Though Marburger Tapetenfabrik is among the oldest wallpaper manufacturers in Europe, in the 1950s they eschewed traditional patterns and became one of the many companies producing ‘contemporary’ designs meant to compliment the new, modern houses popping up all over Europe and America in the building booms following World War II. What, exactly, made wallpaper contemporary in the 1950s? According to Warner and Hoskins in The Papered Wall, contemporary designs tended to be abstract and “futuristic,” and generally lighter designs (preferably in shades of yellow, grey, red, or mauve) were printed on a darker colored ground.

This fun wallpaper is dated to 1956-57, and adheres quite precisely to the ‘contemporary’ categorization as defined by Warner and Hoskins. Casual spirals in white, red and yellow that appear to have been drawn in chalk, loop lazily around the panel. The ground is a solid, glossy black, which adds further to the illusion of a chalkboard. The selvage proudly proclaims “Made in Western Germany,” for the benefit of English speaking purchasers. At first glance it looks as though this design could have been composed in a few minutes. Perhaps it’s the work of a math teacher who snapped and just could not bring themselves to write one more long division problem, and so put the chalk towards a more creative use. However, closer inspection reveals that despite a seemingly hurried concept, the design is actually quite carefully composed. The different colored spirals were not rendered one on top of the other, but weave under and over each other like some sort of unraveling Celtic knot. The play of positive and negative spaces in the composition belies an amount of forethought that is not immediately apparent. The great success of this design is that despite its complexity, the final result appears effortless.

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.

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