Reproducing HISTORIC Wallpapers
Old House Journal|June 2020
Wallpaper remains the quintessential room decoration. If you’re looking for a historic or specific pattern, be encouraged.
MARY ELLEN POLSON

I once rented a summer cottage decorated with quaint wallpapers printed in the 1920s or ’30s. The papers were in remarkably good condition, but the plaster underneath was water-damaged in spots, and bulging through the paper. I pondered the options, on behalf of the owners: should they lose the wallpaper to save the plaster, or let the plaster continue to crumble to keep the wallpaper?

Maybe the wrong question. As it turns out, a surprising number of wallpaper makers have the capacity to recreate period wall coverings using techniques as traditional as hand-pressed block printing, and as cutting-edge as digital printing generated by illustration software. Working from old photographs and fragments barely an inch wide, these specialists have produced astonishing results. While the cost of a custom reproduction isn’t cheap, it’s not as expensive as you might think.

Steve Larsen of Adelphi Paper Hangings imprints bright-green varnish on a roll of ‘Pineapples’, a wallpaper pattern discovered on a wood bandbox. The paper is festooned over sawhorses to dry.

re-creating LOST DESIGNS

Most of the clients for this sort of work are, understandably, museums, and historical institutions. Others are individuals who’ve lost period wall coverings in a fire or flood and have insurance to cover the cost of replacement. In a perfect world, the client brings in a section of the desired paper that’s not only in good condition, but also large enough to show the entire pattern repeat. A pattern repeat may be less than an inch, or up to the entire width of the wallpaper.

“If the original is in good shape and not attached to plaster, we can scan it, or maybe photograph or trace it,” says Steve Bauer, co-owner and lead designer for Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers.

If the sample can be scanned, it usually can be reproduced digitally, especially if the pattern is a simpler one with only three or four colors. Bradbury can do reproductions using the silkscreen method they use for Victorian-era reproductions, but digital is often less expensive and sometimes yields better results.

“So many papers have nuances that are hard to capture with silkscreen printing,” Bauer says. “Digital is faster, and it can be better to print it digitally from the beginning, whether from photos or a sample.” When the sample is of poor quality, Bauer first turns to his in-house archive to look for the same or a similar paper. Matches turn up occasionally, as when a family in Kansas sent in a 1905 photograph of a dining room depicting a long-lost frieze. “An employee ran into the archive and found an original piece of the same frieze,” Bauer says. “It looked, from the black-and-white photograph, like we had it in the exact-same colorway.”

The sample from the archive was actually missing the top inch or so, however. “We were able to ghost artwork over the photo and digitally rebuild the top edge of the frieze,” Bauer says. “The family was ecstatic about it.”

Digital reproductions work best for machine-printed papers from the mid-19th century or later. For early or block-printed papers, pattern repeats are still re-created from remnants and/or old photos, but after that, the process is more old-school. At block-print specialist Adelphi Paper Hangings, an in-house artist draws a transparency from the historic document for each color in the pattern. The transparencies are sent with fresh wood blocks to a company that laser-cuts the pattern onto the blocks.

“The laser passes over back and forth in a straight line, and with each pass, it reads the patterns,” Steve Larsen explains. Where the transparency is blacked in, the laser cuts nothing at all; where it’s lighter, the laser burns away the wood. Once the blocks come back, there’s still a lot of work to do: a pattern with small, tightly packed details, or patterns with large open areas, will have to be carved out deeper by hand, so that the block picks up the paint correctly.

More problematic are papers that aren’t as crisp and precise as modern surface printed papers (inexpensive or shoddily reproduced, in other words). Larsen recalls a border he re-created years ago. “The original document was sort of happy-hour printing—nothing lined up.” The same was true of a paper done for the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. On what was probably an inexpensive paper, the paint layer was thin and the print register wasn’t always accurate. That meant making a judgment call as to whether to make the block print as accurate as it should have been, or to give the museum curators a facsimile that looked as crooked and poorly printed as the original—something Larsen calls “sloppy authenticity.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM OLD HOUSE JOURNALView All

Earthy Colors, New Layout

Textured tile and quarter-sawn oak make it a handsome revival kitchen.

