J.R. Burrows & Company


by John Burrows, M.A.H.

Architectural Historian and Merchant

The widest use of pattern-designing is the clothing of the walls of a room.... Doubtless there will be some, in these days at least, who will say, "Tis most helpful to me to let the bare walls alone." So also there would be some who, when asked with what manner of books they will furnish their room, would answer, "With none." But I think you will agree with me in thinking that both these sets of people would be in an unhealthy state of mind, and probably of body also; in which case we need not trouble ourselves about their whims, since it is with healthy & sane people only that art has dealings.

William Morris, Some Hints on Pattern-Designing. A lecture delivered at the Working Men's College, London, December 1881, London: Longmans & Co., 1899, p. 2.

Late nineteenth century writers on the decorative arts set out to educate industrial designers and the public on their theories of design reform. English theorists of the 1870's were soon followed by American critics offering a prolific number of lectures and books on the subject during the 1880's and 1890's. Their influence reached from the highest levels of society to the masses as ideas originally presented to cultured readers were quickly copied by authors of books of wider distribution. The aim of the reformers was to transform the decorative arts and to change public taste in interior design.


During the past decade of the Victorian Revival, considerable attention has been paid to the reproduction of authentic period wallpaper patterns for use in restoration design. Manufacturers have offered the most elaborate examples and combinations of 19th century wallpapers as a model for modern consumers, who are encouraged to choose from a profuse display of color and pattern, lest they feel that their decorating might not measure up to true period standards. However, when reading the words of late nineteenth century design critics, one finds that even the most ardent advocates of art wallpapers suggested moderation in the employment of these pattern designs. According to late Victorian writers, the highest style of decorating was not measured by the quantity of patterns employed, but by the discreet layering of wallpaper, paint, furnishing textiles and carpet chosen to create a harmonious ensemble. No single element was to be considered alone; interior decorating did not exist solely of wallpaper, or carpet, or fabric, but it was an artistic unity of design that was the goal. Having said this, it should be noted that wallpaper was a matter of special attention to these writers, as it formed an omnipresent surface covering at the time. Then as now, wallpaper forms the backdrop for all other furnishings.

Books on interior design were widely read and the formulas given by decorative arts critics for selecting room colors and wallpapers were followed so faithfully that one later critic, Elsie de Wolfe, mocked clients who did not exercise their own judgment and or stop to consider the overall effect of their wallpaper selections on the interior design of their house.

Who doesn't know the woman who... selects a "rich" paper for her hall and an "elegant" paper for her drawing-room - the chances are it is a nile green moiré paper! For her library she thinks a paper imitating an Oriental fabric is the proper thing, and as likely as not she buys gold paper for her dining-room. She finds so many charming bedroom papers that she has no trouble in selecting a dozen of them for insipid blue rooms and pink rooms and lilac rooms.... She decides to use a red paper of large figures in one room, and a green paper with snaky stripes in the adjoining room, but she doesn't try the papers out; she doesn't give them the fair test of living with them a few days.... You should assemble all the papers that are to be used in the house, and all the fabrics, and rugs, and see what the effect of the various compositions will be, one with another.

Elsie de Wolfe, The House in Good Taste, New York: The Century Co., 1914, pp. 55 - 56.


The first stage of the English design reform movement in the 1850's was an orchestrated national effort to develop a style of decorative arts different from the French style which dominated at the time, in which wallpapers, carpets and all manner of the decorative arts were ornamented with highly naturalistic depiction of flora. Seeds of the reform movement are found in the Gothic Revival, with which designers advocated moral principles of "truth" and "honesty" in use of materials and decoration. Beginning in the late 1850's in England and in the 1870's in America, principles of reform movement design were taught in newly founded industrial arts schools, and a near science was made of the new approach to decorative design.

As a principle, it will be found that the value of the manufactured article is dependent upon the knowledge displayed in the using and adorning the material, and not upon the amount of labour expended upon its construction. The same clay can be wrought into a thing of beauty or an object without comeliness, and the most welcome ornaments are usually both simple in character and sparingly used, for extravagance in ornament is as offensive as extravagance in dress.

