, starting at the top of the wall and working your way down. This method is especially helpful for textured wallpaper that builds up dust and dirt quicker.

Some wallpapers, like washable vinyl, will stand up to a soap and water sudsing. These durable wallpapers are often used in kitchens, bathrooms, or kids' playrooms where they stand up to daily wear and tear. To remove dirt spots from a water-resistant wallpaper, start by gently dampening the affected and surrounding area with a clean sponge or towel and cold water; next, use a separate sponge or towel and apply a mild, colorless soap with gentle stroking motions. Finally, rinse with fresh, clear, cold water. (Be sure to rinse thoroughly to avoid streaks or leftover soap spots!) If you're washing the entire wall, start from the bottom and work your way up to avoid streaks and uneven cleaning. (Better Homes & Gardens, How to Care for Your Wallpaper, April 1943)

To spot-clean wallpaper that is not water-resistant, gently remove the smudge or spot with a slice of white bread or an art-gum eraser. Avoid cleaning these papers with water or cleaning products.

No matter what cleaning method you use, and whether the wallpaper says washable or not, be sure to test it first in a small, hidden area to avoid a cleaning catastrophe.