Wallpaper is ready for its next act. The polarizing paint alternative and longtime decorating taboo has returned to fashion thanks to ultra-stylish prints, dimensional fabrics, and new materials that make it easy to install and, yes, remove. Offering more drama than paint, it's a fun way to transform a room and reflect personal style without breaking the bank. Some designers even liken it to contemporary art for the mass market.
"It's a risk," said Kati Curtis, a designer with offices in New York and Los Angeles. "But, boy, can it pay off."
What's caused the big comeback? It's easy to attribute the sales spike to style bloggers, HGTV and Instagram, but at the core of wallpaper's new popularity is a hint of rebellion.
Curtis says the renewed interest is in part a backlash to the "sterile grays-whites-neutrals" of the '90s and early aughts, and the more recent obsession with the layered rugs and clustered collectibles of the California bohemian aesthetic. Wallcoverings offer a personal touch and less stuff.
Paulina Berberian, a creative director at wallcovering company Brewster Home Fashions, credits millennial consumers, as they're new to the housing market and to wallpaper itself. "Young people who grew up in the clean, minimalism era have never had wallpaper," she says. It's likely they know it only as a design punchline, the busy '80s florals popular with dentists and grandmas.
Indeed, today's popular papers are vastly different from the old school. The prints are dramatically oversize and fantastically whimsical, with characters that feel pulled from a storybook and patterns right from the runway. The colors are richer. The fabrics are textured and sometimes three-dimensional. And the images have a lifelike sharpness thanks to advances in digital printing.
Speaking of which, we've hardly scratched the surface when it comes to custom-printed papers. Erin Burke, who runs the contemporary home furnishings website Burke Decor, frequently receives requests to scale and print wallpapers made from personal photos that can be tiled or enlarged to mural size. "It sounds strange, but remember, wallpaper is a conversation piece," she said, adding that hotels and restaurants already do this in bar areas and bathrooms.
If there's a common thread to modern wallpaper application, it's restraint. Designers suggest using it sparingly and purposefully, in one or two rooms or perhaps a single accent wall (though fabric papers such as grass cloth should cover a whole room). For consumers, that's low cost and low maintenance.
Low maintenance is key. Installing and removing wallpaper used to be a notorious headache, so technology — including new adhesive formulas and stick-and-peel fabrics that strip off walls without leaving residue — has done wonders for its reputation.
Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams, says wallpaper has never been more affordable or more convenient. Sherwin-Williams plans to release four books of wallcoverings this year, putting its total catalogue at more than 100,000 options.
Those numbers aren't exactly comforting for folks already overwhelmed by all the patterns, textures, fabrics and materials to choose from. And when prices generally range from $25 to $500 per roll, how do you set a budget? Here are a few guidelines for choosing, using and removing wallpaper.
Types: Wallpaper is categorized by its material and adhesive coating. Nonwoven substrate paper is popular with renters because it dry-strips easily from the wall. Pre-pasted papers come with a water-activated adhesive backing. Both are durable, strippable and generally grease-resistant, which makes them smart choices for those with children or pets. Wallpapers are typically sold as single rolls or bolts (double rolls).
Print matching: The "match" tells you how to line up the pattern from strip to strip. There are three types: straight, random and drop. Straight-match papers run the width of the paper and across the seam onto the next strip. Random-match papers continue seamlessly no matter what. Drop-match papers require extra planning and must be aligned horizontally and vertically on either side, as the pattern is slightly offset from strip to strip.
Pastes and booking: Pre-pasted wallpapers usually need to be "booked," which means wetting the paper and letting it sit, usually for about 10 minutes, while the glue activates. Unpasted papers don't come with adhesive, so you'll need to paste the wall or the back of the paper.
Repeats and waste: Repeats are the number of inches a pattern stretches vertically until it repeats itself. Generally, the lower the repeat, the lower the waste. Solids and textures, for example, have no repeat and little waste because the amount you'll need is easy to calculate.
Calculating coverage: Before you buy, you need to determine how much wallpaper you need. This gets tricky when you take windows and doors into account, so using an online calculator (like those offered by Lowe's and Home Depot) is recommended. Exact roll measurements vary by manufacturer, but most cover 25 to 28 square feet. Retailers often price wallpaper by the single roll but sell only double or triple rolls.
Upkeep: Wallpapers are surprisingly durable, and these days, maintaining them is easy. Scrubbable papers can be cleaned with a sponge and detergent. Washable papers can be gently cleaned or wiped with a damp cloth.
Removal: Commitment-phobes should look for two types of paper: strippable and peelable. The former can be removed without water or chemicals and leave no backing. The latter peels off the wall and may leave some adhesive residue behind, which can be removed with soap and water.
Brands to watch
• Graham & Brown (grahambrown.com): The U.K. wallpaper company is gradually expanding into North America and is known for florals, ticking stripes and rich solids. The website allows shoppers to surf wallpapers by pattern, material, size and removability.
• Aimée Wilder (aimeewilder.com): Fresh, playful and on-trend, this Brooklyn artist's imaginative motifs are bold without being loud. Most are available in 10 or more colorways so you can find the best match for your project.
• Burke Decor (burkedecor.com): The online store sells tableware, lighting and furniture, but wallpaper has been her top seller every year since the site launched 10 years ago. Find fashion-inspired subjects such as jungle birds and botanical gardens, as well as geometrics, faux marble and brass.
• Brewster Home Fashions (brewsterwallcovering.com): Peel-and-stick papers are a great choice for apartment dwellers. WallPops, a wallpaper-inspired take on wall decals, are essentially large vinyl stickers you can cut to fit your space.
• Sherwin-Williams (sherwin-williams.com): Sherwin-Williams and HGTV's wallpaper collection has such themes as Neutral Nuance, Global Spice and Coastal Cool. Each paper is dry-strippable, washable and eco-friendly.