2 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

Deep Clean to Save Big

After we got a $50,000 estimate to gut and renovate the bathroom in our 1946 modernist house, I figured I’d tackle the 8' x 8' room myself.

3 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

Fancy Painted Floors

Borders and checkerboard designs are DIY favorites; you might also try your hand at stenciling or faux effects.

3 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

And Now, The Kitchen

Using original bits and vintage pieces, making the kitchen functional was a high priority.

3 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

new KITCHEN for an old house

THE WALLPAPER’S AESTHETIC MOVEMENT OR BRITISH ARTS & CRAFTS PATTERN IDEALLY SUITS THIS 1903 AMERICAN QUEEN ANNE HOUSE.

3 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

right ON!

Leaving aside shag carpeting and copper-tone appliances, a couple embrace the best of the decade for a splendid period house grounded in nature.

3 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

reclaiming the attic

Is your house bursting at the seams? Do you long for private office space, a guest retreat, or a kids’ bonus room? The solution might be right over your head: no need to leave the neighborhood, or even put on an addition.

10 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

displaying collections ARRANGE TO INSPIRE

Ideas, inspiration, and tidbits on the beautiful and safe arrangement and display of collectibles both traditional and eccentric.

5 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

A Home Full of Character

Smaller homes like this 1920s Dutch Colonial so often get overlooked as worthy of restoration. Owners don’t think they’re special . . . or they add on or remodel until the original is unrecognizable. This owner saw the potential.

4 mins read
Old House Journal
November - December 2021

A Furnished Bath

This elegant bathroom has fixture panels fabricated from parts of a Victorian armoire.

2 mins read
Old House Journal
November - December 2021
RELATED STORIES

WHITE SPACE

WORKSHOP/APD GOES MINIMALIST IN ASBURY PARK, DIRECTING ALL EYES TO THE VIEW.

3 mins read
Ocean Home
April/May 2022

JAIME LYN BAUER BACK TO DAYS

LATE-BREAKING NEWS

2 mins read
Soap Opera Digest
January 25, 2021

The Puzzle of Mineral Names

DISCOVERING THE LOGIC BY UNDERSTANDING THE PROGRESSION

8 mins read
Rock&Gem Magazine
August 2020

OVER - SHARED

Are social media and selfie culture killing the outdoors? Nah, but as a visit to some heavily Instagrammed places reveals, they’re challenging our notions about whether there’s a right way to appreciate nature—and who gets to do it.

10+ mins read
Outside Magazine
June/July 2020

Porsche's new EV game plan

Gran Turismo video-game concept hints at firm’s future electric sports cars

4 mins read
Autocar UK
December 08 - 15, 2021 (Double Issue)

Take A Hike

Living on the edge at Bermanzi

5 mins read
go! - South Africa
April/May 2021

Search PARTY

It started with only one lost dog in the woods...

3 mins read
WOMAN'S WEEKLY
January 19, 2021

Growing carrots

Carrots are universally loved and are one of the most popular choices when it comes to household veggies. While they are not the easiest to grow, they make for a satisfying crop so when you get it right, you’ll be hooked.

5 mins read
Eat Well
Issue #31, 2020

ENDLESS STORY OF INHERITANCE

In spite of falling asleep on its prestigious past, the hotel is constantly reinventing itself, with the desire to continue and grow across the ages.

3 mins read
L'Officiel India
February - March 2020

HOMEWARD BOUND

VOYAGER debuted on 16 January 1995 with “Caretaker,” the two-hour series premiere that catapulted the crew of the USS Voyager (as well as the crew of a Maquis ship) over 70,000 light-years away from home – marooning them in the Delta Quadrant and faced with an epic journey back to our solar system. Seven years and 172 episodes later, they finally returned to Earth. SFX opened hailing frequencies and caught up with some of the show’s key players to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary

10+ mins read
SFX
March 2020