In 1905, the same year that influential architectural theorist Adolf Loos sounded the modernist rallying cry against ornamentation, a small-town New Jersey designer named Albert Ainsworth decided he was going to go ahead and design a highly ornamental, floral wallpaper anyway.
Floppy, mustard-yellow poppies grow from spindly fronds of the same color. A muted, green background of vertical bamboo shoots sprout symmetrical tufts of leaves and form a sort of scaffolding for the precarious poppies. The design was machine printed on yellow oatmeal paper, which was utilized to outline the flowers. Oatmeal paper is unfortunately not made from delicious cereal, and gets its namesake lumpy texture from little bits of rag and wood particles mixed into the paper pulp.
Of the designer, Mr. Ainsworth, nothing is known other than that he once lived in Hackensack. Judging from this wallpaper, however, it can be assumed that he was familiar with English reform designers such as William Morris and Walter Crane, whose work was incredibly popular and influential in the last decades of the nineteenth century. These English designers believed that wallpaper patterns ought to appear two dimensional, and rejected designs that attempted to realistically portray three dimensional objects. This poppy design is very large-scale, with the flowers extending most of the width of the paper, which is very typical of American art nouvewau designs. While the poppy is fluidly drawn to allow recognition it was designed without a great degree of depth. Morris, in particular, preferred wallpapers that featured highly stylized botanical patterns reminiscent of medieval tapestries. The flat, Art Nouveau look of Mr. Ainsworth’s paper was clearly inspired by the work of these better-known designers, and it quietly took a stand for the tradition of ornament in the first years of the modernist era.
See this work on view beginning December 12 in the Immersion Room, an opening exhibition that features selected wallcoverings projected onto the walls at full scale and an interactive design table where visitors can create their own.
Anna Rasche is a student in the History of Decorative Arts & Design graduate Program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.