Q: Once, in a museum, I saw some beautiful hand-painted wallpaper depicting an outdoors scene. Is it possible to find such a thing today? If so, do you think I could use it on the walls of my rather dull but large dining room?
A: Hand-painted papers of the kind you saw have been largely replaced by machine-printed panels. If used to cover all the walls of a large room, the scenic image will eventually be repeated.
But it is possible to find mechanical reproductions that emulate the scenes which were once created by hand. Companies such as Van Luit, Zuber and Twigs, to name just a few, have reproduced some of those old favorites.
The original hand-painted paper was produced by both French and Chinese artists. It was intended to create an illusion of spaciousness in a typically small interior. Because of its fragility, the paper was usually applied only above the chair rail, while the lower portion of the wall was painted.
In cases where a room had several doorways and windows, only a single wall was decorated with the hand-designed paper. The other walls would then be painted in the same color as was used below the chair rail.
This approach produced a profusion of decorative effects, which worked most effectively in a room that was already rather large.
The same guidelines should be followed today by anyone who wishes to install a reproduction of hand-painted wallpaper. In addition, I recommend that such paper be used only in a room that is more traditional than contemporary in its overall design.
There's another option available to you as well. Actual hand-painted, Chinese-style wallpapers are being produced by contemporary artists for Gracie & Co. They could easily become tomorrow's heirlooms.
The patterns used in today's mechanically-made and hand-painted papers are both based, in many instances, on originals preserved in museums. Some of them can be seen at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware. This photograph, for example, shows a setting that's part of the Winterthur collection, with the wallpaper painted in various shades of peach, beige and green.
Such vertical designs gracefully lead the eye toward the top of the wall, visually enhancing the height of the space. Even when a room is taller than average, these wallpapers succeed in producing a very dramatic effect.