A FASHION STATEMENT FOR YOUR ROOM: Why Wall Coverings are Back and Better Than Ever

Wallpaper Cover Graphic As with fashion, we often see interior design trends from the past come back into vogue. While wall coverings have had their critics over the years, this industry has been working hard to reinvent itself. Today, there are endless choices of innovative, sustainable and attractive wall coverings available to create bold, impactful spaces.

An important distinction is that today’s commercial interiors use “wall coverings,” typically from a 54 inch bolt, which have been tested for durability and fire resistance. “Wallpaper” is limited to residential use, typically comes in 27” wide rolls, and is not subject to the same physical requirements as wall coverings.

crane's mill borders
Wallpaper borders were developed to hide the tacks used to hold the wallpaper in position. Over time their design role increased, and borders were used to alter a room’s proportions, simulate architectural features or emphasize design details.

A bit of history

Initially, well-to-do Europeans utilized elaborate tapestries that not only added color and style to walls, but also helped to cut down on drafts. However, only the wealthiest consumers could afford them due to the materials cost and significant time required to make each one. Wallpaper emerged in the 1500s as an economical substitute, allowing for widespread use. In fact, it became so prevalent that a wallpaper tax was enacted in England from 1712 until 1836. Wallpaper came to America along with the colonists, and by the early 20th century, was a popular addition to most households. Wallpaper has gone in and out of fashion since about 1930, but until its recent resurgence had increasingly been bypassed in favor of painted walls.

Wallpaper and wall coverings today

Much of what we refer to as wallpaper today is not actually made from paper. Options include vinyls, foils and textiles such as silks, linens, grass cloths and rattans. Today’s vinyls are more environmentally friendly with low VOCs. Under development are several “high tech” options that can either block WiFi signals or serve as a computer interface, as well as those that can help fortify walls in the event of an earthquake. Today’s wall coverings have been made so that when the time does come for a change, removal is much easier and less likely to damage walls than the tedious scraping away of multiple layers that was often required in the past.

This floral patterned wall covering incorporates a metallic finish for added visual interest at Legacy Place; Bethlehem, PA
This floral patterned wall covering incorporates a metallic finish for added visual interest at Legacy Place; Bethlehem, PA

Current design trends

Advances in technology have provided limitless options for creating unique and interesting wall coverings. Popular patterns include large-scale geometrics, small-scale neutrals, culturally-inspired themes and patterns that mimic nature. Wall coverings also allow designers to incorporate the look of metal, wood, stone, suede, leather, and luminescent materials without breaking the budget. Dry-erase wall coverings offer an alternative to traditional whiteboards and dry-erase paint. Many manufacturers are also offering custom digital printing, allowing interior designers to integrate client photographs, artwork, and logos into large-scale designs.

Wall covering is not just for walls. A sophisticated alternative to paint, it adds depth and draws attention to the ceiling detailing at the Osborn in Rye, New York.
Wall coverings are not just for walls. A sophisticated alternative to paint, this example from the Osborn in Rye, New York adds depth and draws attention to the ceiling detailing.

Making wall covering work for you

When used selectively, wall coverings can provide that “wow” factor, making a strong statement through the use of color, texture, and pattern. Soft colors and organic patterns are calming while bolder colors and patterns can help create energy. Larger patterns are perfect for creating focal points and drawing attention to particular walls, while smaller patterns can provide a neutral backdrop for other design elements. Wall coverings are also great for defining spaces, particularly in large, open plan designs. While wall covering is not appropriate for every space, it can be an affordable, durable wall finish for many applications.

The use of wall coverings on exterior walls needs to be carefully reviewed by the design professional. In many instances, wall covering will act as a vapor barrier and cause moisture to become trapped, leading to the growth of mold and mildew.


Installing wall covering can be a challenge, and a poorly-executed installation will most certainly grab your attention – but not in a good way. Commercial wall coverings should always be installed by a qualified professional, as many patterns require careful pattern matching. Additionally, manufacturer warranties may be voided if materials are not installed per the instructions. Substrates should be thoroughly cleaned of debris to avoid telegraphing through the surface, and edges and seams should be neatly trimmed.

Residential wallpaper may be installed by professional paperhangers or by ambitious homeowners. User-friendly “peel-and-stick” options are even available for those who can’t commit to a traditional glue application. Just remember – whether you choose to apply yourself or hire a professional, wallpaper borders, which were wildly popular in the 80s and 90s, are no longer used to make a fashion-forward statement.

Jessie Santini, IIDA, LEED AP BD+C, has more than 13 years of experience as an interior designer. She recommends that wall covering be used selectively as an accent to complement the overall design aesthetic.

Additional resources on this topic:

A quick snapshot of four pattern trends expected for this year from The Huffington Post.

The Wallcoverings Association (WA) is the trade association dedicated to representing, connecting, and supporting manufacturers, distributors and suppliers of residential and commercial wallcoverings in North America. Their site includes both residential and commercial guides.

This photo gallery from Houzz highlights a range of unique wall coverings from residences around the country.

Brewster Home Fashions’ site includes an overview of various wallpaper properties including materials, paste types and removability.

RLPS Interiors Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP