One-Step Makeover: The transformational power of wallpaper


In its five-century history, wallpaper has come and gone from the spotlight too many times to count. But whether loved or loathed, it always inspires strong emotions.

The Victorians were so obsessed they covered every wall and ceiling with wallpaper — to such an extreme that it occasionally poisoned them. (Color-enhancing arsenic was an unfortunate 19th century ingredient.) Later, the Franco-Swiss architect and wallpaper hater Le Corbusier famously decreed, “Every citizen is required to replace his wallpaper with a plain coat of whitewash.”

Despite wallpaper’s massive popularity now, homeowners can be hesitant to take the plunge, said Lauren Rasken of Lauren A. Balkan Designs in New York. “It’s a much bigger commitment than paint,” she explained. Wallpaper can, however, have a more transformative effect, said Georgia Tapert Howe, a Los Angeles-based designer. “It creates a world, more than anything else,” she said. “When you walk into a room with beautiful paper, you’re completely transported.”


Location, location, location

Falling in love with a wallpaper is one thing but deciding where to install it is a more challenging consideration. Should it blanket a room or serve as an accent? Is it best in a busy foyer or a formal dining area?

Sarah Sherman Samuel, a designer based in Grand Rapids, Mich., said she likes to use it in areas with limited natural light. “Hallways, laundry rooms and offices often lack windows,” she said. “Sunlight playing off painted walls really enhances their visual interest, but when you don’t have it, wallpaper can play that role.”

Rooms with less natural light also tend to be small, so taking a bold approach does not feel overpowering. Tapert Howe said she always uses wallpaper in powder rooms, which turns them into jewel boxes. “You can do something daring because you are in there for four minutes.” Small rooms are also a great canvas to innovate without overspending, she said. “It’s a cheap thrill. You only need three rolls of a fabulous paper versus a fortune in a larger room.”

When it comes to wallpapered accent walls, that old trend has moved on. “I never want to see that again,” said Tapert Howe. “If it’s your dorm room or first rental apartment, it’s fun and economical, but otherwise it looks random.” That does not mean wallpaper should never be used to accentuate part of a room if you do not want it throughout. “Find an alcove or the back of a bookcase or do a ceiling, which is like a fresco,” she suggests.

A dash of wallpaper almost always succeeds in kids’ rooms, said Rasken. For a boy’s bedroom in Westport, Conn., she used a fun boombox wallpaper by Aimée Wilder on some walls but painted the others a matching color. “If you aren’t going to wallpaper an entire room, find a way to tie things together cohesively,” she said. “Coordinating paint with wallpaper is a great trick.”


Picking a paper

When selecting a wallpaper, always order samples. “Get a whole roll of your top contender,” suggests Tapert Howe, because it will show how the pattern repeats. “A small square cutting will have one flower, but seeing 700 may make you realize it’s too much.”

The size of a room also offers a helpful filter. Typically, larger rooms require a larger pattern. “It looks dizzying if it’s too small,” said Tapert Howe. Small rooms can handle a greater variety of designs, but even professionals can be surprised by how a pattern looks installed. When she saw the wallpaper she chose for her daughter’s nursery on the walls, Sherman Samuel realized it had to be replaced. “The monkeys in it were suddenly terrifying in person.”

Wallpaper is also much more than patterned paper. Silk, linen and other textiles can be paper-backed and applied like traditional wallpaper. A perennial favorite of designers for a textured, minimal look is grass cloth, which is made of woven natural fibers and can range from $50 to $600 per roll. “It can go anywhere,” Tapert Howe said. “You can dress it up in a chic New York apartment, and it looks equally at home in a Malibu beach house.”

One more way to narrow the field is with the style of the home. An English floral paper might not gel with a midcentury home, for example, but some brilliant pairings are less obvious. For the foyer of her Westport project, a modern farmhouse, Rasken chose a black-and-white grid with irregular lines from Lee Jofa. “It looks like someone took a Sharpie to the wall,” she said, and it gave the room the perfect edge. “It’s a contemporary, neutral play on a traditional pattern, and so it really worked.”

Measure a million times, install once

Finding an expert installer is as important as picking out a wallpaper you will enjoy for years. Designers recommend doing this early in the process, as installers can help with selecting the right amount of paper following a site visit. “I don’t order a paper unless the installer comes first,” said Rasken. “There’s so much room for error.”

Sarah Merenda, a master installer with her own line of papers, has been working with wallpaper for 20 years, having studied as an apprentice under her uncle. She advises designers and clients to pick someone accredited on the Wallcovering Installers Assn. website.


An installer’s fee will vary somewhat but Merenda, based in New York, requires a $700 minimum and charges $5 per square foot of the job, plus extra costs for materials and wall preparation. She can perfectly put up wallpaper anywhere a client wants it but says it is important to think of the material as a living organism with a temperament, just like the homes and homeowners involved.

“You’re dealing with humidity, heat, dryness and cold, plus so many other factors,” she said, adding that she’s had wallpaper peel off after installation and pull the plaster off the walls. “Wallpaper is an art and a science and a mood,” she said. “It is magic and always, always worth it.”