There are three types of historic wall coverings. Replica papers copy the originals in all aspects, using historically accurate color, ink, paper, and even the original manufacturing technique. But this types of wall coverings are costly, especially if the original was painted or block printed by hand — often more than $300 per 36-square-foot roll.
Instead, most museum houses offset the initial costs of reproducing original designs by allowing the manufacturer to produce their papers using modern methods, and then making them available to interior designers and the public. This is how Scalamandre, for example, offers papers from Prestwould. These reproduction papers are a third or less of the cost of the replicas.
Adaptations or interpretations are even less expensive. These are wall coverings inspired by period designs found on items such as fabric or china. The quality of the paper is often high and the designs are historically appropriate, but adaptations and interpretations don’t require the same amount of research and detective work, so there’s not as much set-up time. Some manufacturers also reissue papers that were popular earlier this century.
How Computers Re-Create Historic Wall Coverings
While they’ll never replace artists, computers are playing a big part in re-creating historic papers. Using computer-aided design programs, artists can draw on screen or they can scan in a hand-drawn design and refine it.
Until about five years ago, all wall coverings ware drawn and painted by artists. To see what the pattern would look like on the wall coverings, they looked at the design through a lens that, like an insect’s eye, multiplies the image.
“That was pretty inaccurate,” says Robert Bitter, executive vice-president of Scalamandre. “The best part of designing on the computer is the way an image can be manipulated. We can shrink portions of the design and expand others, then we can multiply the image to simulate how it will look on a wall,” he explains.
Artists also can experiment with colors without going to the trouble of hand painting them. These samples can be printed out and circulated in house, and duplicated and mounted on a test wall.
To keep the work from looking too perfect — and, thus, computer generated — most companies gently “distress” their designs. Otherwise they don’t look real. On the average, creating a design on computer cuts prepress time by roughly 25 percent, though this varies widely. Regardless, costs are reduced significantly.
But what’s generated on the computer is only as good as the operator. And computers can’t replicate the gentleness of a brush stroke or the softly blurred look of watercolors. The most beautiful and subtle papers are still done by hand.