Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Not-So-Pretty Paper


Not-So-Pretty Paper

The deeply unsettling yellow wallpaper Charlotte Perkins Gilman visualized in her short story over one hundred years ago has finally come to life.

Feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is narrated by a woman in the throws of postnatal depression, incarcerated in her own home, “for her own good”, by her physician husband. The yellow wallpaper that decorates the solitary room she inhabits is, “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.” Ironically, the mutable, dynamic, and even threatening role that wallpaper plays in Gilman’s century-old short story is increasingly apparent in wallpaper designs of today.

Wallpaper’s resurgence in recent years is, by now, well accounted. But a select group of artists and designers have taken wallpaper to a further, unexpected, turn. No longer beholden to its static decorative past, these wallpapers exude a more active persona uncannily similar to that conjured by Gilman’s short story. Blame it on our technology-induced short attention spans but the designer’s hand, much like Gilman’s narrator, has grown increasingly undecided and reluctant to settle on a single pattern. A disturbing physicality is apparent, not dissimilar from the “old foul, bad yellow things” that Gilman’s narrator sees in her yellow wallpaper. Be warned: when wallpaper appears to act as simply a backdrop, close inspection often reveals that traditional motifs have been reworked or materials are far from what they first appear to be.

Recent exhibitions such as On the Wall in 2003 (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia), Flock ’n’ Roll (Geffrye Museum in London) and Artists’ Designed Wallpapers (Cooper-Hewitt, New York) in 2004 attest to healthy interest in contemporary wallpaper design. As the curators of Flock ’n’ Roll explain, the availability of interactive wallpaper in particular “invites consumers to take part in the design process [and] is part of a trend in contemporary interior style whereby the consumer is encouraged to take a more actively creative role. Rather than being passive background decoration in the home, wallpaper becomes an opportunity for self-expression, creativity, and fun.” But alongside this sense of fun, wallpaper has also been appropriated by fine artists and designers alike, for one-off projects of protest – or at the very least inquiry – that now make their homes in both domestic and gallery settings.

As the mental stability of Gilman’s narrator deteriorates—or is clarified, depending on your reading—she becomes intrigued with the pattern beneath the surface, noting “If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little.” Color and pattern can do much to trick the eye and enhance the sense of three-dimensionality, but several contemporary designers have taken a literal approach to removal of bothersome “top pattern.” The Scandinavian design team Front’s prototype Designs by Animals: Wallpaper Gnawed by a Rat is “manufactured” by rats and gerbils the group keeps as pets. Two layers of wallpaper make up the design, a patterned underlayer papered over by a plain top layer that has been gnawed by the helpful rodents. When the paper is unrolled, the torn holes create an imperfect repeat that exposes the layer of bold print papered beneath. Fine Artist Jim Isermann (part of the 2003 exhibition On the Wall) plays with a similar notion of revealing the wall beneath through a paper that only partially conceals the wall on which it is papered. But rather than organic tears as in Front’s design, Isermann uses a slick gradation of voids shaped from sphere to oval, which create an optical illusion that distorts the architecture on which the paper hangs. Much like  Gilman’s “trapped” narrator who tears at the paper to release the woman she imagines is imprisoned beneath the top pattern, Wook Kim offers yet another case of wallpaper’s dual ability to entrap and protect on both material and metaphorical levels.

Marion Boulton Stroud, founder and artistic director of The Fabric Workshop and Museum, writes in the catalog that accompanied On the Wall, “Hailed by proponents of Art Nouveau in the middle and late nineteenth century for fusing the fine and decorative arts, wallpaper emerged for British designer-aesthete William Morris as the leitmotif of the decorative schema and an emblem of domestic felicity.” Today designers such as Paul Simmons and Alistair McAuley of the Glasgow-based Timorous Beasties produce wallpapers and blinds for both contract and domestic markets that have been described by critics as contemporary evidence of “William Morris on acid.” Timorous Beasties has taken the mild-mannered world of wallpaper design far from domestic felicity into what can only be described as enemy territory. In a special commission for publication View on Color, which is no longer in production, Timorous Beasties paired overgrown floral motifs with familiar but far less decorative imagery of war. Bombers fly in formation through purple clouds. Bullets trace paths over petals and flower heads. Tanks trample beds of roses, and conventional camouflage patterns overtake a floral repeat of thistles—Scotland’s national emblem. In a similar overturning of expectation, artist Jennifer Angus takes content that would be banished from the home and arranges, wingtip to wingtip, actual beetles and bugs. Her large-scale “wallpaper” installations look from a distance to be stained glass rather than pests because the wings and bodies often glint and shimmer. But like Front in its use of rodents and Timorous Beasties in its appropriation of military imagery, Angus papers the unexpected, making pests into pattern and questioning the very material that constitutes the decorative. In her work also lurks the threat that her material may find life again, fly from the carefully organized patterns in which they are displayed, and even threaten those who occupy the space.  Thankfully, unlike Front, who hope to see their work in production one day, Angus’s creations are firmly planted within the realm of the art gallery.

Once the domain of the purely decorative, these contemporary works speak to the volatile realities and concerns of today, drawing connections between all-too-familiar but previously disassociated imagery. Gilman’s narrator maintains that she knows “little of the principle of design.” But she goes on to note that what she sees is not what she has seen before, it is “not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.” “I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction,” Gilman’s narrator exclaims, “and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.” Premonitions over a century old of what has now arrived in contemporary wallpaper design.

Jessica Hemmings has a BFA in textiles and a PhD in Modern Literature. She is a contributing editor at Selvedge.

FiberArts magazine (Nov./Dec. 2005: 28-33)