This lovely midcentury American wallpaper, entitled Calling Card, was designed by celebrated New York decorator Beryl Austrian, and was meant to invoke the old time grandeur of 1830s Washington Square. Two columns of mint green vines crawl their way up a gray background, forming continuous chains of leafy circles. Alternating circles contain a vignette showing a horse-drawn carriage waiting for its passenger in front of a fine townhouse. The spaces between the columns are filled with repeating bunches of three arrows, each tied up in a squiggly bow. Touches of white highlight both the carriage scene and the arrows, and fluid black brushstrokes outline the images. The overall effect is that of a refined watercolor sketch found in an antique notebook.
Ms. Austrian, whose decorating firm, Intramural, was responsible for creating and executing the interior schemes of more than 600 lobbies, got her start during the depression. She smartly marketed her services to owners of residential and commercial properties who were having trouble finding tenants. Lobbies, she advised, could be viewed as a “welcome mat for tenants and guests,” and were capable of creating “the total impression of the property.”(1) Investing in proper lobby decor would be enormously useful in attracting potential tenants. In order to make her designs stand out, Ms. Austrian conducted extensive research into the history of a building and its neighborhood, and then combined relevant historical details with current trends in decor and color. The resultant lobbies were unique, thoughtful and much appreciated by both residents and real estate agents.
Calling Card is a perfect example of Ms. Austrian’s signature blending of old and new. In 1952, Intramural was commissioned to decorate the lobby of a new apartment building at No. 2 Fifth Avenue, right on Washington Square. The new complex was being built upon land where the grand Rhinelander mansion once stood, so Ms. Austrian decided to create a series of wallpapers for the new building that featured architectural elements of the old. In Calling Card, the bundles of arrows were inspired by the ironwork of the mansion’s balcony, and the twisting vines are surely a reference to ivy that climbed up its walls.
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.
(1) “Beryl S. Austrian: Contract Designer,” Wallpaper & Wallcoverings, March 1966.