We think of wallpaper as a decorative backdrop. What, then, to make of wallpapers that are bent on pulling the viewer into their world?
So-called narrative wallpapers are not new — the famous French toile de Jouy, with its fine-lined 18th century pastoral scenes, celebrated its 200th anniversary in July. Today's narratives, however, turn the form on its head. Brooklyn-based Flavor Paper had an immediate hit several years back with Brooklyn Toile, designed with and for the Beastie Boys' Mike D to document images of his youth — Notorious B.I.G., Hasidic Jews and a tagged-up train, among them. This summer saw the release of Best Coast from local wallpaper house Cavern, illustrating L.A.'s icons.
Toiles are not the only narratives out there. Designer Katie Deedy of Grow House Grow, also in Brooklyn, notes: "Every time I design a wallpaper, the story comes first." Complete stories accompany her samples: A quirky 1909 newspaper article about a swimsuit-wearing monkey discovered in a Far Rockaway bathhouse, for example, sparked Grow House Grow's In the Bathhouse wallpaper.
Key to these narratives are their interplay with the viewer and the reactions they trigger, from a surprised chuckle to deep nostalgia. "There's a lot of emotion in these," says Deedy. "It adds depth to a home and a wonderful talking point as well."
Norinne DeGal, purveyor of many of these papers at her Beverly Boulevard shop Walnut Wallpaper, agrees. "Anything that has an added story behind it is more interesting to me. It only adds to the allure of the paper."
Here are some narratives that might satisfy your sense of whimsy — or your need to tell a new story on the wall of your home:
Best Coast — Cavern
The success of Brooklyn Toile left many waiting for an L.A.-themed toile. Sarah DeWoody of Cavern delivered this summer with Best Coast, a sweet homage featuring the city's best — palm trees, the Santa Monica Pier — and its worst — traffic jams. $185 a roll, available at www.cavernhome.com, Walnut Wallpaper, 7424 Beverly Blvd., www.walnutwallpaper.com.
Brooklyn Toile — Flavor Paper
Jon Sherman, owner of Brooklyn's edgy Flavor Paper, is proud that Brooklyn Toile was included in a recent exhibition at the Musée de la Toile de Jouy in France. Toiles are all about "capturing the nostalgia and representing an era," Sherman says. $200 a roll, available at flavorpaper.com or Walnut Wallpaper.
Dia de DUMBO — Flavor Paper
The Day of the Dead aesthetic is the basis for Flavor Paper's takeoff on scenes from Brooklyn's DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood. Originally made for a restaurant, the design is finding a residential audience as well. $150 a roll, available at Walnut Wallpaper or flavorpaper.com.
Dino — Sian Zeng
Children provide the narrative for the London-based artist, who adds a magnetic base layer to her wallpaper designs such as Dino and then adds movable character magnets and speech bubbles to spur storytelling. $100 a roll (wallpaper only) or $385 a roll (wallpaper plus magnetic receptor liner), available at Walnut Wallpaper.
Ode to the Unhasty — Grow House Grow
Deedy of Grow House Grow scours obscure resources for unusual stories that can inspire her hand-silk-screened wallpaper collections. Her own hectic life provided the grist for Ode to the Unhasty, with traditional medallions spotlighting the world's slowest creatures — a reminder to slow down. $180 a roll, available at growhousegrow.com and Walnut Wallpaper.
In the Bathhouse — Grow House Grow
Mischievous swimsuit-wearing monkeys smoking pipes, eating ice cream and the like inhabit this wallpaper based on an article Deedy discovered in a 1909 edition of the New York Times. $180 a roll, available at growhousegrow.com and Walnut Wallpaper.
Ms. Ward — Grow House Grow
Triumphs of little-known 19th century female scientists serve as the basis for Deedy's Naturalist Collection. Ms. Ward, for example, celebrates Irish scientist Mary Ward, an expert in microscopy and insects. $180 a roll, available at growhousegrow.com and Walnut Wallpaper.
London Toile — Timorous Beasties
"It looks so traditional, but I have to point out that someone is being held up at gunpoint and there's a homeless person on a bench," Walnut Wallpaper's DeGal says of this design, available hand-screened or digital, from Glasgow's provocative Timorous Beasties. $155 a roll, available at Walnut Wallpaper.