The Poetry of Wallpaper

Book Review

  • Papiers peints, poésie des murs: Les collections du Musée national suisse/
    Tapeten: Wände sprechen Bände: Die Sammlung des Schweizerischen Nationalmuseums

  • Helen Bieri Thomson et al
  • 183 pages, 182 illustrations
  • Lausanne: Bibliotheque des Arts and Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum, 2010
  • €39.99
Fig. 1. Selection of wallpapers for Château Larlenque, near Toulouse. Part of an architectural project by Edmond Fatio, 1920-1925. Archives d’Etat, Geneva.

Fig. 1. Selection of wallpapers for Château Larlenque, near Toulouse. Part of an architectural project by Edmond Fatio, 1920-1925. Archives d’Etat, Geneva.

After nearly a quarter-century of restoration, Château Prangins near Geneva was both the inspiration and first venue for this book and exhibit on wallpaper. The show was on view at Prangins from October 2010 to May 2011, and will travel to the Swiss National Museum in Zurich in 2012.

Papiers peints, poésie des murs: Les collections du Musée national suisse, published in French and German, was organized by Helen Bieri Thomson, curator of Château Prangins (the western Switzerland branch of the Swiss National Museum). Throughout the book’s nine essays, she and five other historians, curators and conservators shed light on the history of wallpaper, mainly through examples drawn from the collection of the Swiss National Museum, and summarize the results and analysis of the restoration in Prangins.

The book’s 182 well-reproduced images range from reproductions of wallpaper and proof prints in various colors to historical documents, including a selection of wallpapers proposed for Chateau Saverdun during a remodeling in the early 19th century (Fig. 1). Also included is a map of wallpaper distribution in Europe between 1804–1815, which clearly illustrates the French dominance of the industry: France produced and sold more wallpaper than Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Spain and Poland combined.

Fig. 3.  23 fragments showing seven layers of wallpaper from Château Prangins. Swiss National Museum.

Fig. 3.  23 fragments showing seven layers of wallpaper from Château Prangins. Swiss National Museum.

Wallpaper is constantly adapting to fashion, economies and society. The book describes its development from single sheets to paper rolls, from hand printing to mechanical rotary printing, from a luxury affordable only by the elite to a product for everyone. The writers analyze the Château’s history through its wallpaper, charting the varied purposes the building served—from private residence to boarding school—through the frequent redecoration of its walls. When Prangins was converted to academic use in 1873, it underwent deep changes: it was at that time that the Sanitary, a wallpaper which was durable and washable, was first introduced to the market. It proved to be ideal for a house full of adolescents not only for its ability to be cleaned, but also for its economics, as it was inexpensive and turned out to last 100 years.

Of particular note is the attention paid to the panoramic scenic wallpapers (Panoramatapeten) (Fig. 2). To this day they are considered some of the most spectacular products of the wallpaper industry and were even presented at the Paris World’s Fair in 1855. Most Panoramatapeten were manufactured between 1800 and 1860, a time when the desire to travel was on the rise: people heard and read of foreign locales through travel reports and dreamed themselves beyond their own walls. Produced exclusively in France, these papers were popular across Europe, and alpine views of Switzerland, so-called Vues de Suisse, were particularly en vogue.

Wallpaper contains sensitive cultural heritage which is threatened with every renovation and demolition. At Prangins, roughly 100 different motifs were found, dating back over the course of 150 years. One can imagine that it was not an easy task to uncover the château’s history through its walls. Pasted over and over again, fragments of a few centimeters were sometimes all that was able to be conserved (Fig. 3). It is hoped that the book and exhibit contribute to the awareness and value of wallpaper, its history and the importance of protecting wall decor today and in the future.

Fig. 2. Antoine-Pierre Mongin, detail of Petite Helvétie (1818), handprint, 126 cm high, manufactured by Jean Zuber & Cie., Rixheim. Swiss National Museum.

Fig. 2. Antoine-Pierre Mongin, detail of Petite Helvétie (1818), handprint, 126 cm high, manufactured by Jean Zuber & Cie., Rixheim. Swiss National Museum.

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