Dr. Christopher Dresser, The Art of Decorative Design, London: Day and Son, 1862, pp. 20 - 21.

Two basic principles of reform movement design can be quickly summed up as follows:

1. Design should be honest to the function of the object and the nature of the material. With respect to wallpaper, because the material is intended for use on flat, two dimensional wall planes, the ornament printed on wallpaper should have a flattened appearance and never look rounded or present a trompe l'oeil simulation of stone, carved plaster or wood.


2. Patterns of flora should present a "conventionalized" depiction of foliage and flowers, abstracted to represent the structure and growth pattern of the plant. In place of bouquets of flowers, botanical arrangements of the stems, leaves and flowers were shown abstractly.

Once theorists had been successful at introducing these basic design principles to industrial and pattern designers, and they were quickly put into practice by manufacturers, attention shifted to publishing treatises instructing the public on the suitable use of pattern.

The first consideration, upon taking possession of new quarters, is the paper-hanging. From Dr. Dresser's "Principles of Design," we cull this bit of wisdom. "All walls, however decorated, should serve as a back-ground to whatever stands in front of them.... Those sent from well-known manufacturers in England are marked by refined tones of color laid flat upon conventionalized designs, and by the sparing introduction of dull gold into the back-ground. Those of Dresser and of Morris, are familiar in our houses.... American taste, hitherto inclining toward heavy color and intense gilding, as still seen in some restaurants and concert-halls, has during the last two years taken a long stride forward in the matter of paperings.

Constance Cary Harrison, Woman's Handiwork in Modern Homes, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1881, p. 136.

Harrison and contemporary design critics advised the public on how to select patterns and colorings for different rooms of the house and for different situations of lighting. William Morris, the most famous wallpaper designer and theorist of the nineteenth century, made suggestions for American consumers on how to use his papers in a pamphlet published for distribution at an international trade exhibit in Boston in 1883.

Pattern-choosing, like pattern-making, is an Architectural Art.... Do not be afraid of choosing a large one. If the light in the room be bright and plentiful, choose from the fainter colorings. If the light be weak, choose patterns of strong relief.... The walls & woodwork have generally the predominating color, and the carpet is secondary.

William Morris, The Morris Exhibit at the Foreign Fair, Boston, 1883-84, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883, pp. 19 - 20.

Suggestions were given by other authors for choosing papers to compliment the view of the landscape seen from the room, and with a consideration to how the colors would look under the artificial lighting.

After the 1870's, when elaborate art wallpaper sets were first introduced, English and American design critics changed their views concerning the acceptability of layering wallpapers and borders on walls and ceilings. American architect Henry Hudson Holly reflected the latest fashion in the late 1870's when he wrote that:

The breaking up of wall surface with frieze and dado is one of the peculiar characteristics of the English designs, and in this way some of the best combinations of color and pattern are produced.

Regarding the decoration of ceilings, he also recommended:

It may not be inappropriate to introduce around the ceiling a margin of some tasteful design in wall-paper... The remainder of the ceiling, if low, should be of some tint calculated to give and appearance of elevation, such as, for instance, one of the many delicate shades of blue or violet. If, however, there be sufficient height to warrant it, a rose tint, or buff, appears well, providing the general tone of the room will permit.

Henry Hudson Holly, Modern Dwellings, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1878, p. 163 and p. 166.

A contemporary English interior designer, Aldam Heaton, offered an alternative.

It is quite possible that a plain, or nearly plain wall, with a dado and frieze, more or less ornamental, might have been far better than any sort of pattern. Our rooms often get terribly over-patterned - patterned wall and ceiling, patterned floor, patterned curtains, patterned furniture-covers; where are we to get a little rest for the eye if not occasionally by a plain wall?

Aldam Heaton, Beauty and Art, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1897, p. 108.

