Think wallpaper is old-fashioned? Think again

'You can get quite theatrical with wallpaper,' says the interior designer Flora Soames.
'You can get quite theatrical with wallpaper,' says interior designer Flora Soames. - BILL BATTEN
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You might be surprised to hear that in the genteel world of interior decoration, the wallpaper wars are unfolding, as establishment brands and the newguard battle it out over market share, social media likes and profits. Earlier this month, Osborne & Little, the wallpaper and fabric firm co-founded by former chancellor George Osborne’s father, saw its pre-tax profits plummet to £30,000 in the most recent tax year. This was down from £1.5 million the year before – something of a surprise, given the great wallpaper revival of recent years. The upmarket wallpaper stalwart, founded in 1967, put it down to inflation, higher running costs and the declining property market. But could its fall in profits also be due to the rise of the design-world disruptors?

“There are some really interesting names coming to the market,” says the interior designer Nicola Harding. “Having previously been a bit draughty in terms of options, there is now a new wave, and the ability to take something to market is easier than ever before.” Harding should know: she recently launched her first eight-piece wallpaper collection, having trialled the designs at Beaverbrook’s two five-star hotels in Surrey and London for their luxurious refits a couple of years ago.

House of Hackney was created in 2011 after its founders Frieda Gormley and Javvy Royle couldn’t find the wallpaper they wanted to decorate their own home
House of Hackney was created in 2011 after its founders Frieda Gormley and Javvy Royle couldn’t find the wallpaper they wanted to decorate their own home - Simon Upton
House of Hackney Galanthri Viridis wallpaper
House of Hackney Galanthri Viridis wallpaper

Her new wallpaper collection – featuring subtle, soft patterns in both large and small scale, and designed for layering with other decorative elements – was conceived, according to Harding, “because I found it hard to find wallpaper that did what I wanted it to do: not be too noisy. If the wallpaper’s shouty, it’s very difficult to put it with other things,” she explains. “It starts jarring and fighting with the other features. I wanted to create papers that could melt into the background and be more about texture, without being too abstract.”

Harding is not the only one to have spotted gaps in the existing wallpaper market. Indeed, arguably the pioneer of this new wave, House of Hackney was created in 2011 after its founders Frieda Gormley and Javvy Royle couldn’t find the wallpaper they wanted to decorate their own home (in Hackney): “The aesthetic we had in our head was nostalgia mixed with modernity and playfulness,” explains Gormley. “When we launched, the [design scene] had been through 10 years of white walls – we were like aliens arriving.” Disguised, that is, by elegant printed palm fronds.

With House of Hackney leading the charge, “the decorating rulebook was ripped up,” says Gormley. Neither she nor Javvy had been trained in interiors: “We came at it from a consumer point of view, thinking, ‘What do we love?’, and [understanding] that everyone has their own taste. The traditional interiors world was like, ‘Who are these kids?’” Previously, she adds, that old-school scene was “very hierarchical, and operated in a certain way. So it’s very nice that we’re in a moment of creative freedom.”

'If on a budget, consider just wallpapering an alcove' says interior designer Flora Soames
'If on a budget, consider just wallpapering an alcove' says Soames - Simon Upton Interiors & Portraits
Flora Soames Enid's Ramble wallpaper
Wallpaper your ceiling for that all-out immersive look

More than a decade on, it’s evident that the new wallpaper start-ups – often launched by interior designers such as Beata Heuman, Flora Soames and Salvesen Graham – have a distinct competitive advantage. They’re young, they’re small and they’re au fait with Instagram and direct-to-consumer selling. “With social media, you can be more in-house, and more in control of your brand,” says Nicole Salvesen, one half of the interior design duo Salvesen Graham, which has enjoyed “enduring demand” for its striped and floral papers.

“Before, you’d have to partner with a showroom, and for that, you’d have to have 200 metres of every fabric and 100 rolls of wallpaper sitting in a warehouse somewhere,” she continues. “You don’t need that now.” It means these younger brands can be more agile and spontaneous, and react more quickly to trends.

It’s why, for example, Barneby Gates’ current wallpaper collaboration with Burleigh Pottery, which sees archive Burleigh patterns printed onto papers in navy and china blue, only took “three to four months from drawing it to getting it on a wall”, says co-founder Vanessa Barneby (conventionally, the turnaround would be a minimum of a year).

Interior design duo Salvesen Graham has enjoyed 'enduring demand' for its striped and floral papers
Interior design duo Salvesen Graham has enjoyed 'enduring demand' for its striped and floral papers - Milo Brown

“We’ve managed to keep it to quite a small team,” she explains. “We operate everything ourselves – we do the designing, we stock it all ourselves and fulfil all the orders from our own unit – so you get a very personal and quick service.” Among those to have enjoyed that service are the late Keith Flint, lead singer of The Prodigy, designer Kit Kemp and her Firmdale hotel empire, and King Charles, no less, for Dumfries House.

And, of course, the new generation of wallpaper companies were born into the digital age. For starters, that means that they can turn their products round more quickly with digital printing. “The digital industry allows you to be very quick,” says the London-based Dutch wallpaper designer Ottoline de Vries, whose designs were used by Nicola Harding for The Mitre Hampton Court, a boutique hotel in Surrey. “You can have an idea one day, and the next you can have the product in your hand.” Digital printing offers so much more flexibility, adds Gormley. “Before that, there were limitations on colours, plus you had to place big orders. Now you can really catch the moment.”

Ottoline de Vries designs were used by interior designer Nicola Harding for The Mitre Hampton Court hotel in London
Ottoline de Vries designs were used by interior designer Nicola Harding for The Mitre Hampton Court hotel in London

What people want right now, according to Bonnie Pierre-Davis of the trend-forecasting agency WGSN, “is a more individual design that suggests it has been hand-painted and bespoke. The new wallcovering brands are bringing [this] to the market.” Certainly the new wallpaper aesthetic is more nuanced: “Wallpaper doesn’t have to be full-on floral,” says designer Soames. “The beauty of it is that it can be quite pared down. It can be just a very chic stripe that sets the scene.” And, notes Harding, “Thank God we’ve moved away from the feature wall.” What’s more, she adds, “People are tired of the novelty wallpapered loo.”

What’s most appealing about the new wave of wallpaper designers is the youthful, dynamic patterns on offer – for example, Ottoline’s much-loved ‘Madame Ziggle’, a quirky, cheerful zigzagged stripe that adds instant modernity and charm to a room, and Barneby Gates’ ‘Fox & Hen’ design, which can’t fail to lift the corners of the mouth. This new energy is a welcome departure from the same old care-home florals that had given wallpaper its stuffy name.

The fresh new colour options have shaken up the palette, too, from the rich, masculine jewel tones of Soames’ ‘Gilded Rope’ design, which offer a darkness to rival that of deep paint shades, to the layerability of Harding’s brand new paper collection in a sublimely modern palette of rhubarb, moss green and “sugarbag blue”.

What all these new-wave brands have in common is an instinctive understanding of social media. “I don’t know how we could sell without it,” says Vanessa Barneby, formerly an editor at British Vogue. “It’s a huge marketing tool. Instagram is the best way to launch new designs. Because of the shareability of it, if you post a successful image, it spreads like nothing else.”

Burleigh x Barneby Gates
Barneby Gates’ current wallpaper collaboration with Burleigh Pottery - Ben Phillips
Burleigh x Barneby Gates
Burleigh x Barneby Gates - Ben Phillips Photography

It works both ways. Social media also gives consumers access to the designers: it’s a gateway to the very source of the creative fountain. “Previously, the interior design industry had a closed-door approach, where it felt like you couldn’t quite get there unless you were a decorator, but that’s not the case today with the smaller brands,” says Soames, who launched her own range of dramatic, hand-block-printed wallpapers in 2019. “You can talk to these designers, and that’s been made possible by social media. It’s about putting it out there in a way that [consumers] respond to – it’s less stage-set.”

And once they start interacting with customers, you may find – as indeed de Vries has – that they start providing the content themselves. De Vries, whose profits have “steadily risen”, says that although she’s too busy to create all the necessary lifestyle photographs of her papers as her clients want to see them, she has now reached a point where a lot of that hard work is just done for her – by some of her 72,000 Instagram followers. “I get lovely pictures from clients and I repost them on Instagram,” she explains. And that in turn “increases demand, because it’s now so easy to see the effect of it in a room”.

Harding has gone one step further by having an open design studio in Queen’s Park, London. “We leave the studio doors open for people to visit us on Thursdays and Fridays – it feels like a home, and people can feel very connected to the process,” she says. “We’re rolling up our sleeves and poring over somebody’s floor plans in a way that you probably wouldn’t get by visiting an old-fashioned wallpaper-maker.”

The dos and don’ts of modern wallpaper

  • Do pick up one of the colours from your wallpaper and paint nearby woodwork in a matching gloss for a more cohesive look

  • Do consider using the same pattern in different colourways in a bedroom, a bathroom and, if you’re lucky enough to have one, a dressing room.

  • Do play with wallpaper borders: they’re back, and not just for kids’ bedrooms. “It adds another layer of detail,” says wallpaper designer Ottoline de Vries. “It gives an unexpected accent – it’s fun.” If you’re on a budget, you could paint trims along the tops of your walls.

  • Do wallpaper your ceiling – either for that all-out immersive look, with every wall covered in the same print, or just the ceiling (also useful if you’re on a budget). “We love it in a bedroom,” says Frieda Gormley, of House of Hackney. “It can be very dreamlike.”

  • Don’t do a feature wall – they’re over. Instead, consider a mural. You can buy artwork scaled to size (try Graham & Brown or Photowall). The interior designer Nicola Harding invites artists to paint layers of detail onto wallpaper: “You don’t need to think of murals as figurative. They can also be geometric.”

  • Don’t be afraid to hang artwork on your wallpaper. “People feel so nervous even to put one nail in the wall,” says Vanessa Barneby, of Barneby Gates. “Start with one or two pictures that you love and gradually progress.”

  • Don’t waste a dado rail. If on a budget, you only need to wallpaper either above or below it. Or, consider just wallpapering an alcove, or any inbuilt joinery, or even using it for lampshades. “You can get quite theatrical with wallpaper,” says the interior designer Flora Soames.

More inspiration...

Barneby Gates boot room
Barneby Gates' boot room - Johnston Parke/Mike Garlick
House of Hackney
House of Hackney
Salvesen Graham
Salvesen Graham - Milo Brown
house of hackney room
House of Hackney
Salvesen Graham
Salvesen Graham

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