William Morris emphatically disagreed with the contemporary English design practice of multi-patterned walls and he recommended hanging wallpapers without borders.

Never stoop to the ignominy of a paper dado; at a fancy fair, or some temporary thing, where effect without solidity may be excused, mere scene-painting is allowable, - but scarcely at home.

William Morris, The Morris Exhibit at the Foreign Fair, Boston, 1883-84, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883, p. 16.

William Morris also disapproved of wallpaper friezes, and he advocated painted ceilings instead of the elaborate borders and ceiling papers that were a fad of the late 1870's.

It will be understood from this that Morris & Company do not print distinctive frieze-patterns. One of the simplest yellow and white, or white-ground wallpapers, is sometimes used for the frieze, when tone requires some faint patterning... but in this case the pattern is altogether subordinate to the tone, and its color is the chief value.... The decoration of a frieze, if it [have] any pretension at all, should be done by hand.... Ceiling-papers we seldom use.... Not that painting of ceilings should be discouraged, but purposeless array of varied tints, the drawing of meaningless lines of color, would be better discontinued.

William Morris, The Morris Exhibit at the Foreign Fair, Boston, 1883-84, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883, pp. 17 - 18.

The editors of Art & Decoration magazine, published in New York, echoed this in 1885:

As a rule it is well not to overload the wall or ceiling of a private house with ornaments, but to keep to broad fields of color artistically mottled, shaded or textured. Ornaments, indeed, may and should be used in the frieze and upon the ceiling, but sparingly and with great care as to harmony of color and design. Elaborate ornamentation may be admissible in theatres and other public buildings, but in the decoration of a house everything should be of a restful nature.

George Halm publisher and Caryl Coleman editor, Art & Decoration, Vol. 1, No. 1, New York, p. 11.

American domestic architecture of the 1880's and 1890's, particularly homes with Old Colony Style interiors featuring colonial details and low-studded walls that are found in many Queen Anne, Shingle Style and Colonial Revival houses, are best suited to the sparing use of ceiling ornamentation as advocated in Art & Decoration, and to Morris's ideas of employing beautiful patterns on walls without the complication of ceiling, frieze or dado papers. Morris rejected the heavy embellishment of High Victorian paper and stencil decorations, and he influenced the later generation of Arts & Crafts designers. By the 1890's, American wallpaper manufacturers simplified their offerings to coordinated sets of wall, frieze and ceiling papers without additional borders or embellishments, that appealed to the mass market, but which still met with disapproval from critics. The movement away from the Victorian multi-patterned wall is summed up by Elsie de Wolfe.

A fine frieze is a very beautiful decoration, but it must be very fine to be worth while at all.... It goes without saying that those dreadful friezes perpetrated by certain wall paper designers are very bad form, and should never be used. Indeed, the very principle of the ordinary paper frieze is bad; it darkens the upper wall unpleasantly, and violates the good old rule that the floors should be darkest in tone, the side walls lighter, and the ceiling lightest.

Elsie de Wolfe, The House in Good Taste, New York: The Century Co., 1914, pp. 55 - 56.

Homeowners today should not be encouraged to force a packaged design selection onto a room for which it is not well suited (such as hanging elaborate ceiling decorations in rooms lower than 10 feet in height). In some houses, dado papers are appropriate for hallways and dining rooms, and friezes and ceiling papers are recommended if ceiling heights permit, but for many homes built after 1880, especially in rooms for which Arts & Crafts Movement designs are selected, all that is needed are solo wallpapers. For the homeowner, interior designer and paperhanger today, it is important to appreciate the various design solutions advocated in the past, and to determine which is the best use of wallpaper to suit the unique proportions and architectural detailing of the room.

... let customers once become familiar with the sight of good forms and judicious combinations of colour, and we may one day aspire to the formation of a national taste.

Charles Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1878, pp. 118-119.

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*J.R. Burrows & Company
P.O. Box 522
Rockland, Massachusetts 02370
E-mail: merchant@burrows.com
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